Most Data Isn’t 'Big,' and Businesses Are Wasting Money Pretending It Is

By Christopher Mims

May 7, 2013

Big data! If you don’t have it, you better get yourself some. Your competition has it, after all. Bottom line: If your data is little, your rivals are going to kick sand in your face and steal your girlfriend.

There are many problems with the assumptions behind the “big data” narrative (above, in a reductive form) being pushed, primarily, by consultants and IT firmsthat want to sell businesses the next big thing. Fortunately, honest practitioners of big data—aka data scientists—are by nature highly skeptical, and they’ve provided us with a litany of reasons to be weary of many of the claims made for this field. Here they are:

Even web giants like Facebook and Yahoo generally aren’t dealing with big data, and the application of Google-style tools is inappropriate.

Facebook and Yahoo run their own giant, in-house “clusters”—collections of powerful servers—for crunching data. The necessity of these clusters is one of the hallmarks of big data. After all, data isn’t all that “big” if you could chew through it on your PC at home. The necessity of breaking problems into many small parts, and processing each on a large array of computers, characterizes classic big data problems like Google’s need to compute the rank of every single web page on the planet.

But it appears that for both Facebook and Yahoo, those same clusters are unnecessary for many of the tasks which they’re handed. In the case of Facebook, most of the jobs engineers ask their clusters to perform are in the “megabyte to gigabyte” range (pdf), which means they could easily be handled on a single computer—even a laptop.

The story is similar at Yahoo, where it appears the median task size handed to Yahoo’s cluster is 12.5 gigabytes. (pdf) That’s bigger than what the average desktop PC could handle, but it’s no problem for a single powerful server.

All of this is outlined in a paper from Microsoft Research, aptly titled “Nobody ever got fired for buying a cluster,” which points out that a lot of the problems solved by engineers at even the most data-hungry firms don’t need to be run on clusters. And why is that an issue? Because there are vast classes of problems for which clusters are a relatively inefficient—or even totally inappropriate—solution.

Read more at Quartz

(Image via HerrBullermann/

By Christopher Mims

May 7, 2013