In space, no one can hear you scream ‘big data’. There’s no air — you wouldn’t be able to summon a breath to do it. Just ask the guys at NASA. They know about things like this. They also know a lot about big data, and one NASA employee, Nicholas Skytland, has a particular interest in it.
Nicholas works at NASA’s Open Innovation Program and his role as program manager means that he has to handle many issues relating to big data on a daily basis. Oh, and just to keep things interesting (as if that weren’t enough!), he also trains astronauts and plots moon missions. In an interview given ahead of ZDNet’s TechLines panel, “Finding the Big Data Signals,” Nicholas talked about his current perception of big data, how it is employed within his own organisation and how it might change the nature of IT and business in the future.
The Open Innovation Program has been deeply involved with various space missions over the years, including the training of astronauts and the gathering of NASA’s big data from outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. It has also been important because of its advisory role within the US government, acting as a barometer for the big data industry and establishing how this technology can best be deployed in the public sector. Nicholas believes that big data is arguably a key point on the trajectory of modern IT and will play a defining role in how technology will develop and be harnessed over the coming years. And for what it’s worth, I agree with him completely. Nicholas sees it as a tool for tackling problems that have so far remained without a solution. However, he admits, there will be a great degree of complexity involved in its application. This complexity exists not only in the methods by which data is captured and analysed, but also in how the results are put into practice and visualised — specifically in a way that will have ramifications outside of purely academic work.
For those who are able to deal with this level of complexity, the reward will be a major pay-off further down the line. It is for this reason that Nicolas believes literacy in the realm of big data will become increasingly important within the business world. Again, I find myself in fervent agreement. CEOs, CMOs and CTOs need to get an understanding of big data now. He conceives of a future in which every company will need staff that are able to operate within a market oriented around this technology. He points out that this will not include just the obvious groups, such as those involved in scientific industries, but also sales people and even those working at checkouts (and why not — imagine a checkout worker personally furnishing you with a special offer as your items are scanned! Oh the retail bliss).
The implications of this kind of data analysis are clearly very significant, at least in the opinion of this particular expert. It is indeed likely that such analytic capabilities will eventually permeate business and everyday life to the point that it is no longer seen as a distinct topic for discussion, but rather as an accepted part of our everyday lives.
Nicholas compares the current state of big data to the growth of the World Wide Web over the past two decades. The distinct coding languages that allowed people to create websites at first seemed alien and complicated, but today they are so well understood that amateurs can make beautiful, engaging spaces online. I’d agree here, but I would also add that amateurs can also create some hideously ugly places as well. As with everything, it depends what you are after and who your audience is. He believes that large-scale data collection and analysis is still within the relatively early stages of its development, which means that most individuals even in the science and technology industries are still coming to terms with big data, its capabilities and the potential it holds.
In my opinion, the level of maturity in data collection is quite high, with products like EMC Gemfire capable of dealing with massive amounts of data in real-time and EMC Greenplum then providing the platform on which to base big data analytics. Taking NASA as a particular example, even the smallest parts of its many projects can generate large amounts of data on a daily basis. The robotic space missions, which the organisation is currently undertaking, will create ten terabytes of information every 24 hours. And this, of course, needs to be collected, catalogued and stored before it can then be analysed and assessed for its practical usefulness.
Now that may sound like a lot of data, until you realise that Greenplum can load that volume data in under an hour (if you do it in one huge lump) or ‘trickle feed’ a database and have it available for analytics in under a minute, if you prefer that type of solution. Nicholas said that while NASA is clearly in a good position because of its funding and talent, there are still many areas in which it, too, is still trying to find its feet. Experts are looking to answer the question of not only how data should be managed, but also which management and analysis strategy will be the most sensible, effective and affordable. In fact, now that I come to think of it, perhaps a trip to NASA would be cool. It sounds like NASA could be a prime candidate for the tech that EMC can bring to big data.
Plus, I’ve always wanted to see the moon up close.