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Welcome to my BeyeNETWORK blog! Please join me often to share your thoughts and observations on new analytic platforms, BI and data management. I maintain a vendor-focused practice that uses primary research, briefings, case studies, events and other activities that stimulate ideas as a source for commentary on strategy and execution in the marketplace. I believe the emergence of a new class of analytic platforms, and emerging data management and advanced tools herald a next step in the maturity of information technology, and I'm excited to be present for its emergence. I hope my blog entries will stimulate ideas that will serve both the vendors creating these new solutions and the companies that will improve their business prospects as a result of applying them. Please share your thoughts and input on the topics.



May 2009 Archives

In a market suddenly awash with new analytic DBMS entrants, Aster Data Systems differentiates itself with an aggressive posture: in-database computations, MapReduce integration and commodity hardware. Like several other firms I've talked to recently, the San Carlos-based vendor has a Big Customer (mySpace), a Recent Launch (May 2008) and a Core Team of Hotshots with industry experience. They have been quick out of the gate, and boast 15 customers who are tackling "frontline data warehousing" for problems they could not solve any other way.

It's been fascinating to watch new players garner early wins by asserting that general purpose databases are not optimal for analytics. Since Sybase IQ entered the market in the  early 1990s, other specialists like Esssbase and Redbrick have disappeared into larger firms, and their messages have largely disappeared from the marketing of companies like Oracle, IBM and Microsoft. They can be found if you hunt for them, but the fundamental point is not made: analytic problems are better served with specialty products- like OLAP, columnar databases and other architectural innovations.

Aster's 3 founders - CEO Mayank Bawa,  CTO Tasso Argyros and Chief Scientist George Candea - were all involved in Ph. D projects at Stanford. They got together to found a company after tackling some large scale problems for an emerging Valley startup or two and concluding that commodity hardware, in-database analytics, and a carefully interconnected multi-tier architecture would allow them to bring a cost-effective, differentiable product to market.

Some of the architectural pieces are unsurprising. Managing state at scale is the big problem, and the flagship nCluster 3.0's ethernetinterconnect (gigabit or 10-gig) has made it fairly efficient over a large number of commodity (and increasingly cheap) servers. Internally nCLuster uses 3 tiers: dedicated loading nodes that bring data in and partition it; (redundant) working nodes perform reads and updates at the same time; and a "Queen" server group that plans queries. The tiers can be scaled independently and configured differently - for example, loaders can be almost diskless. A lot of power can be brought to bear - 800 cores over a 100-node cluster makes a big impression on most problems.

Software architecture inside the engine is a leading message. nCluster supports ANSI SQL as well as developers who want to write in-database. The idea is to wrap their work in SQL; Aster is extending the language with SQL MapReduce. The alternative, says Ajeet Singh, Director  of Product Management, is to require a single script written by one person, who needs both sets of skills. Aster's model promotes reusability; one programmer codes in java and the SQL programmers can all use it.  A separate execution environment also provides process isolation; problems don't affect other users.

In February, Aster announced the completion of additional funding that brought its total Series B financing to $17 million, led by JAFCO Ventures, and including return backers Sequoia Capital, Cambrian Ventures and First Round Capital. Thus armed, and with a few good references for its half-dozen or so sales teams to leverage, we can expect to hear much more from nCluster - and some new announcements will up the ante more in the months just ahead.

Posted May 29, 2009 10:34 AM
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IBM has made it clear that InfoSphere Streams, the commercialized part of the System S research project that has been underway for some years, is a priority, and they are committing substantial investments to it.  In fact, the release was hurried a bit, as I noted in my (hopefully) humorous post about naming for complex event processing (CEP) and related technologies. At a major financial analyst meeeting in May 2009, CEO Sam Palmisano called it out as an IBM opportunity, and Software Group honcho Steve Mills listed it as one of four themes within his topline Information Agenda message. That kind of push makes things happen.

I've seen skepticism about this from people I respect like Curt Monash (here and elsewhere), Neil Raden (here), and Peter Thomas (here), and it's not surprising - there is much evangelism to be done here to establish the vision. What are the use cases? IBM is starting to describe then based on real, money-making engagements, and they will continue to.  Let's look at a few things that will drive this technology into wider use.

  • The world is being instrumented.I hardly need to give you the numbers - they're everywhere. It's not just radio telescopes (although that's cool) - it's traffic cams. RFID tags. Trades on financial exchanges. Transactions on electronic consumer systems. And that's only the beginning. There is a class of information for which the right answer is not "let's put it into a box and then look at it." Michael Stonebreaker, a seminal thinker and innovator in database, said as much when he started StreamBase a few years ago, and that firm's lack of breakthrough success so far only indicates to me that they were a bit ahead of the market need. We are deploying more instruments streaming data all the time, and that will only accelerate.
  • Early use cases have proved out. Admittedly, some are still rocket science, but in the financial industry (where StreamBase is doing most of its business) the notion that one might usefully filter and react to things as they go by, without building a place to keep them first - or at all - makes sense. And in everyday monitoring-based use, who cares about last month's traffic patterns, or the shipping record for that package last month? Somebody does - but not for every application we'll associate with that business activity. And certainly not for all the interesting ones.
  • Tools are emerging.There are SQL-based approaches, including the work being done at SQLStream with standards, and IBM has introduced an Eclipse-based IDE, with its language called Stream Processing Application Declarative Engine (SPADE), that includes visual metaphors that are lightyears away from the thorny approaches of the earliest uses. And with rules engines and decision automation climbing executive wish lists, the combinations could be compelling. Object-oriented databases were a zero-billion dollar market and always will be, because only scientists used them, and they weren't moving toward mainstream use. That is simply not the case here.
  • Complementary technologies are available.IBM is coupling InfoSphere Streams with their recently acquired SolidDB in-memory database for some classes of applications. They and other vendors have fashioned adapters to simplify connections to existing industry-standard streams of information in finance, logistics and healthcare, again, shortening the time to deliver something meaningful. And more streaming standards will emerge.
  • Expertise will drive proliferation.Complex software is everywhere, and it creates employment opportunities for SIs. Who has one of the biggest such organizations? IBM. Who has demonstrated world-class capability to replicate hardened IP based on engagements they've done a few times? Ditto. As the flywheel picks up speed, watch out.

So, if you think I'm succumbing to the hype, so be it. I believe that we are at the beginning of a new class of applications that will be as fundamentally different from database-based ones as those were from the kind that made single passes of files in the early days of punch-card systems. As each new level of abstraction emerges, we think differently about the world, and the art of the possible. If a baseball player had to compute angles and speeds and gravity and wind and the weight of his bat before swinging, how many hits would he get? And yet, without storing data and doing queries against it, he responds to events with flashes of partial data, context, and some rules, and knocks it out of the park sometimes. Oh, and misses sometimes too. (Raden, that sports analogy was for you.) But that just means we factor that into our thinking about what we try to accomplish, and what's at stake.

Stream-based computing will change the world, and the power of IBM's engine will be a big accelerator of the change. Technology, marketing, sales, services add up. Steve Mills' organization provided 43% of IBM's profit in 2008, and his belief that, as he has told me, "our investments position IBM to do things nobody else can do" is spot on. Mills told the financial analysts at the May 13 meeting that he is focused on "better optimization of the business decision process and becoming more predictive."  Elaborating on that, he spoke about  federation, pattern recognition and prediction - with streams as a key enabler. This is visionary, and in sync with the "Smarter Planet" theme, so it will be relentlessly sold at the highest levels of the world business community. IBM changes markets. What's come so far has been prologue. Change is gonna come.

Posted May 25, 2009 8:23 PM
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The last couple of years for Information Builders (IBI) have been a mixed bag. On the one hand, WebFocus, their flagship BI offering, has received stellar reviews, getting top marks from Gartner and Forrester in published research. On the other hand, growth stalled and sputtered a bit for the past year or two, and then the economy went south. But a strong new management focus, the clearing of the field as other leading independent BI vendors were acquired, and some timely new product introductions have set the table for a new surge by the New York-based vendor.

"A large enough qualitative change makes a quantitative change happen."

Gerald Cohen, founder, President and CEO of IBI, made this remark in a recent conversation with IT Market Strategy. Cohen is one of the seminal thinkers in the software industry. At a time when reporting was laboriously done in COBOL, he created the hosted, interpreted environment that launched the fourth-generation language (4GL) product category and rode FOCUS to success and a huge installed based of mainframe, then Digital, and ultimately Windows-based reporting and analysis products. IBI later broke data access out into a separate business and still dominates the market for heterogeneous data gateways with their iWay subsidiary, which also provides a range of other integration solutions that often underlie connections between products from IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, and other giants. But the client-server BI wave was not kind: SAS, Cognos, and Business Objects took the newer paradigm to customers more quickly and aggressively, and built a substantial lead.

Michael Corcoran, Sr. V.P. and Chief Marketing Officer, chafes at the lag in market share IBI has suffered, but believes things are about to change for the better. "Those brands are going to struggle to retain their reputation for independence and broad usability," he says. While Cognos and Business Objects built their visibility and revenues dramatically, IBI continued steady performance with one of the most loyal customer bases in the industry and a stellar reputation for quality and support. Equally important, a very high percentage of IBI's customers describe WebFocus as their strategic platform, even if they have other tools scattered around the organization.

IBI's team is filled with employees who have been with the firm for decades. [Disclosure - I worked for the firm two decades ago. Many of the people I knew there are still employees.] They are ramping up the sales organization and trying new go-to-market strategies. "We created a 3-5 day paid solution assessment model," Corocan says. "We take a half day with the CFO, VP of Sales, and VP of Marketing. We identify their pain points and help them build a strategy." Preliminary pilot successes have led to a greater commitment to training additional resources. This is not the only change in the air; recent hires and longtimers alike are ramping new efforts in partnership deals with hardware and software firms and with SIs.

Perhaps the most visible example is IBI's OEM relationship with longtime partner IBM on System I, where Cognos does not run natively. IBM includes WebFocus DB2 Web Query on every shipped unit. At the recent Common, IBM called it the "fastest growing software product in the platform's history." For IBI, it meant 25000 mostly new names. They get a royalty and they can upsell. Execution will be a challenge.   A little probing showed that there are issues in getting to those customers; many are sold through IBM's channel partners and some kinks still have to be worked out in identifying and getting to them. Still, this is a fresh new opportunity if the will and the spending are there to leverage it.

On the product front, IBI seems to have learned the lessons of the new world of open source; they are basing continuing innovations on code including: Tomcat application servers; the Lucene search engine (in Magnify, a new search offering);  and R statistics in WebFocus RStat for predictive analytics.  They are continuing UI innovation with Adobe Flex, Google Maps, and others. 

Qualitative changes indeed - IBI seems (no pun intended) refocused; the buzz seems to be that it's time to take the offensive. SIs are willing to talk again, after watching other leaders acquired by firms that will compete with them; quality and loyalty have built a reservoir of goodwill and referenceable customers for the sales force to leverage, and new products are allowing IBI to once again assert its thought leadership in emergent categories. Perhaps the quantitative changes Cohen spoke of are just around the corner.

Posted May 22, 2009 10:44 AM
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Sybase held an analyst event in early May at the NY Stock Exchange, and reviewed a stellar year since their last one. Quarter after quarter, the Dublin, CA. firm has set new records for revenue, increasd profitability, and gained market share. I'll discuss more of the content of today's event in a later post, but this one just couldn't wait: free MicroStrategy with Sybase IQ as part of the promotion of Release 15, which I discussed here, as part of a new joint agreement (the press release is here.)

The announcement went beyond what is said in the press release. Here's the deal: MicroStrategy has granted Sybase a number of licenses which Sybase is choosing (with permission) to pass on to their customers. Microstrategy benefits because, candidly, IQ is doing very well and there is every reason to think its users would like their product. And with Sybase closing significant numbers of deals every quarter, there is real upside in seeding them with Microstrategy seats. If the customer likes the product, of course, there is an upsell opportunity. And both vendors - and the customer - benefit. Nice.

This is not what we analysts like to call a "Barney agreement" ("I love you, you love me...") like so many partnership announcements.  The two vendors have agreed on integrated packaging, joint product certification, and vendor-to-vendor technical support. But in addition, Sybase can now offer MicroStrategy consulting services and education, which is a much more concrete engagement level. One can expect that there will be some new business here.

Posted May 18, 2009 5:27 PM
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Greenplum is one of several companies who have defied the notion that "RDBMS has been done," and one of the most successful of late on the high end (of scale, but not necessarily price.) The argument goes that it's a waste of time to build a new enterprise class RDBMS - kernel, optimizer, and associated feature set  - because there is no room left for real innovation. It takes years, deep engineering expertise, and money - and when you're done, your reward is to enter a crowded market dominated by players who have multi-billion dollar deep pockets, massive sales and engineering teams, and legions of loyal customers. A losing proposition. And yet, Greenplum has done it, and is winning deals. Regularly, and at an increasing rate.

I visited the team last week to catch up on recent progress, and their story illustrates the possibilities. If you want a good summary of Greenplum's first two years (2006-07) and technical highlights, there's no need for me to do that here - Curt Monash does an excellent job on this post from 2008, and he recently talked with Ebay about their use of Greenplum on a massive scale in this article. The eBay site is also a harbinger of things to come, as Greenplum settles into a vision of supplementing, feeding, and coexisting with older enterprise data warehouse products that don't cost-effectively handle the new petabyte-scale business opportunities. Monash does a nice job explaining how eBay describes the new opportunities for exploiting data in ways that didn't exist when leading RDBMSs were designed. 

Greenplum's 2006 deal with Sun came at an important time in their arc, and it helped kickstart things. When venture capital was most necessary, as Greenplum hardened its multi-year engineering effort and moved to deploy, support early customers and ramp up sales and partner efforts, Sun's strong endorsement was an important validation. It no doubt helped convince early investors to come on board for Greenplum's C round, and helped open doors for some key early sales, too. So it was natural for me to ask president Scott Yara how much impact he expects from Oracle's potential acquisition of Sun. His answer: "Our relationship with Sun has been a very productive partnership, but from day one our focus has always been about software and leveraging general purpose hardware. As long as Oracle maintains its commitment to be a general purpose systems provider, we have every intention of continuing to support Sun/Solaris, and give our customers the power of choice whether that's Sun/Oracle, Dell, HP, EMC, etc."

Greenplum has racked up 65 customers in two and half years - a pace faster than, say, Teradata over a similar period, Yara says. "Our vision seems to be resonating well in the market: we've been acquiring 8-10 new enterprise customers per quarter, at a pace (wins per sales team) faster than our much larger competitors [i.e. Netezza and Teradata - MA] with a fraction of the sales coverage. We are continuing to aggressively build out that sales force, which today has direct coverage in the US, Asia Pacific, Japan and EMEA."  IT Market Strategy believes that Greenplum will double its number of sales teams in 2009. The firm has recently announced a partnership with EMC, and has a new release about to launch. And Greenplum has a clear message about their offering: a petabyte-scale database for data warehousing and business intelligence. They know what kind of deals they are after - big ones. And they're getting them.

So yes, there is still room for innovation. Numerous firms are building off open source code lines, as Greenplum and others have done with postgres, adding features targeted at specific markets, and winning business. Open source + capital has created an intriguing new model of rapid innovation in "mature" markets, and the database space - like BI - is not a done deal. It is indeed possible to escape the gravity well, if you execute. Greenplum is getting it done, and is among the new stars to watch.

Posted May 15, 2009 6:38 AM
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