"This is an opportunity to walk into the CEO's office and say, 'I can change this business and provide knowledge at your fingertips in a matter of seconds for a price point I couldn't touch five years ago,'" says Eric Williams, CIO at Catalina Marketing.
Williams should know -- Catalina maintains a 2.5-petabyte customer-loyalty database, including data on more than 190 million U.S. grocery shoppers collected by the largest retail chains. This information is, in turn, used to generate coupons at checkout based on purchase history.
To steer organizations into the era of real-time predictive intelligence, Williams and other industry watchers say, tech managers must evolve their enterprise information management architecture and culture to support advanced analytics on data stores that measure in terabytes and petabytes (potentially scaling to exabytes and zettabytes).
"IT is always saying they want to find ways to get closer to the business -- [big data] is a phenomenal opportunity to do exactly that," Williams says.
Overcoming big-data hurdles
Because it's early on, big-data technologies are still evolving and haven't yet reached the level of product maturity to which IT managers have grown accustomed with enterprise software.
Many emerging big-data products are rooted in open-source technologies, and while commercial distributions are available, many still lack the well-developed third-party consulting and support ecosystem that accompanies traditional enterprise applications like ERP, points out Marcus Collins, research director at Gartner.
What's more, there is a significant gap in big-data skills in most IT departments, which have, up until now, focused on building and maintaining more traditional, structured data warehouses.
And there are major shifts to be made, both in terms of culture and in traditional information management practices, before big data can successfully take hold within an IT organization and throughout the company, notes Mark Beyer, Gartner's research vice president of information management.
Rather than waiting for the pieces to fall into place, savvy IT leaders should start prepping themselves and their organizations to get ahead of the transformation, says Beyer and other analysts.
Here are the top five things tech managers should be doing today to lay out a proper foundation for the big-data era of tomorrow.
Take stock of your data
Nearly every organization potentially has access to a steady stream of unstructured data -- whether it's pouring in from social media networks or from sensors monitoring a factory floor. But just because an organization is producing this fire hose of information, that doesn't mean there's a business imperative to save and act on every byte.
"With this initial surge around big data, people are feeling an artificial need to understand all the data out there coming from weblogs or sensors," notes Neil Raden, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.
Part of that anxiety may be coming from vendors and consultants eager to promote the next big thing in enterprise computing. "There's a certain push to this coming from people who are commercializing the technology," Raden observes.
Smart IT managers will resist the urge to try to drink from the fire hose, and instead serve as a filter in helping to figure out what data is and isn't relevant to the organization.
A good first step is to take stock of what data is created internally and determine what external data sources, if any, would fill in knowledge gaps and bring added insight to the business, Raden says.