The Daunting Task of Defining Big-Data

The best definition of big-data I ever heard was simple and to the point: "It’s the stuff we used to call 'a whole lotta data,' " a presenter at a recent conference said.

He wasn't joking. While big-data is arguably the buzzword of the year, defining it continues to be a source of endless consternation. So what's real? What makes sense? Here are three perspectives that define, discuss, and help to focus the role of big-data today.

Big-data is how we get to the right message, to the right people, at the right time, on the right platform, on the right place. — Oscar Padilla, VP of Strategy, Luminar

Luminar is an analytics and modeling provider that serves the US Hispanic market, with a goal of "transforming Hispanic consumer data into true insights and business intelligence." At the recent Portada Annual Conference, Padilla noted that big-data can help marketers reach their goals and make an effective sell of everything, from credit cards and hair-care products to automobiles and political messages.

Big-data is enabling marketers to accelerate their growth through more relevant and precise data models, he said. In other words, it's creating opportunities for "big analysis" that can provide greater accuracy, more practicable analyses, and improved performance and forecasting.

Big-data is a relative concept. What is big today won't be big tomorrow...

But big-data isn't about that. It's a story about the meaning, the challenges, changes and opportunities that it represents. — Patricia G. S. Florissi, VP and Global CTO, EMC
During a recent presentation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., Florissi predicted the era of big-data we will trigger changes similar to the ones that occurred during the Industrial Revolution, with some industries ceasing to exist, new ones being created, and others reinventing themselves.

Those trying to police what is or is not big-data will often do so based on what their interest, sphere of influence, knowledge or experience and jobs depend on. — Greg Schultz, Founder, Server and StorageIO

In a post entitled "Little data, big data and very big data (VBD) or big BS?" he noted, "Big-data is not BS, however there is a lot of BS marketing BS by some along with hype and fud adding to the confusion and chaos, perhaps even missed opportunities."

While "big-data is real," he writes, there are variations, use cases, and types of products, technologies, and services that fall under the big-data umbrella. In addition, it is wrong to characterize all data as big-data. "What this all means is that there are different types of applications for various industries that have big and little data, virtual and very big data from videos, photos, images, audio, documents, and more."

How do you define big-data? Do you agree with any of the points these data pros made?

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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lotta data
  • 11/15/2012 10:32:35 AM

I rather like the expression, "we got a whole lotta data." It almost sounds like a song.

Re: lotta data
  • 11/15/2012 10:42:22 AM

LOL Ariella!

New Age
  • 11/15/2012 1:52:20 PM

Florissi predicted the era of big-data we will trigger changes similar to the ones that occurred during the Industrial Revolution,

It's really amazing to think of the changes big-data could usher in -- comparing it to the industrial revolution is mind-boggling!

It's all relative
  • 11/15/2012 3:47:18 PM

@Noreen: Excellent topic.  Defining big data is something I pondered on while penning my recent musings on the definitions of other industry terms.  I like the statement about 'big data' being relative.  It's kind of like calling something 'new'.  Well, it's new now, but for how long?  And when it's not anymore, will we take the new off?  In my first analytics job, I worked on a SAS server that had 800 GB of disk space.  We thought that was a ton.  Now you can buy mulitple TB drives off the shelf at Staples.  Is 800 GB still 'big'?  Nope.  Exa-, zetta- and yotta- are big, for now, but for how long?

Re: lotta data
  • 11/15/2012 4:35:55 PM

Ariella, - So true though what he says. Big-data is just lots of data in different terms. Funny though how as soon as someone found the shortest word to refer to lots of data, it became complicated. I believe that most of the difficulty in explaining big-data is in actual sense difficulty in understanding the tools of handling big-data and their dynamics

Re: lotta data
  • 11/15/2012 4:41:58 PM

@kicheko, true.  A short description packs a lot of complications here.

Re: lotta data
  • 11/16/2012 8:35:41 AM

Let's here some of your own definitions. If you had to make a dictionary entry, what would you write about big-data?

the anti-definition
  • 11/16/2012 12:02:14 PM
1 saves

I like this one from The Register:

Big Data is any data that doesn't fit well into tables and that generally responds poorly to manipulation by Structured Query Language (SQL).

[T]he most important feature of Big Data is its structure, with different classes of Big Data having very different structures.

With that definition, we can start to look at examples. A Twitter feed is Big Data; the census isn't. Images, graphical traces, Call Detail Records  (CDRs) from telecoms companies, web logs, social data, RFID output can all be Big Data. Lists of your employees, customers, products are not.

Re: the anti-definition
  • 11/16/2012 1:07:54 PM

Nice one Phil! It makes the distinction very clear.

Re: lotta data
  • 11/18/2012 2:24:30 AM

We have spent the past yeart trying to define "big data."  In the end, it comes down to a couple of things.  A) people like to think they have big data, even when they don't.  Here is why I say this.  If you have a 32 GB 8 core SQL server and you have a database table with 250 GB of data in it. yeah, you might think you have big data.  If you have 900 GB of data, and 512 GB of RAM on your database server, you might think you have "big data." No, you don't,  B) If you have a 6TB table of data in your DB, and you have 2 TB of RAM, and you think you have big data, YES. YOU DO.  Well, at least according to my definition, constrained by current techological limitations, goes like this: If you have to make a call to disk for data, and the amount of time it takes to return that data to your users exceeds the amount of time that users are willing to accept, AND the ONLY WAY to alleviate this issue is to increase your bandwidth to disk because you have ALREADY MAX'D out the technologically available amount of RAM within which the database could reside, then you have "BIG DATA."   I hope this clarifies things. My team deals with this on a daily basis from some rather gigantic companies with rather large amounts of corpuscular data.  By "corpuscular," I mean single, extremely large chunks of data that can not be fragmented across multiple systems and MUST be treated symptomatically.  That is, the data is interrelated, and the users seek to examine it as a whole, and not as discrete entities. I really could go on and on about this....

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