Big data is a big trend in IT, with long-term implications for SMBs. Here’s how channel pros can make it work for their clients and their own companies. By Samuel Greengard

It’s no secret that the information age has transformed business in radical ways. But somewhere between the constant need to upgrade IT systems and provision new and different resources, there’s the sobering reality that data volumes are increasing at a furious rate—and the need to interpret data and put it to maximum use is fundamentally rewiring and revamping businesses. Today, IT systems and business processes spin a tight orbit around data, which has emerged as the fuel for the digital age.

Big data is at the center of this universe. As organizations look to gain new insights into an increasingly complex and chaotic world, it is redefining everything from retail and entertainment to healthcare and financial services. In fact, almost no industry or government institution remains untouched by big data. For channel pros, this brave new world represents both opportunities and risks. Resellers, solution providers, and MSPs that help customers put big data to work are positioned for greater performance and profits. “Big data represents a sizable opportunity,” says Anurag Agrawal, CEO of market analysis firm Techaisle LLC.

How can channel pros navigate this emerging space? How can big data help SMBs grow their businesses more effectively? And what are some of the issues and barriers that prevent channel pros from offering attractive big data solutions and putting them to work? While there’s no single approach for steering through the emerging world of big data, it’s clear that it is a concept that channel pros cannot ignore. “The promise of superior, data-driven decision making is motivating SMBs to either invest in or investigate big data technology,” Agrawal explains.

Moving Beyond the Data Basics

Although big data has elicited plenty of hype and media buzz during the last few years, this doesn’t diminish the validity of the concept. Techaisle predicts that SMBs worldwide will spend an estimated $3.6 billion on big data solutions by 2016. That’s up from $867 million in 2012.

Indeed, businesses are using big data and analytics to solve an array of business challenges, ranging from understanding customer behavior and delivering more relevant promotions to solving complex science, engineering, and mathematical problems. Big data is all about becoming more agile and flexible so that an enterprise can adapt to fast-changing conditions and operate on a real-time basis.

JT Lee, founder and data scientist at HCONN Inc., a Merriam, Kan., systems integration firm that specializes in business analytics solutions, says that the reach of business intelligence, analytics, and predictive analytics is revolutionizing business. “It isn’t only for big companies, it’s for everyone,” Lee says.

For example, retailers are using big data to arrange shelves and displays that better match consumer behavior. Hotels are turning to it to understand loads and pricing patterns. Charities are using big data to make decisions about everything from marketing techniques to solicitation approaches. And police are adopting predictive analytics to assign officers to locations that are likely to encounter problems. “Big data is able to unlock a remarkable number of insights by finding hidden patterns and trends,” Lee says.

In many cases, big data not only incorporates existing data tucked away in databases and other repositories, it plugs in unstructured data from emails, text messages, online chats, social media sites, and more. In fact, social listening systems can now identify emerging trends and changing tastes for products and services. They can also analyze online conversations to generate leads and marketing strategies—or help healthcare providers, the travel industry, and retailers better understand consumer preferences. Not surprisingly, these insights can increase sales, improve the efficiency of operations, and boost customer service.

But these opportunities are also accompanied by a number of challenges. “Big data is not a clean-cut technology or space. The term doesn’t help businesses build a strategy or assemble the right collection of tools, technologies, and assets required to drive business performance,” explains Josh Greenbaum, principal at Berkeley, Calif.-based Enterprise Applications Consulting and author of IEEE’s Computing Now blog. He points out that success in the big data arena doesn’t occur as a direct result of specific vendor tools and solutions. An organization must identify a collection of processes, workflows, and methodologies that can deliver improved results.

Agrawal agrees that big data isn’t a plug-and-play solution. “It requires a certain level of IT sophistication and a history in linear investments in information technology to be successful,” he says. Ideally, resellers, solution providers, and MSPs guide clients through the space and help them build both a strategic and technical foundation. “Channel pros must help their clients unlock business value,” adds Vijitha Kaduwela, founder and CEO of Kavi Associates, a Barrington, Ill., consulting firm that specializes in big data and analytics solutions.

Channel pros who position themselves on the front side of the big data curve could reap benefits for years to come, Kaduwela says. He sees big data as a lucrative niche, aided by the emerging industrial Internet. These devices and sensors will stream an enormous wave of data into the enterprise. Yet, gaining the necessary expertise and experience to provide strategic consulting and integration services requires far more than attending a conference, reading a book, or sitting in on a series of training sessions. “It requires both broad and deep knowledge of how to tap into the power of data and put it to work. There’s a need to understand how to connect technology infrastructure, integrate different technology solutions, and use data to create business value,” he explains.

Vincent Dell’Anno, leader at Accenture’s big data practice, says that big data takes a giant step beyond the reach of business intelligence, data warehousing, and other data-focused tools of the present and past. Rather than moving data through an organization in a serial way, big data initiatives create a point-to-point model that is based on agility and flexibility. Mobility, cloud computing, and other digital tools magnify and amplify the effect. Within this context, he says, “It is critical to identify choke points and understand the way today’s technologies fundamentally change how an organization taps data and puts it to use.”

Building a Better Data Set

Developing a strategy and plan for competing in the big data space is critical. For channel pros, there’s a pressing need to understand the conceptual underpinnings of big data in order to assemble the optimal mix of products and solutions. The challenge doesn’t revolve around technology and tools, Kaduwela says. “Technology has matured and it is no longer a barrier to entry. The challenge is the human component. Can you attract and retain the right people? Can you develop the right skill sets and expertise to compete in the space?”

At present, the typical systems integrator or solutions provider is unable to provide the caliber of service necessary to lock down business in this space, Agrawal says. “Most channel pros have been slow to build a business intelligence and data analytics practice,” he notes. While there are a number of ways to approach the big data market, a channel firm must understand where it resides in the ecosystem and identify the market opportunity it’s attempting to address. Only then can it “build out the business and human framework to support the model,” he says.

It’s no simple task. “Some firms are focusing on data integration between different applications, including cloud and on premise; others are addressing the gaps between structured and unstructured data linkages or focusing on a general understanding of the Hadoop distribution system,” Agrawal points out. “Other types of channel partners are capitalizing on the need of businesses to upgrade their systems and storage to use big data analytics for on-premise deployments.” Finally, there is a group of channel partners “offering platform as a service and infrastructure as a service for big data analytics.”

Kaduwela points out that traditional IT education and training often isn’t enough to build a successful practice in the space. There’s a broader need to identify and understand business challenges; how data sets can be collected, managed, combined, and used; how to link devices, systems, and people; and how to construct workflows and business processes that support big data. This means developing consulting skills and putting data scientists to work on both problems and opportunities. But it also means tapping other expertise—possibly in fields such as sociology, psychology, and cultural anthropology—to approach data and business needs in a broader and more creative way.

Another challenge for many channel pros is building a practice that’s tuned into the needs of specific industries and market niches, including areas as diverse as healthcare, transportation, and retail. This involves developing both business and technical skills—in areas such as servers, storage, software development, and data science—to create effective solutions. In some cases, Kaduwela says, “A channel partner may need to partner with other companies to offer the right combination of consulting, business, and technology skills.”

The main business and IT competencies focus on a few key areas, Agrawal says. Among these:understanding how to aggregate both internal and external data; recognizing how to assemble the right analytical and visualization tools for big data; building end-to-end big data solutions that incorporate aggregation, analytics, and visualization; and building an optimal infrastructure, including servers, storage, network connections, and more. “Tech vendors have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the SMB market to make big data available to SMBs. While some vendors have created a pricing strategy, very few have a well-thought-out, go-to-market strategy,” Agrawal points out.

Lee says that channel pros must ultimately gain the knowledge and perspective to recognize how and when big data solutions make sense, and produce positive results for clients. Big data doesn’t replace long-term thinking, planning, product development, and other key components to business. It’s about reading the marketplace and tuning into trends and opportunities faster and better. “Big data can’t make a business successful by itself,” Lee says. “It simply provides insights into things that help define the business and the marketplace. It allows businesses to operate at a more enlightened and efficient level.”

Big Data Drives Business Results

As organizations look to harness the full power of big data and analytics, Dell’Anno says that it’s wise to embrace a mindset that encourages experimentation. One of the challenges in convincing organizations to invest in big data is a fundamental question about what value it can provide. “A lot of organizations are hesitant to commit to the technology without knowing exactly how it will unlock business value,” he says. “If an organization tries to map out all the business use cases and figure out the business value without actually combining the data or interrogating the data to help in that process, then there’s a high likelihood they will miss out,” Dell’Anno explains.

A second major selling point, Dell’Anno says, is that organizations competing in a digital economy increasingly require big data to remain competitive. “It’s critical to understand how the technology fundamentally changes the nature of business and alters the focus across a wide and sometimes disparate array of industries.” Traditional techniques cannot deliver the same insights and answers to key business questions, including how to interact with customers, he explains.

Concludes Kaduwela:“As we dive deeper into a digital world, there’s a growing need to understand how to connect all data elements. Big data is at the center of the digital enterprise. It provides the answers to many questions.”

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