You can barely move for talk of Big Data at the moment. But is there any substance to it or is it just a fancy label to help vendors flog more tools?
Big Data should be one of the items at the top of the corporate agenda according to all the major analyst firms. But what is Big Data? How does it differ from traditional data management and business intelligence?
One way to think about this is to consider the automobile industry, suggests Andy Mendelsohn, Senior VP of Database Server Technologies at Oracle. “Henry Ford invented the Model T 100 years ago,” he argues. “Today, Ford makes cars, and they have much better engines, and they have their full sensors and computer systems. But at the end of the day, they're still cars. Cars have evolved a lot over the last 100 years. Big Data should be thought of in the same way.
“Today, we have our information systems for business intelligence, and people call them data marts and data warehouses, and they're loaded with all this transactional information from our transaction processing systems like E-Business Suite and other application vendors. And that information is really valuable, the crown jewels of company, that transactional data. It's not going away.”
But Mendohlson argues that what people want to do now with Big Data is to capture new kinds of information to enhance and enrich the transactional data that they're currently using. “For example, if you're a retailer, you might want to go out to Facebook and pull out information from your customers' Facebook pages if they're willing to friend you,” he says. “Most of that information is completely worthless, right? All the pictures of babies and families and all that stuff. You don't want to keep that in your relational databases. But the fact that somebody actually had a baby is really interesting to a retailer, right? They can use that to upsell baby bottles and baby toys and everything else to baby.
“So what's really important about Big Data is to understand there's a lot of this data, most of it's completely worthless to the business, but there are these gems, these nuggets of information, like the fact a customer just had a baby. You want to take that information, you want to integrate it to your existing transactional data that you've got in your data warehouse and really use that to make better business decisions and make more money for your company.”
Big Data in practice
So that’s the theory. But does it resonate with customers in practice? Mendelsohn cites three examples of customer good practice that he says suggests that it does. The first is an insurance firm. “Insurance as an industry we all understand pretty well. We all have car insurance,” he states. “This particular customer already has an Exadata data warehouse, and they're already capturing all their transactional insurance information about their customers, their accidents, their policy information, et cetera.
“What they would like to do is enhance that data with a new kind of data that you can get from cars. Cars are now loaded with sensors that are capturing your every movement of what's going on out there and it's called car telematics data. What they would like to do is use that information to actually study the actual driving behaviour of their customers and use that to better understand maybe what their insurance rates should be, what their driving habits are and maybe even help customers be better drivers. This is actually a very classic-use case. So they're interested in augmenting their Exadata system with a BDA, Big Data Appliance."
The next customer is in the travel industry. “They run websites for customers who are looking at doing travel of various sorts,” explains Mendelsohn. “Today, of course, they're already capturing all the transactional data about their customers, what are the trips they're buying.
“What they would like to do is augment that information with what's going on in their websites. They want to capture the web logs, they want to get social media data to better understand what their customers are up to, what are the trips they're anticipating maybe going on and combine that information with their existing information about their customers' previous transactions and use that to help make better promotional offers to the customers and grow their business.”
The last customer is in this games space. “Gaming is becoming a huge industry,” says Mendelsohn. “This company is in the business of selling game consoles of various sorts and Internet games, and they already have a big Exadata data warehouse already that's analysing that information. They're looking to augmenting their Exadata data warehouse with a BDA, and they want to use it to what you might expect: better understand what the customers are doing out in the games.
“They want to understand relationships between customers. One of the really interesting things in games is that people play games with each other. And you want to understand the social networks of people who are playing with each other because it's likely that if one person in that network wants to do something, the others will want to do the same thing. So they can use that information to better upsell information in this game space.”
So overall, he concludes, there's a lot of interest in this space. “It's a real evolutionary technology,” he states. “Customers have their existing big BI information systems, their data warehouses, their data marts, and they're really excited about augmenting their transactional data with this Big Data to help them grow their business.”