Big Data: The big picture

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With data proliferating at astonishing rates, organizations are tearing into it, hoping to derive new business value, which, according to Zions CSO Preston Wood, includes better security decision making.

Big Data: The big picture
Big Data: The big picture
Consumer behavior often is influenced by slick marketing tactics, like jingles that may make you want to pull your hair out. Case in point: If you've recently walked into a Subway to order a sandwich – and haven't thought about five dollars and footlongs – you probably don't own a television. Well, the latest craze in information security doesn't have an indelible tune to go along with it – at least not yet – but it does have a memorable, sexy-sounding name: “Big Data.” And as a result, everyone is talking about how organizations are aggregating, searching and analyzing voluminous information sets to make intelligent business decisions that may have been impossible to reach in the past.

“It's a great phrase that has captured the imagination,” says Andrew Jaquith, chief technology officer of Perimeter E-Security, a managed security services provider based in Connecticut.

But for Preston Wood, the chief security officer at Zions Bancorporation, the parent company of some 550 bank branches in the western United States, the concept of Big Data isn't anything new, only that there is a buzzword now to describe what Zions has been doing for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, the corporation began recognizing the enormous business value that could be generated from aggregating disparate data sets and drawing connections to glean actionable insight.

The company was an early adopter of security information and event management (SIEM) technology to make sense of its data sources. Some consider Big Data to be the next generation of SIEM.

“We had a Big Data strategy before Big Data was Big Data,” Wood, 40, recalls. “We thought, ‘How great would it be to take a lot of this unstructured data we have – that we are retaining for various reasons – and put it into a form factor to be able to analyze and mine that data to make better security decisions?' You'd be able to start some fascinating analytics. You'd be able to ask questions of that data that you weren't able to do in the past.”

If Zions thought it was dealing with large amounts of data that needed processing at the end of the 20th century, imagine what the number is like now. Data is growing at astonishing rates across all industries. According to IDC, the amount of information created and replicated in 2011 exceeded 1.8 zettabytes – yes, zettabytes – a nine-factor increase in just five years.

Each day, the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, according to IBM, meaning some 90 percent of the information alive today was only born within the last two years. Each sector in the U.S. economy is responsible for at least 200 terabytes of stored data, says a report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

This breathtaking amount of data being created, managed and stored – both structured and unstructured – is reality, and many organizations are racing to dissect it. The vendor community also is charging full speed at the new opportunity. According to Thomson Reuters data, venture capital firms poured $2.47 billion last year into Big Data technologies.

Perhaps no two verticals deal with security and Big Data more than the information-intensive industries of financial services and health care, says Sean Martin, founder of Imsmartin Consulting, who formerly held marketing roles at several security firms.

For instance, a recent panel at the O'Reilly Strata Conference examined how Big Data may help financial organizations proactively spot the next crisis. In addition, if new regulations are introduced as a result of prior events, data analysis may yield some fresh ideas of how to cope with them.

When it comes to health care, meanwhile, some, such as Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, believe Big Data can help reign in soaring costs related to patient treatment, Martin says. When data is shared openly – assuming HIPAA requirements are met – providers can better identify areas that are causing higher-than-desired costs, Mundie reportedly told attendees last fall at the Techonomy 2011 conference. It makes sense that models like this will be explored, Martin says, considering that a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report predicts that health care costs will rise from $2.6 trillion to 4.6 trillion during this decade.
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