Big Data Analytics

What Is Big Data: The Easy Way To Make Sense Of It

17 Jul 2017 | Share

What Is Big Data

There is no denying that we’re in the midst of the age of data, and we feel that we need to explain: what is big data?

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that data volumes are growing rapidly into volumes many of us struggle to comprehend. Big data has arrived, and it’s only going to get bigger as organizations find ways to collect more data about their customers. With new technologies and products arriving in the market, new data is unrelenting in its pace and volume, being created – and needed – constantly. So the question is: what is big data?

From personal relationships to global networks

A few decades ago, businesses may have known little about their customers beyond their names and addresses. Businesses acted locally and customer service focused on the development of personal relationships, and many times, deals were closed with a handshake.

The emergence of the internet changed this. Acting as a global web connecting millions of businesses to billions of consumers and leading to both transactions as well as a constant stream of information, interaction and the growth of social networks, the data underpinning all of this has exploded to a massive scale.

Organizations of all sizes had to invest in technology solutions to manage their new data assets and many have realized the importance of using their customer, product and market data to gain new insights that could deliver competitive advantages.

How big is big data?

As we move and operate in a digital world where every possible snippet of information is readily available at our fingertips, we often see comments with authors throwing numbers around seemingly haphazardly. Millions and billions of rows of data, megabytes, gigabytes, terabytes and petabytes.

But can we actually comprehend the sheer size of these figures? Especially in relation to one another? Are they meaningless without some context?

I personally struggle to imagine 378 million rows of data, let alone 5 billion. So I thought it would be helpful to clarify how big these numbers are and put them into simple terms.

In the following examples, I compare 1 row of data to commonly used units of measurement relating to time, length and weight to make big data more understandable and relatable.

If 1 row of data were …

1 second

Imagine waking up tomorrow with a brilliant idea that could change the world. Your idea would require some research, funding and development and of course the final product would need to be brought to market to have an effect on our planet. How much time would you need?

Well, if 1 row of data were 1 second, then 1 million rows of data would give you 11 ½ days.

Not enough? Try 1 billion rows of data and you get 32 years…!

Surely that will be enough to change the world?

1 centimeter (0.4 inches)

You’re an aviation engineer and want to revolutionize air travel by extending the reach of your airplanes as far as possible.

If 1 row of data were 1 cm, then 1 million rows of data would let your plane travel for 10km (6 mi). Pathetic, isn’t it?

Take 1 billion rows of data and you’ll get at least 10,000km (6,214 mi). That gets you from London, UK to Lima, Peru.

Let’s be adventurous; let’s take 5 billion rows of data: 50,000km (31,069 mi). That’s quite something. Your plane could fly from London to Tokyo (Japan), from Tokyo to Houston (Texas, US), from Houston to Sydney (Australia), from Sydney to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and then finish the trip in Buenos Aires (Argentina) with a cold beer and a platter of empanadas, feeling very pleased with your engineering accomplishments.


Big data visualised as distance in cm


100 grams (3.53 oz)

There are quite a few heavy objects in this world and mankind has created incredible structures from stone and steel over the centuries, some of which still make us speechless when we contemplate how they could even be possible…

If 1 row of data were 100g, then 2 million rows of data would amount to 200 metric tons, which equals the weight of the Statue of Liberty.

230 million rows of data would be equivalent to the Titanic. But what about billions of rows of data?

3.5 billion rows of data get you the Empire State Building. Yes, the whole building.


Rows of big data visualized as grams of weight

It’s easy to get a bit lost in the millions and billions when talking about data simply because these magnitudes are so far from what we can visually and perceptually imagine.

By drawing on the comparisons above, I hope to have given you an easy way to put data volumes into perspective and to help you in your next conversation and decision-making processes around dataset size, data storage, retrieval and load.

Eva Murray

Meet Eva Murray

As Exasol’s Head of Business Intelligence and Tableau Evangelist, Eva is responsible for executing Exasol’s data-driven strategy and developing our Center of Excellence. She is highly passionate about bringing data to more people and creating educational content and collaboration opportunities for data analysts across the world to create a community of like-minded professionals who drive action and change.

After studying psychology and business at the University of Wellington, New Zealand, Eva worked as an IT Consultant for Deloitte before moving to Sydney, Australia, as a Senior Solution Designer for Commonwealth Bank. Subsequently, she became a Tableau Consultant and Trainer for Tridant.

Outside of work, she is a keen triathlete, traveler and gelato addict, for which Nuremberg is the perfect environment.

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