Big Data? Seeking a definition

The use of big data techniques is going to have an impact on all enterprises - but what does it mean?

Big Data. Words you hear everywhere these days. The phrase has become almost as ubiquitous as cloud computing was about two years ago.

There are close correlations with cloud of course – which is probably why it was the theme of this month's Cloud Camp, the regular part-education, part-social gathering where the clouderati chew over the essential topics of cloud.

There's an obvious interface between Big Data and cloud. Companies faced with the issue of handling large-scale data analytics will often turn to the cloud as a means of delivering the resources for super-turbo number crunching. Indeed, one of the more interesting presentations was from Amazon's Matt Wood who spoke about the role that Amazon's EC2 had played in his work on human genomes.

There's a rather more uncomfortable parallel though, one that vendors are going to have to address sooner or later: there are rather a few definitions of what constitutes big data floating around – the evening started with a discussion of whether unstructured data is the same as unmodelled data, perhaps giving an indication of some of the issues that were set to dominate the debate.

This was an issue that was raised by one of the questioners from the floor. He asked whether the fact that so many of the presentations all followed very different themes was an indication of the need to have a standard definition of what big data means – there was a supplementary question too as to whether the vagueness of the term meant that it was an excuse for vendors to sell us products that we don't need.

I suspect that there is a need to deliver some sort of standard definition of big data – but not yet. The NIST definition of cloud computing didn't emerge straight away but grew out of a wide-ranging debate between vendors and users alike as to what the term meant. We have to have the chance to get things wrong – or at least confused – before we can put things right.

In the meantime, there will be many conferences where vendors will happily put forward presentations based around their take of what the term means, ignoring the vendors with an entirely different slant.

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