In the broadest possible definition, Big Data is exactly what its name implies, that is, very large sets of data, usually more than 10 terabytes and sometimes as much as several petabytes. A single terabyte is the equivalent of 472 hours of broadcast-quality video or the number of words that every single adult in the U.S. speaking at the same time could say in five minutes. A petabyte is about 1,000 times larger, enough memory to store the DNA of the entire population of the U.S. and then clone everyone-- twice. 

“Is that a lot of data? Yes, but you will be surprised at how fast you collect data these days,” says Samer Forzley, vice president of marketing at Pythian, a global provider of data management consulting and services. “By collecting everything from website visits and server log files to external data such as social media activity, a company can quickly accumulate large amounts of data.” 

A typical small or medium-sized business deals with a number of sources of data-- customer information, interactions, inventory, supply chain, human resources, websites, physical machinery, and more. In the past, each of these has been handled in a siloed manner, either in-house or via a hosted service such as salesforce.com, explains Anjul Bhambri, vice president, Big Data at IBM. “Big Data allows SMBs to bring such data together in an integrated fashion, to gather all the information about customers, products, and operations and to identify relationships across them. This, in turn, allows for additional analysis and insights to be derived for preventing customer churn, generating better marketing offers, improving pricing, etc.,” he says. For most SMB owners, the relevance of Big Data “is in finding the right nuggets of insight to improve their business,” adds Steve Brain, head of engineering at Qualtrics, a global supplier of enterprise data collection and analysis solutions. 

Compiling data-- and there are lots of ways to do that, including buying it from aggregators, subscribing to external sources, and enriching your own-- is just part of the Big Data story. The other, and arguably more important, part is what you do with it once you have it. Until recently, the computer processing power required to parse such vast quantities of data into actionable insights was only available to very large enterprises, but cloud computing has changed that. 

“Cloud opens opportunities for SMBs to access and analyze Big Data on an unprecedented scale,” says John Mason, general manager, midmarket business at IBM. “With cloud, SMBs can access analysis of Big Data ‘as a service,’ which makes it easier to obtain, lowers the cost barrier, and also creates greater ecosystems that were more likely to be siloed in the past.” 

SMB usage of cloud computing is growing rapidly, according to Parallels SMB Cloud Insights for the United States 2013, an ongoing research project by Parallels IP Holdings, which automates solutions for cloud service delivery to SMBs. The report pegs the SMB cloud market at almost $19 billion at the start of this year and projects 19 percent growth year-over-year through 2016. Thanks to cloud, “SMBs can now access the analytics without incurring insurmountable upfront costs,” Mason says. “SMBs no longer need to buy, install, and maintain expensive hardware and software themselves. They can simply pay for a managed service as they need it, accessible through a simple web browser, but still access the same powerful analytics functionality as an on-premise solution.” 

What this means for SMBs in competitive terms is something close to parity with much larger enterprises when it comes to accessing the potential advantages of Big Data. The abundance of open source technologies in combination with affordable cloud infrastructure services from companies like Amazon, Rackspace, Google, and IBM has flattened the uphill climb for SMBs, Bhambri contends. “From a capabilities standpoint, your (small or medium-sized) business has access to the exact same computing power as the world’s biggest companies,” agrees Prasad Akella, senior vice president, product and marketing at Intermedia, a cloud services provider to SMBs. 

Despite its rapid growth in the SMB space, cloud computing and the Big Data capabilities it supports still have a long way to go in terms of market penetration. “If you’re not yet engaged in a sophisticated Big Data initiative, don’t worry, you’re not alone,” says Michael Hoskins, chief technology officer at Actian Corporation, a provider of data management solutions. “We are in the early days of the Age of Data. But, the starter pistol has gone off, and the race has begun.” Hoskins advises SMB owners who want to get a leg up on their competition to look at which areas of their business operations are most data-intensive because they generally represent the greatest opportunities to profit from Big Data. 

Learn more: 

• What Is a Petabyte? 
 What Is Big Data