For all the buzz over big data, there remains plenty of confusion over what it is and how industry can make use of it.

Simply put, it is neither a market nor a technology. Big data can be defined as any large data set, structured or unstructured. Typically, such expansive collections cannot properly be analyzed using traditional computing methods to glean the kinds of insights that enable good business decisions.

A TechAmerica Foundation report on big data issued in October compared big data to the term “e-business,” which gained popularity in the 1990s tech boom.

The term faded away, but the idea remains the foundation of most commerce.

Companies that focus on riding the big data wave miss the point by treating big data like it is a new technology or a new market. It is a new way of thinking that will guide the way federal agencies plan their technology buys.

Because traditional computing methods are inadequate, agencies that want to take full advantage of big data would need to invest to handle massive and constantly growing data sets. This could include dedicated hardware, network equipment to increase bandwidth, advanced analytics software and hiring specialists to analyze and report on the data.

Making a separate mission of tackling big data is likely to be cost-prohibitive for most federal agencies. The expense of storing all of the data and expanding the bandwidth of networks to accommodate moving it may simply be out of reach.

Instead, agencies will likely seek to make gradual upgrades, much as they have done with cloud computing. Agencies are moving into the cloud piecemeal, often hidden from public view as work is either written into existing contracts or competed within the context of broad contract vehicles.

Winning this kind of work requires a strategic plan, not products. The most forward-thinking contractors see big data not as a new chance to sell something, but as a new way of viewing how federal agencies plan. They’re focused on educating their clients on how to write and implement that plan.

Lauren Jones is a senior principal research analyst and Alex Rossino is a principal research analyst at Herndon-based Deltek, which conducts research on the government contracting market and can be found at www.deltek.com.