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2012 big data's year to shine

More companies set to use tools to better mine their growing data to gain market insights and trends, say insiders, but some say lack of strategy, talent will undermine such initiatives.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

The maturing of cloud computing, increasing proliferation of smarter mobile devices, and richer enterprise communications are some key trends industry players and observers say will emerge in the new year.

The continued growth and adoption of big data, too, is expected to have the same, if not more, impact on the overall industry. This is especially pertinent as companies look to make sense of the increasing repository of data coming in from disparate sources.

John Brand, vice president and principal analyst of Forrester Research's CIO group, said this year would "definitely" be the year for big data, even though the past two years also had been important and the past decade saw increasing interest in the management of huge data sets.

That said, the analyst believes the "real issue" currently is how managing big data today breaks the traditional link between the volume of data and the cost of infrastructure needed to manage it.

Elaborating, Brand said in traditional business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing applications, infrastructure requirements come first before software. big data inverts the model in that "free-form exploration" of stored information to generate a pattern or prove a hypothesis, gives more importance to the application used than the backend systems the data is stored in.

Daniel-Zoe Jimenez, program manager of enterprise applications and business analytics at IDC Asia-Pacific, agreed that 2012 will be a "big year" for big data in the region. This is because the explosion of data has become apparent to every organization across all industries, and real-time analytics is becoming a necessity, Jimenez said.

However, he pointed to other considerations, particularly the lack of skilled data scientists, which will impact the uptake and utilization of the technology.

"As CIOs begin adopting the new class of technologies required to process, discover and analyze the massive data sets that cannot be dealt with using traditional databases and architectures, it will become clear that the real value will be derived from high-end analytics that can be performed on the increasing volumes, velocity and variety of data that organizations are generating," he said.

As such, the emergence of a "chief data scientist" role this year will help organizations define their big data strategies, he added.

Lack of strategy hampers use
Jimenez noted that while many companies plan to adopt big data technology in some form, there is still a But lack of understanding and planning. The IDC analyst cited the research firm's June 2011 business analytics survey, which found that big data was still a nascent market and use of such technologies was still in "experimentation phase" for Asian organizations.

Ted Friedman, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, shed more light on the matter, noting that in the near-term, organizations are looking to leverage big data to help improve decision-making, fuel sales and marketing strategy, mitigate risks such as the identification of fraud, and streamline business operations.

"Most organizations are ill-prepared to address both the technical and management challenges posed by big data, and as a result, few will be able to effectively exploit this trend for competitive advantage," Friedman surmised.

Brand added that many are using big data as an extension to their existing data warehousing strategies--which "isn't necessarily the best or most valuable approach"--as they discover and learn more about these tools.

As such, the Forrester analyst expects to see many organizations squander their investments in big data without ever achieving justifiable returns because they have not targeted their applications appropriately.

Companies that will benefit from the tools would be those that embed the capabilities in real-time business operations for timely decision-making, he pointed out.

Educating companies, talent
Vendors, understandably, are investing efforts to promote deeper understanding of big data capabilities to drive adoption.

IBM, for one, is advocating its "Smarter Computing" approach to enterprises struggling with the data explosion, inflexible infrastructure, escalating IT costs, and security and reliability concerns, said Mitch Young, Asean general manager of IBM's software group.

He said this approach is realized through an integrated IT system designed for big data via the adoption of advanced analytics to harness real-time data for deeper insights. This, Young added, is necessary especially for forward-thinking companies and government sectors--with the latter unable to make quick, smart decisions without accurate information.

The IBMer highlighted one implementation in which Big Blue helped the University of Ontario develop a first-of-its-kind stream computing platform to capture and analyze real-time data from medical monitors. The platform will then alert hospital staff to potential health problems before patients manifest clinical signs of infection or other issues, he explained.

Wong Heng Chew, president of Fujitsu Asia, agreed that there is still "a fair amount" of education and research to be done on managing and effectively leveraging big data. In his e-mail, he said implementation challenges not only lie in addressing an ever increasing amount of data, but also fluctuating levels of large-scale, time series data.

Additionally, as big data is still a relatively new concept to some companies, specifically smaller ones, Wong said he foresees a challenge in adoption as IT leaders may choose to take a calculated approach for now with the economic uncertainties.

Meanwhile, storage giant EMC is looking to help enterprise customers move beyond simply collecting raw data to extracting critical insights from it, said Par Botes, the company's corporate vice president and CTO of Asia-Pacific and Japan.

He told ZDNet Asia that its EMC Greenplum Unified Analytics Platform combines co-processing of structured and unstructured data with a productivity engine and social network--all of which would shatter current barriers and enable collaboration among data science teams.

However, the lack of skilled data scientists could hamper uptake, Botes said, citing an internal study. According to the findings, one of the key adoption barriers cited included the lack of skills or training, and only "a small percentage" of respondents were confident in their company's ability to make business decisions based on new data, he said.

This lack of talent has spurred companies such as IBM to make building capabilities and skills as a core pillar of its business strategy, said Young. He pointed to the launch of its Business Analytics Innovation Centre (BAIC) in Singapore last year, in collaboration with Nanyang Polytechnic, as an example of Big Blue's intentions to enhance the country's local talent pool.

Bringing technology to the masses
One development that could help drive big data adoption is allowing the open source community to bring such technologies to the masses.

According to Michael Smith Jr., director of global tech initiatives at Yahoo, more vendors such as Oracle and Teradata are bringing their offerings to companies, but only specialists who know how to use expensive pieces of software will use such tools.

The open source community, however, can help the less-equipped companies by distributing the workload and domain knowledge as well as further simplify the use of these tools, he said.

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