If you were to believe everything you read, you would be under no illusion that ‘big data’ is, well, big right now. But however big ‘big data’ is, there is still the question of just how big it can be for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – and it might help if people know what ‘big data’ actually is.
Alexandre Mesguich, vice-president of enterprise research at Context, says many resellers are still not aware of what big data really is or what it refers to in terms of technology and its intricacies with other existing platforms, as it does not necessarily correlate with a particular technology, but a group of supporting technologies.
He adds that although there are varying definitions of big data, it might not be too big an issue given that, according to Context’s most recent ChannelWatch survey, resellers do not see it as an opportunity.
Mesguich says it is incumbent on vendors to educate SME resellers on specific solutions around big data, adding that often resellers do not know they are selling technology around buzzwords such as big data or bring your own device (BYOD) because “they have not connected the dots yet”.
Big data on a small scale
But are there any dots to connect? Campbell Williams, group and marketing director at Six Degrees Group, emphatically dismisses any notion that there is demand from SME customers for big data solutions.
“There’s a simple reason why there’s no market in small and medium-sized enterprises for big data – they don’t have big data,” he says. And it is not just SMEs, he notes: “Most large and multinational enterprises don’t have big data either.”
So, who does? According to Williams, big data is confined to consumer mega-brands that are trying to work out what people are saying about them across a variety of unstructured data locations, such as email and social networking platforms. As far as he is concerned, most businesses, SMEs or corporates, will find what they need in existing data mining tools.
Any resellers thinking of promoting big data to SME customers would be wise to think again, says Williams. “If resellers go to the SME market waving the big data flag, they run the risk of being a laughing stock,” he says. “Chances are, all an SME needs is a good CRM system, or ERP if it’s bigger or more complex, and a proper customer contact strategy. It probably needs a marketing consultant more than an over-blown and over-specced big data solution.”
SMEs are beginning to see big data as something more than just an enterprise trend
But not everybody agrees with this view. Dave Becerra, vice-president of strategy and business development at Roambi, says SMEs are beginning to see big data as something more than just an enterprise trend. He believes some are starting to realise that they can identify trends, patterns and gain competitive advantage by harnessing the power of growing data volumes. But he cautions that before rushing to implement a big data solution, small businesses need to take a step back and remember that bigger is not necessarily better.
SMEs need to keep a sharp eye on cost and execution and take stock of their needs before establishing a data strategy. Not so much big data, then, as ‘little data’, which brings us back to Williams’s viewpoint.
“Smaller data sets from CRM platforms, social media or email marketing programmes can still provide much-needed insight to help businesses understand customer behaviour patterns and showcase trends,” Becerra suggests. “The key is to find the appropriate vehicle to visualise and present this data in a way that reveals overlooked opportunities and actionable insights.”
This is what could make big data, assuming you can still call it big data, viable to deploy for SME businesses. “Instead of a bank-breaking big data solution, small businesses should focus their efforts and dive deep into a few business-critical sets of data – such as sales in a specific sector, or performance metrics during peak versus low seasons,” says Becerra.
“This strategy will provide quicker and better results than companies that try to take on too much. Little data can yield big results for many departments of small businesses, for everyone from the sales department to the executive director,” he adds.
Lauren Walker, big data/analytics leader at IBM UK & Ireland, is emphatic that SMEs should be looking at big data. “Interest in big data has reached new heights for many SMEs as they attempt to capture information and glean insights from ongoing conversations on social channels and the ‘digital dust’ consumers leave when browsing the web, shopping online, listening to music in the cloud and using smartphone apps,” she says.
Like many other businesses, SMEs need to glean a better understanding of often volatile consumer behaviour to know what they want before consumers do themselves.
“Besides analysing their own data to learn how they have performed in the past, businesses need to be able to look forward and change before the market does,” Walker claims, advancing one of the more common arguments in favour of big data. “It’s this data that allows SMEs to provide personalisation and customisation tailored to the specific needs and wants of individual consumers.”
Skills and technologies
The problem is that many SMEs lack big data expertise, she says: “The technologies to achieve these goals are available and more affordable than most small businesses expect, especially when factoring in the losses from a lack of investment in a world where competitors are.
“What’s required are the smarts – knowing which questions to ask of the data and how the organisation can best use what it finds.”
Jeff Morris, head of product marketing at Actuate, makes a similar point about the cost of big data. “SMEs that have decided against big data projects or are still hesitant imagine the major inhibitors to be not enough staff with expertise and the expected cost of big data initiatives,” he says.
“Nevertheless, business managers need to grasp the nettle. The skills gap – if there is one – will be short-lived, and there are many useful tools that could help with any big data mission, easily offsetting the costs of development. Organisations far-sighted enough to become early adopters of big data during these tough times are the ones that will emerge the strongest as the downturn ends,” says Morris.
The thing to bear in mind, according to Matt Assay, vice-president of corporate strategy at 10gen, is not to be put off by the b-word. “So much of the big data discussion has focused on ‘big’, as in volume, that many SMEs have not seen how much potential big data has for them,” he claims.
Assay cites research by SAP which found the sweet spot for big data is 110TB, but the most common data set is 10-30TB. “Big? Sure. But really big? Not really. This is partly because even within large enterprises, you generally don’t need mountains of data to gain insight from it: you simply need to be asking the right questions, and smaller companies are just as capable of asking intelligent questions as bigger companies.”
Like Walker and Morris, he argues the technology is available, whether it be for big data or little data. Many SMEs are already running big data technology within their enterprise without even thinking about it as such, he says, with MongoDB or another NoSQL database.
MongoDB is already running in many businesses because of its ease of use and dynamic schema, so SMEs that want to get started with a big data project need not invest heavily in learning new technologies. “They are likely to already have people trained to use MongoDB. The real challenge is asking the right questions of the information they’ve been storing,” says Assay.
Even Hadoop, which is complex, is likely to have its complexity hidden in the near future with applications that SMEs will use, he says, pointing to companies such as Datameer, MetaMarkets and Infochimps as examples.
“The companies that can best remove the complexity of big data, essentially turning it into a matter of running one’s data through a hosted service like MetaMarkets and immediately gleaning some insight, will win,” he argues. “It’s not enough to simply give SME customers access to big data technologies: the best vendors will make such technologies meaningful by packaging them into applications or hosted services that remove complexity.”
Big data advisors
Is there a role for the channel in providing big data or little data to SME customers? Roambi’s Becerra thinks there is. Channel partners can play a significant role in the promotion and implementation of big data technologies, he believes. By integrating a vendor’s solution with other sector-specific tools, the channel can cater to the individual needs of an SME customer and eliminate the need for multiple expensive solutions.
“The channel plays an important role in being able to aggregate and manage data from many different sources, coming from a combination of cloud and on-premise applications. Their knowledge of a vertical or market segment will provide a huge value-add for customers,” adds Becerra.
James Murray, EMEA vice-president at Splunk, says SMEs can make great use of big data if it includes drilling down to the machine data layer: “Monitoring and understanding machine data can enable companies to identify and resolve IT and security issues with an accuracy and immediacy not previously possible.”
Using big data – particularly at the machine data level – can have a profound effect on operational intelligence
James Murray, Splunk
Splunk has a number of SME customers, such as gaming companies that use it because of the enormous amount of graphical information they generate. “There’s a really key role that the channel can play in helping companies of all sizes, SMEs included, to understand that using big data – particularly at the machine data level – can have a profound effect on operational intelligence,” says Murray.
There are also specific use cases, he adds. “Massively improved IT systems management, rapid response to security threats and streamlined compliance processes that channel partners can leverage with SMEs as easyto- understand, quick-win scenarios.”
Sean Jackson, EMEA marketing director at Actian, says the market is saturated with lots of big data solutions, most of which are too expensive for SMEs. “Channel partners can play a huge role in delivering big data to the SME market, as they can offer bespoke vertical solutions – such as retail, telco or utilities-specific know-how or applications,” he says. “Further, channel partners interact with customers on a daily basis and understand their requirements better than vendors. They can also add training and services to differentiate their offering.”
But 10gen’s Assay believes most partners are missing a trick with the SME market at the moment. “For now, most channel partners seem more tuned to enterprise needs, which can assume more control of big data technologies such as Hadoop because of their inherently larger staff,” he observes. “But this overlooks a huge opportunity in the SME market, where the bulk of the world’s companies are, and where most of the world’s data is too. The channel partners which can tap this market will win big in big data.”
IBM’s Walker says big data and analytics adoption among SMEs has been aided, on IBM’s part, by the availability of $5bn in financing globally. In the past two years, more than 8,500 global companies have turned to IBM Global Financing to gain access to capital for leveraging big data and analytics technologies, she says.
“By giving SMEs access to financing that brings these technologies within their reach in an affordable way, big data/analytics capability is making its way to smaller companies quickly. It’s a trend that’s only going to grow for small businesses,” she adds.
If those SMEs collaborate with a channel partner, they can take advantage of some of the most effective methods to gain necessary data insight, while gaining a deep level of industry expertise, says Walker.
Actian’s Jackson describes the channel and the SME market as “an ideal fit”, adding that “partners are hungry to exploit any opportunity in the SME market”.
The issue is what kind of opportunity big data – or little data for that matter – provides to them and what need it addresses for SME customers. While some believe there is something there, Six Degrees Group’s Williams remains underwhelmed.
“Big data is comfortably the most over-hyped ‘problem’ around,” he claims, describing it as “a non-factor” for most SMEs. “Scaring or confusing customers helps nobody, and positioning products they can’t possibly need discredits the whole industry,” he says.