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Guest Post: Are You Pouring Pollution into the Data Lake?

By Merv Adrian | October 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

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From my esteemed colleague Mark Beyer

“Unstructured data” is a misnomer—everyone finally agrees on that much, at least. It is a term that is often applied to information assets that are not relational. Sometimes it is applied to machine data generated by operational technologies. Sometimes it is applied to content, like documents, or even less specific text such as email or twitter feeds. The term unstructured creates fear, loathing and desire across the IT landscape. If it generates meaningful discussions about innovative processing or challenges the re-use of existing infrastructure without simply defaulting to a mindset of replacing components—then that is a good discussion. But that is about all the term is good for.

But I’ve been growing ever more fond of Semi-structured, but not for the reason that many who are enamored of the term might assume. Semi actually  means half, but that doesn’t mean it is halfway between structured and unstructured. Because that would be halfway between myth and reality, which is a “place” that doesn’t actually exist. Consider the vernacular American use of the term “semi-truck”, that would mean “half truck”. But, of course, that isn’t what semi-truck means. A truck vehicle—referred to properly as the “tractor” — is “half” of the truck and the trailer is the other half of the truck. Separately, neither can move cargo. When you put them together, you have two halves that make a whole and creates a complete, useful delivery vehicle. So, a semi-truck is actually made up of a semi-tractor and a semi-trailer which makes, simply, a whole truck.

Now consider semi-structured data. What it actually means is that “half” of the governance and schema instructions (defined as physical and logical definition plus applied governance) are in the data and the other half are in the using application. Semi-structured data means that you MUST write an application to complete the schema. That also means that with each different application, you can impose different governance and schema instructions (also the processing rules), theoretically making the data more flexible.

However, with the introduction of this capability comes the danger of having disparate governance rules regarding the same data that may be so significant, it becomes different data. As data moves further away from containing its own schema, then flexibility increases and more and more of the entire schema must be imposed by the using application—and ever greater diversity is introduced. Of course application developers think this is a grand idea, but users of that data in a second environment are not equally fond of it.

In a data lake, we drop all of these various degrees of structure into a common pool or body. Each asset is deposited with a different level of dilution regarding the schema instructions, thus requiring a oceanographer’s level of expertise to determine when the data in a data lake has “high alkalinity” or “high acidity” or too much “copper” and so on. A data scientist who understands the “alchemy” that exists in the fetid waters of a polluted lake will have no trouble cleaning the data up and discerning pollutants from di-hydrogen oxide (that’s water). But a novice or dilettante may find that they are drinking polluted data water from the lake long after they are infected with the equivalent of data E.coli and are making continuous visits to the data latrine.

To be completely fair, the analogy of the waters of a lake when compared to the Data Lake, needs some departure from the metaphor, but there are also further extensions of the metaphor that also work (other than those obnoxious points I raise above). For example, a lake that is crystal clear somewhere in the mountains of upstate New York would be a dead lake. There would be no fish, no microscopic organisms, no snakes, no mosquitos flying over its surface. It would be crystal clear and completely dead.  So, if you desire a completely clean lake, you will find a sanitized data environment that defeats the entire purpose of storing information in something near its native form. You want a vibrant, living data lake. But you must keep the trucking metaphor in mind and remember that unstructured data does not exist. Instead, semi-structured data which intentionally only has SOME of the schema embedded in the information asset, requires a knowledge of how to swim. And boats (tools for exploring the data lake) don’t really work either—anyone who cannot swim must be very careful to NOT fall out of the boat. But anyone who can swim, can safely use a boat and be confident that if they fall over the side they can make it back to shore.

Data lakes are for data scientists to conduct science, they are not for casual analytics users or even advanced business analysts who generally scuff their code-writing and script-writing toes on ignorance. But those data miners that understand business process and systems analysis, or those data scientists who understand model theory and statistical primitives? Well, they can swim all day. So, buy a boat (a tool), explore away, and be comfortable in the knowledge that some of the structure is waiting for you in the lake, but not all of it—your job is to figure out the rest including sometimes reaching over the side of the boat and getting a little wet because you never know when you will fall in.

Merv’s comment: this has been a topic of some discussion on our team. My own view is very close to Mark’s and is expressed in my closing slide from the Hadoop Summit 

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