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SAP senior vp Irfan Khan

SAP Senior VP and General Manager, Big Data, Irfan Khan, shares insight on unleashing the power of big data.

Can a button-down analytics program app be the means of unfettering the wildest creative imaginings of the marketing department? The answer, surprisingly, may be yes, and most certainly is if the question is being posed to SAP Senior VP and General Manager, Big Data, Irfan Khan.

Speaking at a recent Brand Innovators Big Data summit in New York, Khan conjured a vivid portrait of a computing platform that breaks marketers free of the tyranny of the “top five reports,” to answer an infinite number of questions. In other words, meaningful feedback for any scenario a consumer-facing, results-driven mind might care to pose. In the universe of big data, a marketers dream!

SAP HANA, a real-time, in-memory database the company has been marketing since 2011 and introduced as a cloud-based enterprise solution only last year.  With the benefit of several years of active use behind it, HANA is poised for take-off, revving its data-fueled engines on the marketing tarmac, ready to power the nimblest flights of inquiry.

Essentially a thinking machine, to hear Khan tell it (full presentation available here), HANA is either a “new” or “next generation,” platform (depending on one’s personal history with computing, Khan himself spent two decades as CTO of Sybase, a top provider of enterprise software for mobile analytics).

Either way, the result is still the same: a platform that “can contextualize as much information you desire. Not stagnant, individual attributes, but enriched.” All this, delivered through a dynamic dashboard business application that returns results in real-time. With that in mind, who wouldn’t want to take HANA for a test drive?

Khan rather humbly established a context for HANA as one of several offerings designed to tame the beast of big data. Ranging from proprietary to open-source, these solutions sally forth to meet the challenge of a world awash in data measured in petabytes (10 to the 15th power , or followed by 15 zeroes – two petabytes is the equivalent of every library in the U.S., according to Khan’s research); then excabytes (10 to the 18th), zettabytes and yottabytes).

Although Khan mentioned a unit following yottabytes that sounded like “docemetrabytes,” our investigation into the spelling revealed “There is no larger ‘official’ prefix than yottabyte (10 to the 24th) …but the most likely pattern follows the Greek alphabet backwards, beginning with xonabytes,” (10 to the 27th), according to Wiki.Answers.com. (Our favorite of those vying for the designation is “brontobyte”).

Facebook has a billion or so consumer on its network, and about 30 Petabytes worth of data, while Google generates about 30 petabytes of data on a daily basis.

With numbers this huge cued up for actual conversational use, “our vocabulary around IT is going to have to expand in terms of how we look at data,” Khan shared. Given that marketingkind seems challenged to even manage the existing deluge of data, it begs the question of how the world can equip to optimize that which has yet to be unleashed, remembering that, “as marketers, and people driving marketing initiatives, it’s not just the noise of the data, it’s looking for the signals within the noise that’s important.”

Thanks to SAP HANA and, potentially, solutions like it, volume is no longer part of the problem.  Not that there are necessarily, systems similar to HANA, Khan would posit. “Most systems out there today assume you’ve pre-organized the data ahead of time, using a menu-based system that will kick out a report” that addresses a very limited parameter of inquiry. Where marketers yearn for agility flexibility, IT has been slow to respond.

The real-time responsiveness of HANA puts marketers in control, with “the ability to almost drive IT as a progressive value-add rather than having it something stagnant that trails behind. Having a platform that gives full coverage and breadth of processing is going to be increasingly important,” Khan said.

Big data success demands depth (ongoing storage) and simplified access (timeliness, ease of use). In an optimized approach, such as that taken by SAP, the storage and computing are, to a degree, separated, to provide “an elastic experience,” one that’s omni-channel, ranging across the multitude of devices, and ambidextrous, capable of mixing and matching many tiers.

McKinsey chart on potential revenue impact of big data.

Big data – huge value: revenue potential waiting to be realized through more efficient data mining, according to a study by McKinsey.

Into such an environment “you can throw substantial amounts of data – maybe historical data from various campaigns or promotions that you’ve run in the past – but you don’t necessarily want to store that information in your operational systems, you just want access as the opportunities arise.”

Although to laymen “big data” can seem ponderous, its volume intimidating, info-enthusiasts realize that data-driven insight can come upon you like a flash. Indeed, modern thinking is that while it’s okay to go in with a plan, one must remain vigilant to the possibilities as they arise, and open to a line of inquiry.

To have data crunching capacity that operates at the speed of human intuition is half the battle (well, okay, maybe a little more than half!) The other half is the keenness of intellect to know how to use such a system. In that, Khan advises, the IT guy is your friend, a “key enabler” in identifying, locating and applying valuative data.

The real-world, or sentiment value, locked within all this data science, can be found in “common sense” outreach like responding to, say, a consumer complaint in real time. “A fan Tweets they’ve had a bad hot dog at a game, and based on their seat, you respond by offering them a – hopefully – better hot dog, so they feel taken care of during the course of that game.” Or, through connected devices, a washing machine that alerts you its O-ring is about to fail before it floods the floor (“by the end of 2020, we’ll have in excess of 30 billion connected devices”).

SAP was founded in 1972 by five former IBM employees – data techs whose goal was nothing less than “to transform the world of information technology.” As marketing segues from the batch-oriented approach of the past to one that combines surgical precision with the infinite possibilities of science, they’ve advanced that goal with HANA.

“From an SAP perspective, we’ve invested substantially in creating a platform on top of which we’ll build our differentiated, next-generation business applications, but more importantly allow consumers and developers to actually build natural extensions upon this platform to expose a lot more value to the organization as well,” Khan said.

For more information, visit SAPHANA.com and check out SAPbigdata.com.

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by Brandon Gutman
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Brandon is an expert connector and seasoned business development professional. As Principal of Brand Approved, he's led the advisory to become the bridge between brand marketers and best of breed service providers that are reshaping the industry.

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