We're in the midst of a Big Data Gold Rush, with VCs throwing cash at anyone and everyone with a Big Data idea. But as Cowen & Co. analyst Peter Goldmacher posits, the Big Data financial opportunity has three phases, with Big Data users, not vendors, standing to make the most money in Big Data's third and final phase.

Big Data's Awkward Teenage Phase

Despite the hoopla around Big Data, the reality is that we're still in the early innings. In fact, as Goldmacher argues, we're actually in the third round of the draft. Not only are enterprises still trying to figure out how to make use of their data, but when they do chart their strategies they tend to earn $.50 on their Big Data investment dollars. 

That's not very good.

Things are getting better, though, and largely because Big Data infrastructure is maturing at a rapid clip. Hence, among the three pools of Big Data winners, Goldmacher sees infrastructure vendors winning "Big":

The Big category of winners is the infrastructure providers like the Hadoop vendors and the NoSQL vendors. These are critical enabling technologies and the winners here have very bright futures as we believe these are the technologies companies will build businesses on for decades to come. 

To be clear, the overall Big Data software infrastructure market is still relatively small. But it's growing fast, with several startup vendors nearing or exceeding $100 million in annual sales. This is particularly impressive, given that nearly all of them are based on open-source software that can be downloaded for free.

Making Big Data Easy ... For A Fee

While the data infrastructure vendors are important, there's an even bigger financial pot awaiting another category of vendor: the application and analytics vendors that make Big Data easy. Mike Olson (@mikeolson), chief strategy officer at Cloudera, made this point in a Churchill Club presentation:

For Big Data to truly go mainstream, it needs to become less the province of data scientists and arcane queries, and more accessible to average users. For those who manage to "appify" Big Data technologies, the payoff will be even bigger than it will be for the infrastructure vendors, according to Goldmacher:

The Bigger category of winners are the Apps and Analytics vendors that abstract the complexity of working with very complicated underlying technologies into a user friendly front end. The addressable audience of business users is exponentially larger than the market for programmers working on core technology. Importantly, over time, apps that just automate processes are a commodity. We believe that next gen apps will embed data to give processes context, and the value is in the data, not the automation. 

The Real Big Data Lottery Winner ... You?

As has generally been the case, however, vendors aren't the real winners in Big Data. Technology is an enabling force. Sometimes it helps to sustain existing businesses by making them more efficient. And sometimes it enables a new breed of business by making formerly impossible things possible.

As Goldmacher notes, companies like Twitter and Google could not exist without Big Data infrastructure that they have both borrowed from open source or written themselves (often releasing it as open source). These companies, as well as more mainstream enterprises, highlight who the biggest winners in Big Data will be:

The Biggest category of winners is the Big Data practitioners. These are the business people that have identified opportunities to use data to create new opportunities or disrupt legacy business models. We think this opportunity is so profound, we believe that the dividing line between winners and losers in the business world over the next decade will hinge on a company’s ability to leverage data as an asset. 

A still too-small subset of the broader population is deriving significant value from Big Data. That will change. As the infrastructure matures and becomes more accessible through applications, end users will command tremendous value from Big Data. Or they'll fall behind and go out of business. Data really does make that kind of difference.

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