JUST as we begin to get our heads around big data, along comes another concept to blow our minds: the Internet of Things. This is the stuff of every science fiction novel, every paranoid fantasy, every marketer’s dream.

The Internet of Things refers to the billions of devices and sensors — from phones and ID cards to cows with biochip transponders and people with heart monitor implants — that feed information to the worldwide web. Entire networks of data, fired off by things as simple as a building thermostat or a car engine, are recorded every second on the internet.

Big data is one thing: those colossal silos of machine-generated information lying idle in company computers — billing lists and log files, for instance — just waiting to be illuminated by data scientists.

South African specialists such as Tharollo churn big data into usable chunks. Think of a centrifuge, like a washing machine’s spin cycle, whirling a soup of raw data until patterns begin to form on the drum.

That is the gunk that managers and product developers can go to work on. No more gut feel. The data tells them how customers are really grouped -not how bosses think they might be grouped.

The Internet of Things is quite another animal. It is much bigger than the real-time activity registered on a server, network, cloud or operating system. We are taking a quantum lurch in the IT galaxy.

Splunk (named after spelunking, or cave exploring) is a hot Nasdaq stock for a reason. It not only lets you download free software to sort, analyse and visualise dormant records, but also opens a universe of possibilities.

With the Splunk engine, as well as about 450 free applications, any boss can peer into the Internet of Things.

Everything is connected and recorded -on your cell, tablet or PC, by banks, insurers, retailers, phone companies and the internet. But what about the sensors in smart TVs, fridges, and air-conditioners? These devices can be accessed, too, never mind what you touch and use in your car, a railway station, airport and hospital. All that data is there for the taking.

The Splunk engine runs free of charge until you hit 500MB a day. Then you pay based on the amount of data you crunch each day. It is a model that has propelled the company’s share price above $95 (about R1,000) this year.

Matt Davies, Splunk’s man in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says the engine is the same whether you are an ordinary person or a giant company.

“You can install Splunk on your laptop, point it at wherever your data is and start asking questions of that data within 20 minutes. Anyone who can use Excel can get insights from their big data. The goal is to make business analytics and big data self-service accessible to anyone.”

Of course, multinationals generate hundreds of terabytes of data, which ups the ante somewhat -a terabyte is a byte of digital information to the fourth power of 1,000. That is the volume of captured data churned by businesses that seek operational intelligence. And those are the numbers investors look at when they see Splunk at the forefront of today’s tech-stock boom.

Businessinsider.com is managed by Henry Blodget, the analyst who led investors in a merry dance in the 1990s dotcom boom. Now he is more sober.

According to the latest report by his respected BI Intelligence research service, the Internet of Things consists of 1.9-billion devices, rising to nine billion by 2018 — roughly equal to today’s number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers and PCs combined.

BI Intelligence raves that trillions in value can be unlocked. Many products and services have already crossed into the Internet of Things, “including kitchen appliances, lighting and heating products, and car monitoring devices that allow motorists to pay insurance only for the amount of driving they do”.

Business-to-business and government applications will be even more lucrative: internet-connected billboards, smart factories and intelligent traffic management systems such as toll gates and congestion penalties.

But there is more: “pay-as-you-throw” waste management systems; electricity grids that adjust rates for peak energy usage; smart water systems and meters; internet-managed assembly lines, factories and warehouses.

Splunk aims to help to prevent outages, says Davies. It is used by 7000 companies, including Ford, Volkswagen and two-thirds of the Fortune100 companies. Of late, it has dipped a toe in South Africa through MultiChoice, Vodacom and SMS provider Clickatell.

Splunk is already probing the digital secrets hidden in commonplace locations  — a building’s turnstiles and lifts, intensive-care units and transport timetables.

But the biggest fear is security, because an interconnected world invites hacking, fraud and every variety of malware virus. It is no surprise that, in the US at least, Splunk works closely with government agencies such as the National Security Agency, the police and military.

Mr Davies, a 20-year veteran of the IT industry, pooh-poohs suggestions that the recent drop in Splunk’s share price signals the popping of the hi-tech bubble.

“I was with Netscape during the dotcom bubble and it feels the opposite of that ... it feels like [a bubble] that is getting bigger, because we’re starting to see the real value of big data and the proof of value of the Internet of Things coming.

“We’re seeing real-use cases that affect the bottom line, change a company -whole new kinds of companies are forming because of what you can do with big data.”

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times