No one would accuse me of being a Microsoft shill. Having grown up in Linux, I have a longstanding antipathy to Microsoft’s machinations against open source (which have been thawing of late, thankfully). But after more than 10 years of raging against the Redmond machine, I’ve also developed a profound appreciation for Microsoft’s ability to make difficult technologies approachable to average users. 

I’m therefore encouraged by Microsoft’s foray into Big Data. Given surveys indicating that enterprises still don’t have a clue as to what to do with their data, it’s very possible that Microsoft’s penchant for end-to-end, easy-to-use solutions could make Big Data consumable by the masses.

Raising A Data Culture In Redmond

Microsoft has a long history of data, providing data management tools to front-office workers (Excel) and back-office database administrators (SQL Server), consumer-facing services like Bing and Hotmail, not to mention its new work with Hortonworks to offer Hadoop. Given this history of data, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called out Microsoft’s ability to make Big Data accessible:

Developing the ability to convert data into the fuel for ambient intelligence is an ambitious challenge. It requires technology to understand context, derive intent and separate signal from noise. Building out a comprehensive platform that can enable this kind of ambient intelligence is a whole company initiative that we are uniquely qualified to undertake. 

Of course, Microsoft’s plans at the present are merely visions. And visions can take a looooong time to realize. Anyone remember when Oracle first announced Fusion? How about when it finally delivered? Still waiting?

To Microsoft’s credit, its vision is still very cool, especially given the rampant confusion over Big Data, as Gartner discovered:

Could Microsoft do better than the existing vendor tools or open-source projects? Definitely, maybe.

A DNA Of Ease-Of-Use

Consider what Microsoft did for system administrators—or developers. Microsoft made managing networks or servers much easier by building excellent tools so you didn’t have to be a UNIX gearhead to get a good job and be productive. The same is true of Microsoft’s effect on enterprise development: The company built developer tools that made it really easy for good developers to be great, and average developers to be good. 

If anyone could make Big Data accessible to rank-and-file employees, Microsoft can.

And that’s what Microsoft wants to do. As Microsoft corporate VP Quentin Clark noted, “[Microsoft’s] view is that it takes the combined effect of three elements to bring big data to a billion people: robust tools that everyday people can use, easy access to all kinds of data sets, and a complete data platform.” Nadella furthers this—he said he looks forward to a time “when every employee can harness the power of data once only reserved for data scientists and tap into the power of natural language, self-service business insights and visualization capabilities that work inside familiar apps such as Office.”

Earlier this week, Nadella started to lay out more specifics to his Big Data plan. According to Nadella, the idea is to “take an architectural approach that brings together Excel on one end and SQL Server and Hadoop on the other end.” It’s still not a very concrete course of action, but it points to a future where Big Data is what everyone uses, not some special thing that an enterprise enlists PhDs to tackle.

From the front-end data analyst to back-end data infrastructure, Microsoft seems to have a holistic view of Big Data—one that seems very promising, given the company’s history of making complicated technology accessible to the average system administrator, office worker, or developer.

But will it work? That is, of course, the trillion-dollar question. Microsoft, for all its problems over the years, has the right DNA to answer “yes.”

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