The expanding digital universe: Business boon or burden?

What Australian organisations need to do to tackle the ever-increasing volume of data.

Picture this: take one iPad Air full of data and stack it on top of another, then another, then another, and continue until the stack reaches two-thirds of the way to the moon – or 253,704 kilometres into the sky. According to a recent EMC study, that is the number of iPad Air tablets it  would take to contain the amount of information in the digital universe. Hard to imagine?

Well, based on IDC’s estimates, by 2020 that stack will reach to the moon 6.6 times! This flood of information can be a daunting thought for businesses however those who are willing to harness their data effectively have a lot to gain.

Why is data growing at such an astounding rate?

EMC recently released its seventh EMC Digital Universe study, the only study to quantify and forecast the amount of data produced annually. This year’s study includes research and analysis by IDC, and reveals that this data expansion is largely due to the ‘Internet of Things’, or the rise of devices and smart technology such as smart meters, wearable technology and cars that connect to the internet. These ‘things’ like gadgets, watches and even some household appliances form a network, transmitting and receiving data, and can push out a vast amount of data.

Due in part to the Internet of Things, the digital universe is doubling in size every two years and will multiply 10-fold between 2013 and 2020 from 4.4 trillion gigabytes to 44 trillion gigabytes.

According to IDC the number of devices or things that can be connected to the internet is approaching 200 billion, with seven per cent (or 14 billion) already connected to and communicating over the internet. Data from these connected devices represents two per cent of the world’s data today. IDC now forecasts that by 2020 the number of connected devices will grow to 32 billion – representing 10 per cent of the world’s data.

Why should Australian businesses care?

These figures can be mind boggling and understandably business leaders might question why this trend matters to them. However, it’s an important opportunity that could open new revenue streams for organisations, help them learn more about customers and reduce operational costs.

Very simply, businesses can analyse new streams of data and gain more value from the data they already have. For example, in industries as old as agriculture, equipment manufacturers have realised that data produced by sensors on tractors is an extremely accurate predictor of crop yields, and are packaging up that data and monetising it. This data has provided organisations with a way to unlock entirely new areas of business growth.

What can businesses do to harness these opportunities?

Some may think it is too much information, it is too diverse and change happens too quickly to make sense of it. The good news is that not all data is necessary for businesses – the key is to find the data of the highest value.  

IDC defines this as “target rich” data, which has the following characteristics: 

  • easy to access
  • available in real time
  • sizable footprint – can analysis of this data affect a lot of people, major parts of a company or lots of customers?
  • transformative capabilities – could analysis of this data actually change a company in a meaningful way?

According to IDC, this high value data is only a little more than one per cent of the digital universe – a manageable number for companies to wrap their arms (and heads) around. While the digital universe may seem too expansive for companies to jump into blindly, those that focus on high value data and invest in the correct tools and expertise to store, mine and analyse the information will be able to reap the benefits.

What’s cloud got to do with it?

The companies taking advantage of this flood of information are increasingly cloud based, which offers new ways of interacting with customers, access to new markets and the opportunity for greater competitive advantage. In 2013, less than 20 per cent of data in the digital universe was either stored or processed by the cloud in some way. By 2020, that percentage will double.  IDC calls this new era of computing the “Third Platform” – a foundation of cloud computing, mobile, social and Big Data. Cloud computing will be integral in allowing businesses to manage the increasingly large and complex volume of the world’s data.

Considerations for businesses

While the opportunities for businesses are immense, there are significant challenges they will face in managing, storing and protecting the incredible volume of data. For example, IDC estimates that 40 per cent of data in the digital universe require some level of protection, from heightened privacy measures to full-encryption. That said, only half of that data – just 20 per cent – is actually protected.

Organisations will be required to transform their data centre operations and IT environments to meet these challenges. While most companies have taken advantage of virtualisation technologies and made full use of existing computing resources, they should now look to focus on data protection and availability, analytics and mobility. In particular, companies will be best served to adopt platforms that allow customers to scale their data centres, and automate and centrally manage their data. This will prepare them for the ever increasing data growth in a more strategic and efficient manner.

The digital universe is vast and growing at a more complex rate than ever before. While significant growth in data presents a challenge for organisations to manage, forward thinking Australian businesses who harness the value of this data have the opportunity to learn more about their customers and their business, and obtain a greater competitive advantage. The potential for organisations is massive and is not something to be ignored – just like a 253,704 kilometre stack of iPads!

Matt Zwolenski, Chief Technology Officer, EMC Australia & New Zealand