Big Data Is a Relative Term: Forrester Analyst

The term “Big Data” is tossed around with considerable aplomb by analysts, pundits and businesses—but what does it actually mean? How can a business determine if its data infrastructure is “big” or just, say, medium-sized?

The debate over the definition has led Mike Gualtieri, an analyst with Forrester, to design a system for determining whether an organization is truly dealing with Big Data. His ultimate conclusion, he wrote in a May 17 corporate blog posting, is that Big Data is—drumroll please, somebody—a relative thing.

First, it’s impossible to define Big Data as a single, definite volume—there’s nothing that prevents the term from being used to describe gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes, or even yottabytes of information. Next, Big Data comes at wildly different velocities, with some networks wrestling with as much as 5 terabytes a second. Third, data comes in a variety of formats, including structured and unstructured.

“There is no specific volume, velocity or variety of data that constitutes big. If a yottabyte is Big Data then that doesn’t mean a petabyte is not?” he wrote. “It all comes down to down to how well you handle these three Big Data activities.”

Those activities include the ability to store, process and search through data. From there, Gualtieri offers a chart for calculating a Big Data “score.” Using a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 is “Need exists but not handled” and 5 is “Handled perfectly or not required,” readers are asked to rate their organization’s ability to store, process, and search data—not matter what the latter’s volume, velocity, or variety. An ideal score would look like this:

Gualtieri believes a Big Data score of 41-45 is “perfect,” 31-40 is “winning,” 16-30 is “struggling,” and 0-15 is “poor.” The latter two, obviously, require the organization take steps to up its performance.

Scores aside, the ability to handle Big Data is an increasing concern for many companies, which are turning to analytics and business intelligence tools as a way to gain greater insight into their processes. According to recent research from Gartner, the worldwide market for business intelligence and analytics software increased to $12.2 billion in 2011, up 16.4 percent from $10.5 billion in 2010. The research firm concluded that IT is continuing to spend and earmark money for business-intelligence tools despite tighter IT budgets, and that growth among the various sub-segments of the market (CPM suites, B.I. platform, analytic applications and performance management) remained fairly even.

That interest means “Big Data” as a buzzword won’t be fading away anytime soon—no matter how anyone defines it.

Image/chart: Forrester