So what is it you do? Ah, cloud and big data – cool.

By | April 30, 2013

big-d-300x187As a brand ambassador and a marketing leader for Netapp,  I consider it my responsibility to ‘spread the word’ as much as I can. I am especially keen to see NetApp’s brand profile raised beyond the IT industry. For those not engaged in data centers and storage, what NetApp does may seem a little abstruse. Talk of ‘storage’ and ‘data management’ may be met with glazing-over eyes, and let’s face it, storage is about as sexy as a trip to the supermarket.  ‘Being in storage’ is not an advisable response to the inevitable question of ‘what do you do?’ at a dinner party. But I have a couple of tips on how to answer in a more appealing way….

Firstly, ‘cloudify’ yourself. In the last few years a lot has been changing in our world. Mention the word ‘Cloud’ instead and now everyone seems to be interested. Thanks to Apple with their iCloud, consumers are now becoming familiar with the term, even though most consumers have been using cloud services unknowingly for years with Facebook, gmail, Dropbox and so on.  NetApp is a key part of cloud infrastructures and whilst the details maybe too much for the average lay person, if the conversation focuses on this angle, they get the point that NetApp is at the vanguard of what is going on and maybe one’s IQ (Interesting Quotient) may be raised somewhat.

Secondly big up your data credentials:  ‘big data’ is another term which is gaining some awareness in the wider public, not yet at the cloud levels but getting there. Definitions and descriptions widely vary within our industry but that it is a big trend is not disputed. Gartner, who track this stuff, plot IT trends on their so called “hype cycles” and they have long been tracking big data and plotting the elements on their curve.  There is a feeling now however that big data has gone through the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and is about to descend into the ‘trough of disillusionment’. But as Kieran Taylor argued last week, this is no bad thing and actually proves the vitality of the trend, pointing out that Cloud computing and tablets have recently passed through this trough on their way to the ‘slope of enlightenment’. Read his report here.

That said, most lay folk are not really able to describe what big data is and why it is important. I have recently been reading a particular good primer on the subject that I wholeheartedly recommend. The rather prosaically, or maybe economically, titled ‘Big Data’, is written by an FT journalist together with a leading academic. They provide a really good insight into the promise that big data holds (though maybe they ‘big it up ‘a little too much, if you will forgive the pun).

But it got me thinking of an analogy that might just work if you have to explain what big data is to a lay person.

Imagine you are looking for a new car. As we all know, 75% of purchase decisions are commenced online and so that is where you start. You select a model you might be interested in and type it into your preferred search engine. If you are in the UK you probably look at the reviews on the Top Gear, What Car and other leading motoring sites. Maybe you take in a few reviews from other people who have posted their experiences of owning the model in question. This is pretty targeted research. You’ve looked at a few sites, read a few reviews and maybe spent an hour or two researching. It has been extremely accurate as it has focused in depth on the model. However, even if you have spent days looking at content – you know you are just scratching the surface. But, it may be enough for you to make your decision and toddle off to the showroom.

But what if you could accept opinion, review, comment etc from the whole internet, and have it delivered to you in a digestible form in seconds? What if every reference to your model is brought into that output and an overall sentiment is delivered to you. Not the extremely detailed sentiment from a handful of responses, but the result of thousands and thousands of reviews and opinions from across the world. Sentiment that is inside discussion threads, in PowerPoint decks, in pdfs, in videos, in HTML – in fact in all forms of unstructured content.  You will be exchanging a very targeted but limited sample which may have extremely detailed information for what  the authors of ‘Big Data’ call the ‘messiness’ of the widest corpus of data concerning the car. It will be a synthesis of data that may be partially relevant, may be accurate or may be sloppily written. It may not even be in English.

Well, evidence has shown that the overall sentiment taken from a whole corpus is a much better predictor than a small sample of highly targeted information. This is in essence what big data can do for you. It can query massively large corpora of both structured and unstructured information and draw some conclusions based on correlations. Thus big data can do sentiment analysis on every reference to the particular model and that analysis will be more accurate, given the massive data set, than the smaller, though seemingly more accurate search you carried out for a couple of hours.

Big data then is the ability to take huge datasets, define a query and then execute it  against that corpus. Big data answers the “what” to the query. As Meyer-Schönberger and Cukier state “big data is the ability of society to harness information in novel ways to produce useful insights or goods and services of significant value”.

Big data has only become possible in the last several years because of the improvements in latency and scalability of servers, networking and storage. NetApp plays a key role in providing the scalable infrastructure to make big data possible.

Admitting to being a storage geek may not win you many friends at parties, being a cloud and big data zealot just might…..

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