From the May 2013 issue of Entrepreneur

Q: What is "big data," and how can my small business take advantage of it?

A: The massive volume, variety and velocity of information moving through the world now falls under the phrase big data. How big is big? Wrap your mind around this nugget from IBM: Ninety percent of the data available in the world today was created in just the past two years.

The reason data got so big is that machines became involved, silently collecting information--2.5 quintillion bytes per day--from smartphones, automobile sensors and every click and keystroke made on a computer or web server. What to do with this information--how to slice and dice it into sensible and actionable reports--has quickly become a booming subset of the tech world as startups develop programs to enable companies of any size to take control of what they've got stored in their various databases.

To help you make sense of what to do with yours, we sat down with Anukool Lakhina, founder and CEO of Guavus, a San Mateo, Calif.-based company that builds big-data analytics software.

What's the holy grail of big data?
It's the promise of "knowing the now." If your business can gain insight from data-logging sensors, you can distill that knowledge into timely, intelligent decisions and trigger the right action at the right time. Or, put another way, today you no longer use data to see what happened; instead you use it to see what's happening in real time, which allows you to pinpoint your marketing, improve service, reduce costs and save time. The possibilities are endless.

Where do I find this data?
First, figure out what data you already have and what you'd like to have. That covers all of your software-as-a-service applications (including CRM programs such as Salesforce.com), Excel spreadsheets, partner information, sales receipts and any other devices that collect information.

Then look for ways to connect data sets together to produce more compelling and timely insights. An easy way to do this is to start with one problem you want to solve, something as basic as boosting sales on Tuesdays. By setting specific goals for an initial project you'll be able to home in on the data sets you'll need to pull together.

Once you've identified and combined the data--say, online sales and social media postings--automate these processes wherever possible to help your business sharpen its reaction time.

Got an example?
An independent coffee-shop owner could integrate data taken from many sources--including customers' drink preferences, geolocation and credit card data--to improve personalized marketing and upsell opportunities. The result: A mother who frequents the coffee shop after dropping the kids off at school now receives targeted offers for a free kid's hot chocolate with purchase during after-school hours.

What tools are necessary to work with big data?
In many cases, you and your employees are already using big-data tools--customer-loyalty programs, sales reports, website analytics, CRM databases. The key is to link them together in an easy-to-understand program that anyone, not just a data scientist, can access.