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What is this thing called Big Data?

Headshot of article author The Power BI Team
The Three V’s.  People who know Big Data will talk about volume, velocity and variety – it’s a useful way to characterize both the benefits and challenges of Big Data.  Let’s get you familiar with these terms, and how you can harness the power of Big Data in your business decisions without being overwhelmed.
Volume. When we talk about Big Data we mean BIG. Unimaginably big. Right now we describe Internet traffic in terms of petabytes and exabytes (one exabyte amounts to 36,000 years of HDTV video, or streaming the entire Netflix catalog over 3,000 times). In 2012, 2.5 exabytes of data were created every month. Today, it would take over five years to watch the amount of video that crosses global networks every second! That’s more data traffic in one second than were stored in the entire Internet 20 years ago.
Cached within this data universe are valuable information and relationships. Until now, few organizations had the resources to extract, analyze, and gain benefits from them because of the enormous effort and expense required. Today we have commodity hardware, cloud architectures, and open source software that bring Big Data into the reach of startups.
Think about one of the most successful startups of the last decade—Facebook, a prime example of using Big Data as an enabler of new products and services. Facebook combined data from actions of a large social network to craft a highly personal user experience and a new type of advertising business.
What else can you do with all this data? Not only analyze online customers’ transactions, but what products they looked at, their navigation paths through the company website, how ads, reviews, and page layouts influenced their behavior, their social and geographical data, as well as purchase histories.  Then use this data to immediate competitive advantage by presenting relevant promotions and recommending additional purchases.
With the benefit of increased agility comes a challenge of where to store and query vast “data lakes.” Organizations of all sizes need the right tools to make sense of this sea of data. Fortunately, they can now use cloud services, such as Microsoft Azure, to scale and process huge amounts of data economically. Today, the benefits of Big Data are no longer the exclusive domain of big companies.
Velocity. No, data velocity doesn’t mean it travels at warp speed. It means that data flows into your organization at an ever accelerating rate.  And the faster you can process and analyze that data, the faster you can respond compared with your competitors.
Financial traders have long used systems that process fast-moving data to their advantage.  In the Internet and mobile era, more people deliver and consume products and services digitally, generating instant data feedback to merchants and service providers. The smartphone age has upped the rate of data flow, as hundreds of millions of consumers are walking, talking information producers, carrying with them a live streaming source of location and audio data.
As more data streams into businesses at or near real-time, rapid analytics become vital for supporting speedy insights and prompt response, from manufacturing and supply chains to social data streams. In fast-moving industries, real-time decision-making yields real competitive advantage. But until now, many organizations did not have the tools to make timely and accurate decisions.
This is where Power BI fits in. Faster insights happen when business users access and analyze data with a single view of their business. As domain experts, they know the right business questions and can spot trends as they happen. With real-time Power BI dashboards, it’s now possible to stay on top of trends, solve problems as they occur, seize opportunities when they arise, and collaborate with key stakeholders to ensure that everyone has access to the latest data.
Variety. What is the data part of Big Data? The majority of today’s data does not come in neatly organized packages. They do not fit in the static tables of traditional, structured databases. In fact, more than 80% of today’s data are unstructured: messages, updates, and images posted to social networks; readings from sensors; and GPS signals. Mobile phones, online shopping, social networks, data sensors–all produce a daily tsunami of unstructured data, much of it holding information that could impact your business.
Many of these important sources of unstructured data weren’t around a decade ago. This means that the structured databases that housed the majority of business data until recently are not well suited to storing and processing today’s Big Data. And how do you turn all that messy, unstructured data into something useable and actionable anyway?
The Microsoft solution enables business users to gain actionable insights from any data, including insights previously hidden in unstructured data. Process unstructured data? Not a problem with HDInsight, a Microsoft Hadoop-based service. Hadoop is open source software that enables you to process structured and unstructured data of virtually any size, regardless of location. And Microsoft Azure, with its economic, scalable infrastructure, is the ideal platform for big-time number crunching.
To turn those insights into results, you can now put Big Data into the hands of all business users. With Power BI, you have easy-to-use tools to discover insights from your Hadoop data. Everyone can model, analyze, and visualize data–all in real time. Create and publish content packs to your team or your entire organization. Ask questions in natural language, and get compelling visualizations as an answer. No matter where your data lives or what form it’s in, you can see a holistic view, no matter how big.
Power BI helps unleash the power of Big Data: more accurate predictions, better decisions, and precise interventions – at seemingly limitless scale. Whether in supply chain management, customer service, health care, or planning and forecasting to better anticipate online sales, Power BI enables you to experience any data, any way, anywhere.