Big Data: What is it and how can it help?

big data diagram There's no doubt that we're living in the Information Age. With the Internet, social media, smart phones and 24/7 news outlets, each individual in the developed world is being bombarded each day with much more information than he or she can process. The same applies, on an even larger scale, to businesses and governments, creating a phenomenon called "big data." Simply put, big data is a collection of information so large and complex that it's almost impossible to process using traditional tools like spreadsheets and databases. Keeping up with the ever-growing data stream is about as easy as changing a tire on a moving car. While the sheer volume of information presents many challenges, big data also holds the promise of creating greater efficiencies, increasing profits and changing the business world as we know it.

How big is big data?

The amount of information has increased so much over the last 20 years that totally new terms have had to be invented for it. Instead of talking about terabytes (1 trillion bytes), big data experts now discuss petabytes, exabytes, and even zettabytes (a billion terabytes) to discuss the volume of information being stored and exchanged.

Where does it all come from?

Large companies like eBay, Amazon and Walmart handle millions of transactions, inquiries, and back-end operations each hour. Social media generates data every time a vacation photo is uploaded, a status is posted or a comment is re-tweeted. Information-sensing mobile devices, software logs, cameras, radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers, wireless networks, even the family car... the list of data sources goes on and on, and is increasing exponentially. In fact, it's estimated that the volume of business data worldwide, across all companies, doubles every 1.2 years.

Big data presents challenges

Dealing with such huge numbers is putting a strain on I.T. infrastructures and the people in charge of them. Storing large amounts of data is beyond the capacity (literally) of most businesses, which has led to the development of ever-larger data storage facilities, with rows and rows of high-capacity servers to hold all the information. Companies now specialize in analyzing big data for clients, collecting and consolidating information from a broad range of sources... everything from customer relationship management (CRM) data, to surveys and government reports, social media posts, credit card data, and much more.

Big data presents many questions for business owners and managers: Determining which data are going to be valuable to your company; deciding which tools or consulting companies to use; estimating their costs and the return on your investment; analyzing the data you’ve collected; and finally, deciding what actions to take based on that data.

Read Big Data Part 2: Opportunities with Big Data