Unstructured data has exploded—and it’s not slowing down. The total volume of data created, captured, copied, and consumed worldwide by 2024 will cross 149 zettabytes every year¹. Much of it will be unstructured, which we know has massive value, but also challenges and complexities.
Every organization stands to benefit from unstructured data use cases, but first, they need a way to get a handle on it and address the elephant in the data center: the spinning disk hardware this large repository of data is often stored on. Because when it comes to modern unstructured data, many of the traditional storage architectures, technologies, best practices, and principles of structured data won’t apply.
But, there is one thing you can do to be ready for it.
What Is Unstructured Data?
Unlike structured data, such as Excel files or SQL databases, unstructured data is data that doesn’t fit neatly into formatted tables. It is generally in the form of files and objects. This includes:
- Internet of things (IoT) data, like sensor data, ticker info, and more
- Device and network data, such as telemetry and location data
- Text and documents that require context to process and extract data from, such as notes from a customer service rep in a call center
- Visual data, such as images and video
- Audio data
- Rich data, such as weather data and spatial analysis data
- Data generated by social media activity, including user activity, sentiment analysis of comments, ad clicks, and demographics
Check out our primer Structured Data vs. Unstructured Data >>
Why Unstructured Data Is Exploding
Humans and machines generate data every minute. Billions of people around the world interact with various digital devices every day. Each device—and every activity carried out on that device—generates copious amounts of data. Every swipe, keystroke, and click is a data point. This amalgamation of data, across billions of people around the globe, amounts to zettabytes (1021 bytes) of information every year.
This is modern data, and it’s projected that it will account for at least 80% of all data—including Enterprise Data—by 2025.
If you’re not already doing the “human housekeeping” required to manage the growing volume of unstructured data—such as creating a taxonomy for every type and format coming in—its sheer scale will increasingly be a bottleneck you can’t work around.
Challenges with Analyzing Unstructured Data
That said, although unstructured data can provide significant insight with huge transformative potential, accessing and leveraging it proves the saying, “No pain, no gain.”
The nature of unstructured data makes it difficult to know what’s relevant. Some common challenges include finding relevance from data, discerning the quality from the quantity, and identifying causal relationships between unstructured data. Collecting and storing huge amounts of data without discretion means a lot of irrelevant information gets caught up in the mix and must be eliminated.
Modern machine learning techniques are much more effective in gaining insights from unstructured data, but those models are still incapable of finding causal relationships. This not only affects the output of unstructured data analysis but also could lead to business decisions being made based on unproven trends or faulty insights.
Challenges Storing Unstructured Data
One final piece of the “structured vs. unstructured” data conversation is the issue of storage. Generally speaking, you’re going to be up against the volume challenges mentioned above, which will require a scale-out architecture to seamlessly scale alongside your data’s growth. For the most part, disk-based storage has been the only affordable option for this repository of data, which poses speed, efficiency, longevity, and reliability challenges.
But there’s also the challenge of variety. Unstructured data is primarily stored in file storage and object storage:
- File storage. In this case, data is stored in files that are located within folders and subfolders. Computers find the data using specific paths to the files. While this is a fast option for reading and retrieving data, you can’t scale your storage without adding systems. Increasing capacity alone won’t suffice.
- Object storage. Lastly, object storage also divides up data into small chunks and spreads it around the hardware. But the difference, in this case, is that there is no hierarchy (like file storage) or interconnections (like block storage). Each chunk of data acts as a discrete unit. As a result, it can be implemented with simple APIs and scaled easily. The drawback is that objects can’t be modified once they’re written.
Dive deeper with An Exploration of Files and Objects for Data Storage.
The Potential for Unstructured Data on the Right Storage Technology
Unstructured data holds the keys to understanding and shaping the customer journey. Usage behavior can be studied to create better products, understand users more deeply, better identify their interests, and recommend products with greater accuracy. But you’ll need modern solutions underpinning your efforts.
Disk-based storage has been the default due to cost and a lack of viable, affordable alternatives. This limits what you’re able to do with unstructured data as it grows, while overburdening your data center, because:
- Disk-based storage requires 10x the data center footprint as flash
- It’s not energy efficient, using 10x the energy compared with flash
- It’s costly, not just in terms of rising energy costs required to power it, but in terms of resources—e-waste, full-time employees to manage it, additional racks, and more
Now, it’s finally possible to consolidate and store unstructured data, no matter the workload, with unified fast file and object (UFFO) storage from Pure Storage®:
- FlashBlade//S™ offers the speed of flash with the ability to scale any architecture in an agile fashion. It’s ideal for critical workloads that require cutting-edge speed and performance.
FlashBlade//E™ is ideal for large repositories of unstructured data and everyday workloads. It’s the first affordable, efficient flash alternative to disk with better TCO and energy performance.