Uniquely Positioned for the Challenges of Big Data: A Spotlight Q&A with Steve Shine of Actian

Originally published July 10, 2013

This BeyeNETWORK spotlight features RON Powell's interview with Steve Shine, CEO and President of Actian. Ron and Steve discuss Actian’s strategy for meeting the big data needs of current and future customers through internal development efforts, strategic acquisitions and partnerships.
Steve, let’s begin by having you give us a brief overview of Actian, its history and product focus.

Steve Shine: You may be more familiar with the first name that Actian had as a company – which was Ingres. Ingres was formed through the acquisition of the assets of the Ingres relational database from CA back in November of 2005. And, subsequently, as we built out our core data management expertise, we’ve expanded our core portfolio. In a word, Actian is all about data.

Before we discuss your acquisition of ParAccel, over the last five months you’ve also acquired Pervasive Software and Versant. Could you give us some insight into why you acquired those two companies?

Steve Shine: Sure. It actually all goes back to the experience that we had with the Ingres customer base. The Ingres customer base is a terrific asset. There are over 10,000 customers that run their business on the Ingres transactional database as the backbone for their mission-critical systems. But what we saw in working with the customers is that many of them were putting more of their analytical and reporting workload onto the more traditional relational databases. Like many other organizations, it was getting to the point where no matter how much performance tuning you put around it or how much more hardware you added, more of the customers were starting to say they really needed lower latency, quicker response times or needed to be able to hold more and more data. We saw this as a growing trend. This was actually before the phrase big data was coined, but we saw that we needed to be able to help our customers there.

So we looked around the market and came across a very innovative group of database technologies out of Amsterdam. These technologies, developed at a research center in Amsterdam called CWI under the code name of X100, were essentially a brand new way to look at building a database that is optimized for today’s X86 chip architecture. So we acquired that company – we acquired the assets and a small team of engineers that were building the next generation database. As a result, in the middle of 2010 we launched Vectorwise, which was that high performance analytics database and went on from there to win a lot of brand new customers as well as sell Vectorwise into the Ingres base to customers that were facing more and more of the data challenges. What we learned from those customers was that many of them looked at the big data challenges not just as a faster database challenge but as effectively a pipeline challenge where they needed to get access to many, many different sources of data, whether that be their existing Microsoft, Oracle or Ingres databases, whether that be applications such as SAP, whether that be cloud-based applications such as Salesforce.com or NetSuite or Workday or any other form of Web-based data source such as Twitter and the like.

So we started to see our customers connect all that data and bring that data into the enterprise. Typically, you need to cleanse that data. You need to go through the classic ETL – extract, transform and load – capabilities. You need to improve the quality. You might want to integrate it with other sets of data for correlation before you finally put it into the database upon which you build applications or utilize BI and analytics tools. We started to see that we were playing a part in the role of the future of next-generation data management architectures. We saw the opportunity for us to address the bigger issue that those customers were facing. Those issues revolved around how to optimize the technology to enable them to go from connecting to the data source and bring it right through to the end in the right set of data repositories in order to serve it up to their business users to turn that data into value.

That started a process for us, which is now over a year old, where we looked at the market at integration technologies. We were really looking for technologies that would have a large portfolio of connector capabilities. But the second thing we were looking for was not the standard model. We didn’t want the traditional integration technologies that were built for the data prior to massive volumes. We were looking for an organization that actually cracked the scale-out challenge that the database solution around Vectorwise had done, but we were looking for it in the integration space. That’s where we came across Pervasive Software, and we started those discussions way back in June of 2012, and we completed the acquisition in April of 2013.

That took a long time, but during that negotiation time, we weren’t standing still. We realized that there was a very large opportunity for a variety of different database technology tools, and we came across Versant – which, if you recall, is one of most successful object database solutions out there. We took a look at the company and realized that they were doing some very sophisticated work wherever there was an instance that you had very, very complex data models. For example, in the telecommunications world, where you have the core operating support systems (OSSs) that have a backbone of telecommunications billing, that’s where you need an object database.

Complex data models are very well served by object databases. We actually came across Versant in the middle of our negotiations with Pervasive, and Versant became part of the Actian business in December of 2012.

And, as I said, in April of 2013, we closed the Pervasive Software acquisition, which became part of the business. And then, obviously, in the background we had been thinking more and more about how to build out that broader platform capability for our customers who were dealing with big data, and we were continuing to look at potential assets in that space that would add value.

Was that build out the major driver in your decision to acquire ParAccel?

Steve Shine
: Again, I’ll just give you a snapshot of the portfolio, particularly where it pertains to big data. We have Vectorwise, which is an extremely high performance SMP – and by that I mean it’s a database optimized for analytics – that is optimized to run on a single server and has superb scale up capabilities. It’s very easy to use. It was encased inside a traditional OLTP relational database framework – actually the Ingres framework – so a DBA familiar with Ingres or any of the other OLTP databases is very, very quickly able to come up to speed on using the high-performance Vectorwise database. We now have more and more of our customers that are starting to roll out Hadoop, and I would say that 50% of our Vectorwise customers today are using Hadoop. What they tend to do is process data in Hadoop from a very large and an often quite noisy set of data. They aggregate out, they do the cleansing, and then they will move that into Vectorwise for a more instantaneous, ad hoc query on that dataset. But one of the areas that we realized as we were developing this platform capability was that if we came across opportunities where they needed to be able to scale out because the data sets were huge and they wanted to be able to spread that database processing on many, many different servers, we had an Achilles’ heel there. It limited us in terms of our ability to provide a broader solution to customers. When we became aware of ParAccel, we were thrilled as they already had proven technology and a great customer base that was already coming back with repeat business. Also, the validation by Amazon Redshift, which is essentially ParAccel, was a great validation of the long-term potential for ParAccel as a cloud offering. We saw that it was a very nice way to round out our offerings by adding an MPP database for larger scale  capability with very strong analytics. And then the DataRush technology from Pervasive, which enabled us to do the massive ETL, data quality and native Hadoop analytics, has now become a very comprehensive platform  for helping our customers meet the challenges of dealing with huge volumes of data.

With these acquisitions – Ingres, Vectorwise, Versant and ParAccel – what are your plans for incorporating all of these new companies within Actian and will some continue to operate on a standalone basis?

Steve Shine: The question is a good one, and it depends on what you mean by “operate.” We are completely committed to all the products. We think they have terrific customer bases, and we know that they have terrific future opportunity as well because they’re all focused around how to extract business value from data. But there are commonalities between groups of those technologies. Actually inside Pervasive is a very large transactional database install-base that’s PSQL. There is the transactional object database from Versant and then there is obviously the Ingres transactional relational database. They’re actually very similar in their characteristics. A lot of what the customers are doing is running backbone mission-critical transactional systems. If you then look at the Vectorwise and the ParAccel and the DataRush technologies, they have a common characteristic. They are all very, very innovative, clever software that is focused on extreme high performance, scale-up and scale-out, which is really addressing the next generation data architecture that organizations are going to need in conjunction with Hadoop, which I do believe will be a flavor in all companies that end up with a big data challenge. So we are already bringing those three technologies together with skills that we have in house around Hadoop to make sure that we’re able to deliver a reference architecture to those customers to help them solve their problems with a variety of technologies that are optimized in the connection of data, the enrichment of data and then the offering up of that data in the right database repository depending upon what they are wanting to do as an output. And then the last piece that we haven’t really addressed, which I see as a longer term future but could be potentially the biggest of all the opportunities, is within the Pervasive portfolio they had also spent a lot of time working on the movement of their very comprehensive integration technology into the cloud. Whereas today it’s still a minority of applications and data systems that are in the cloud, without doubt more and more are moving that way. And the one thing that really hasn’t been solved, and still looks like a 1980’s approach, is integration in the cloud. So when we saw what they had done with the Pervasive DataCloud, we were thrilled because, in essence, they had taken the context of weeks to do integration between on-premises and SaaS-based applications and turned that into minutes. The example they have with Intuit QuickBooks being able to integrate into Salesforce.com – and it’s a sub ten-minute, bidirectional integration – was just superb. We believe that is going to be more and more of a challenge and that our opportunity with those assets is to be able to actually deliver a very seamless, very low-asset easy way to provide that backbone of cloud integration between SaaS and on-premises applications for the future.

By creating a reference architecture that includes all of your data assets and incorporates the cloud, does Actian now have a complete architecture for the modern enterprise today?

Steve Shine: One thing that’s very important to us is that we don’t build a reference architecture just around our products. We’ve spent a lot of time going out and asking our customers what they are trying to do. Actually, when you start to talk to a great deal of them, you find that there are four or five foundational components that all of them are addressing to one degree or another. And we believe that the portfolio of capabilities that we have built up is critical in those foundational components. As I mentioned before, I believe that Hadoop will be – although it will have several different flavors – a central part of big data architectures going forward. I think that the beauty with which you can land data without having to pause and think about complex schemas, which are all things that create friction in the adoption and absorption of new data into your business, goes away with Hadoop. But the ability to be able to enrich that data as it scales and then to serve it up in the most optimized, cost-effective and performant manner is our strength. So we tap into Hadoop, and we’re able to use the massive parallel capabilities of the DataRush architectures and then serve up that data. There are areas, I think, where we will continue to partner. I think that the BI and analytics players out there are adding more and more value and we want to make sure that we are able to work very closely with those. We do believe that we have a very strong portfolio in analytics, and we will continue to build that out in the areas that we believe we can differentiate. And, I think that as more and more systems integrators continue to specialize and understand how to delve into data, they will be able to turn that into real business value and innovative new business models. We already have a number of partnerships with organizations like Opera Solutions, who are well known specialists in really being able to extract value out of data. They work with our core technologies, and they love the portfolio we’re building up.

What do these acquisitions mean for your existing customers and prospects, and also for the customers and prospects of the acquired companies?

Steve Shine: It’s a great question, and actually as you might imagine, I have spent the last few months on the road talking to the broader employee team that is Actian today and the customers and partners of all the different businesses. There are always questions, particularly if you are on the side of the acquired business. The employees want to know what this means to them, and the customers who have these technologies that we’ve acquired want to know what the plans are for that technology going forward. So we’ve been out there reassuring them of our commitment to the technologies. We are very excited about those technologies. More importantly, we’ve spent time looking at what is coming in the future which is why we brought these technologies together. We believe that just doing it by an organic build model would be too slow to meet the requirements of our customers. Mike Hoskins, our CTO uses a beautiful phrase: The Age of Data. We believe that age is only just starting, and the impact it’s going to have on those organizations that grasp the opportunity is going to be transformative. Those that don’t, frankly, are likely to be losers. But those that do, are going to put a huge amount of pressure on the technology community – vendors such as ourselves – to help them with that. And, therefore, our being able to go to customers and tell them that we are really thinking forward here. We want to bring you a broader portfolio of really innovative technologies that do fit into a reference architecture that recognizes the rest of your world and your existing investments. I think our existing customers see that. They see the broader, global scale that we bring to things. We are a global business. We have 24x7 global support. They see the broader portfolio, and we are also a financially healthy organization that has real critical mass, which is very important in the technology world.

I couldn’t agree with you more. And, Steve, when I look at all of your assets now from a data perspective, I think you’ve really addressed every need that an organization would have right now. Would you agree with that?

Steve Shine: I wouldn’t say we’re all the way there. There’s always a customer that challenges you to the next step, but I actually think that’s a great way to exist because it forces us to keep on our toes, listen to our customers and make sure that we are helping them with that next step. But I do believe that the portfolio we have today is unlike anything else that I can see, either in the 4 or 5 big giants that are out there or the many smaller operations. I think we’re uniquely positioned. And, as I said at the start, Actian is all about data. Everything we do is about helping our customers tap into data and then enrich that data and essentially derive business value from data.

Thank you, Steve, for providing us with this great insight into Actian and your product direction.

  • Ron PowellRon Powell
    Ron is an independent analyst, consultant and editorial expert with extensive knowledge and experience in business intelligence, big data, analytics and data warehousing. Currently president of Powell Interactive Media, which specializes in consulting and podcast services, he is also Executive Producer of The World Transformed Fast Forward Show. In 2004, Ron founded the BeyeNETWORK, which was acquired by Tech Target in 2010.  Prior to the founding of the BeyeNETWORK, Ron was cofounder, publisher and editorial director of DM Review (now Information Management). He maintains an expert channel and blog on the BeyeNETWORK and may be contacted by email at rpowell@powellinteractivemedia.com. 

    More articles and Ron's blog can be found in his BeyeNETWORK expert channel. Be sure to visit today!

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