Metadata Unlocks the Wonders of Data

Metadata gives raw data context and makes it actionable.

By Stephanie Vozza

By Stephanie Vozza September 14, 2022

Data floods into businesses but trying to use it in an unstructured form is like trying to drink from a fire hose. Some estimates say 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is created every day. But how can a rich stream of data quench an organization's thirst for useful information? By adding data on top of data.

Data needs to be captured with intelligence, and the key to doing that is metadata. Metadata is like tagging, marking, or stamping data with a label to make it recognizable during a search or reporting function. It's like color-coding a filing system or using a card catalog in a library, and it saves time and resources.

"There is a data explosion, and we have to make sure that it is contained in a way where we can optimize, manage and present it," said Bala Kuchibhotla, former SVP and general manager of databases at Nutanix, known for pioneering hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) solutions and software for managing data and applications across data centers and cloud services.

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"Data about data gives software developers more control to leverage data and build automation into data systems," he said.

"Random data is all over. Metadata helps creates a structure around data."

What Is Metadata?

The ancient Greeks used the word "meta" to describe something that comes after or beyond. In casual context, it means having awareness from within or from a higher level. It's like thinking about thinking or reading a book about reading a book. Add "meta" to "data," and it becomes data about data. Because of its importance, the metadata of today will become the meta-metadata of tomorrow or the metadata about metadata.

While search engines can find data, they can't gauge its relevance or usefulness. Metadata, on the other hand, defines the data's form or structure, its quality, and what it means to the end user. To accomplish these tasks, metadata systems must leverage emerging capabilities to actively target information that creates the most value for an organization. 

Metadata is, simply, "data in context." It answers the "who, what, why, where, and how" questions about the data. For example, a digital image may include metadata that describes its size, resolution, content, and when it was taken. A text document may contain information about the author, as well as how long the piece is and the point it makes.

"With metadata, you can do more," said Kuchibhotla. 

"You can analyze the data. You can look into more interesting use cases. Using metadata is a very key component in every aspect of major applications. It's how you consume data."

Metadata Creates Value

Metadata is a rising priority for IT organizations, according to Donna Burbank, managing director of Global Data Strategy Ltd. She shared insights in a 2022 webinar.

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While in the past, most organizations have moved slowly to create clearly defined metadata strategies, the swelling tide of strategic data management challenges has begun to create a new sense of urgency for business leaders. Looking ahead into 2023-2014, metadata management now ranks third among organizations' top IT priorities, exhibiting a 21% year-over-year increase against 2021.  

"Today, we're living in a rising ocean of data," said Anjana Susarla, associate professor of accounting and information systems at Michigan State University's Broad College of Business.

"Each of us is leaving a digital trace captured on multiple sources," she continued. 

"We generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, and that number will increase with the Internet of Things. It's hard to grasp how big the numbers will be. Gathering data isn't enough. It has to be organized well to be useful."

Susarla likens the world of big data to "The Library of Babel," a short story written in 1941 by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. The piece is about a library whose books contain every possible combination of letters and numbers. However, the order and content of the books are completely meaningless.

"We are living in that world today," Susarla said. "If you think about all of the connected devices and websites, we're stuck in an infinite loop of data."

Smart companies must understand the nuances of digital cataloging in order to leverage metadata. Susarla continues, "and that's the challenge. You need an infrastructure in place where the data that people are making is stored in a way that makes it valuable."

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According to Susarla, companies that do it well include Netflix, Uber and Amazon. Each is "a data-driven operation based on metadata. These companies are data hungry." For example, Netflix uses data to decide which of its own projects to fund, and Uber uses data to recommend locations to drivers who want the best fares.

Metadata Reduces Waste

In addition to making data useful, metadata helps reduce storage space, which can cut costs. Unstructured data can include meaningless fields or configurations, requiring maintenance, patching, and updates. As companies continue hasty cloud migration processes involving enormous volumes of unstructured data, overpaying for unnecessary storage space and idling computing resources have become a top-ranked cause of wasted outlays. 

Volume also hinders use. For example, banks collect terabytes of data. 

"Because of the space problem, they're just not able to think about all of the use cases they want to do with it," said Kuchibhotla. 

Instead, metadata can create snapshots, reducing the terabytes by an order of magnitude.

"You can enjoy the same functionality and get space pressure relief," explained Kuchibhotla.

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Due to data's growing complexity, metadata organizes it and increases the relevance of datasets to bring more value to companies. Metadata protects the future accessibility of digital information by safeguarding its lineage. And it assists in the number of use cases that can be created.

Kuchibhotla knows first-hand  what it takes to manage a database and the metadata of databases, what they're made of, who created it, what the access is and so on and so forth. 

“It's all about metadata,” he said. “It's a key component in every aspect of major applications. If you're good at metadata, you can do wonders."

Editor’s note: Learn about Nutanix Database Services, which provides database-as-a-service (DBaaS) across on-premises and public clouds. The hybrid multicloud DBaaS works with Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, PostgreSQL, MongoDB, and MySQL. Efficiently manage hundreds to thousands of databases.

Stephanie Vozza is a contributing writer who specializes in business and productivity. She is a columnist for FastCompany.com, and her byline has appeared in Inc., Entrepreneur and Success magazines. Find her on Twitter @StephanieVozza.

Michael Brenner updated this article. He is a keynote speaker, author and CEO of Marketing Insider Group. Michael has written hundreds of articles on sites such as Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and The Guardian, and he speaks at dozens of leadership conferences each year covering topics such as marketing, leadership, technology and business strategy. Follow him @BrennerMichael.

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