What is Data Access and Why is it Important?

In the past year alone, there were over 2,000 data breaches and more than 40,000 confirmed security incidents impacting IT assets. Data access, and ensuring secure data access, has never been more relevant to organizations. It’s critical for businesses to understand the different dimensions of data access, how to protect data, and its different governance requirements.

What is data access?

Data access is the on-demand, authorized ability to retrieve, modify, copy, or move data from IT systems. With data access, users can perform these functions in any location and with data in motion or at rest. Specifically, data at rest is stored on disks or hard drives in a database, data warehouse, or modern cloud repository. Data access is the means by which users can get to this data and its location, in an authenticated manner approved by the organization in possession of the data.

Data access is one of the main outputs of effective data governance programs. Organizations should ideally have well thought out, structured means of granting data access to different users. This is reinforced by various permissions and levels of security required for data access. Frequently, these permissions are based on organizational roles or responsibilities, which are structured according to data governance policies.

When data is at rest in a repository, there are two basic ways of accessing it: with sequential access and random access:

  • Sequential access uses a seek operation to move the different data on a disk until the requested data is found. However, each data segment is read (in sequential order) until the sought after data is found, which can tax computational resources. Still, this method is often faster than random access because it requires fewer seek procedures than random access does.
  • Random access stores or retrieves data from anywhere on the disk. The advantage of this approach is that not all data has to be read in sequential order to find what a user’s looking for. Also, the data is located in constant time, which means there’s an upper limit to how long it will take for it to be retrieved. When that limit is less than how long it could take to sequentially read and retrieve data, random access is preferable.

Establishing data access requirements and standards

There are many requirements and standards needed to secure data access across an organization. Beginning with internal requirements, all users must have the proper authorization to access different data sets and sources. To achieve this standard, database administrators are typically tasked with issuing and implementing permissions for secure data access based on each individual’s roles. Additionally, establishing an enterprise-wide policy and implementing data access training makes data access best practices transparent to all employees.

On a more global level, organizations need to follow governance regulations. Some of these standards, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), dictate how organizations can access personally identifiable data, how it’s stored, for how long, and even for what purpose. More importantly, these standards highlight the intersection of data access and data security. Data access is meaningless if it’s not based on security standards.

Why is data access necessary?

There are several advantages to understanding, ensuring, and securing data access for common repositories like data warehouses. These benefits extend to everyone across the organization. Perhaps the chief benefit to organizations is regulatory compliance. Standards like GDPR and others have stiff penalties (and legal consequences) for non-compliance that organizations can avoid by having secure data access. Additionally, secure data access prevents data breaches, which are extremely costly and damage professional reputations.

Other benefits of secure data access reinforce the long term value that data provides an organization. By clarifying who has access to what data and how, organizations can ensure data integrity — enabling the reuse of data for multiple use cases. Doing so expands the value that data provides across business units, in some cases. Lastly, secure data access lets organizations maintain their data over time with good data lineage — a process which lets users  know exactly what was done to data and when. This information all aids in auditing, complying with regulations, and identifying future uses of data.

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