Big data’s big calling: The mega-trend hits the Middle East
While the Middle East lags slightly behind more developed markets in big data adoption, trailblazers are proving that organisations can find immense value in this emerging technology
Big data has become something of a toxic term for many enterprises — thanks to the fog of confusion that lies around it. However, with the proliferation of easier-to-use analytics tools, organisations around the Middle East are beginning to feel more confident in their exploration of big data tools. That said, there’s still a long way to go in terms of understanding the trend, and being able to put big data technologies to good use.
Before getting ahead of ourselves, it’s worth taking the time to understand what we mean by big data — at least in the context of this article. As is well known, the term refers to large data sets that cannot be readily processed and analysed using traditional techniques. But with traditional-style technologies now far more advanced then when the big data term was first coined, that definition is a little out of date. For the purposes of this article, we’ll certainly acknowledge that the term is characterised by large data sets that need additional technologies to process and make sense of. But another key aspect will be to do with how organisations can actually use these large data sets — so we’ll also be touching on the technologies and processes required for big data analytics.
Shams Hasan, enterprise product manager at Dell Middle East, provides a good run-down of how we should be approaching big data conversations at the moment.
“Sometimes we meet peers who treat business intelligence (BI) and big data as one and the same. Some people talk about the size of data, some focus on the methods of analysis, and some talk about the process as a whole. The most important differentiator to clear up around big data would be that there are questions you know [and] business intelligence helps answer those questions. Then there’s questions you don’t know you don’t know — the ‘black swans’ — [and] big data helps you find those questions,” he says.
With the housework taken care of, then, we can move into how Middle East organisations are currently approaching big data and the associated big data analytics. According to Megha Kumar, senior research manager for software at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey, big data is still relatively nascent in this region, particularly compared to other more developed markets such as Western Europe and North America.
“Some organisations struggle in understanding how they can leverage big data and how they can gain value using big data solutions. While other organisations think they are not relevant to use big data because they think they do not have enough data to use big data solutions,” she explains.
“However, this is changing slowly as larger enterprises start undertaking big data deployments — especially within sectors such as energy, government, telecommunications and retail. Companies realise that they need to leverage data to not only understand what has happened but what can and probably will happen. We expect some organisations to leapfrog to using not just predictive analytics but also perspective analytics.”
Indeed, big data has dominated conversations among CIOs in recent years. Admittedly, this is partly down to the hype drummed up by vendors and the media around what big data is capable of. And yet, through the fog of confusion that this inevitably caused, real-life deployments have become more and more common, meaning that businesses are finally beginning to evaluate their options with the technology.
Gulf Air is a good example of this. From 2013 to 2014, the airline embarked on a project that saw it build up a business intelligence solution that gathered huge amounts of data from various sources. This data would then be analysed to gain insights into route profitability. When the solution was first rolled out, the airline could take well informed decisions about which routes to continue operating, and which to cut. Afterwards, the airline developed more predictive capabilities for the system. The airline has also developed a big data solution that allows it to pull large amounts of feedback from social networks (in English and Arabic), allowing it to gain an idea about the general satisfaction levels of its customers.
Organisations like Gulf Air are known for taking nascent technologies and seeing what can be done with them. However, it should be noted that a lot of the capabilities that these early adopters build out are entirely developed in-house – procuring these sorts of technologies was always too costly when big data first emerged as a mega-trend a few years ago. However, today, things have changed a little. The general availability of SAP HANA, for example — along with all of the applications that are built around it — has made delving into big data much more accessible for your average enterprise.
“Middle East organisations have been at the forefront of big data deployments, especially with adoption of the SAP S/4HANA next-generation business suite, which runs on the real-time SAP HANA platform. SAP counts more than 900 SAP S/4HANA customers worldwide and is being embraced across all industries and regions. SAP HANA is the platform that unifies transactional systems and analytical systems and big data, simplifying the customer’s environment and enabling decision making based on all the data available to the customer. Again it’s about helping the customer run simple,” explains Fawwaz Qadan, head of Database and Technology at SAP MENA.