When is an appliance not an appliance?

What we call things is important. The recent rise of data warehouse “appliances”, pioneered by Netezza (and arguably Teradata before that) is an interesting case in point. For years the relational database vendors spent their energy in making sure that transaction systems ran quickly and reliably. Business intelligence applications were not a major focus, and this led to a number of approaches to dealing with very large data warehouse applications. Certain types of index scheme would work very well for read-only BI queries, for example, and Red Brick was an early example of a database optimised as such. Later Teradata did a superb job of carving out a high end niche by using parallel processing hardware and specialist database software to take advantage of this properly. They did such a good job that after a while Teradata almost became synonymous with large data warehouses, of the types typically encountered in retail banks, supermarket chains, telcos etc. Oracle and othe others made some half-hearted attempts to fight back with features like star joins, but by then it was too late: the specialist data warehouse device, in the form of Teradata, had become established. Of course such projects were still large and complex. Most data warehouse project costs are associated with people, not hardware or software, and this does not change whether you are using SQL Server or Teradata as your database.

However, marketing can at times (not often, but sometimes) be a clever and subtle thing. When Netezza brought out essentially a device like Teradata, but quicker and cheaper, the label “appliance” was used, and a very clever one it is. In normal English usage an appliance is something that we just plug in, like a toaster or a coffee maker. Without making any such overt claims, the “appliance” label has a comforting implication that your data warehouse project will have that toaster installation-like quality previously lacking with pesky traditional databases. Given that a DW appliance is just some clever hardware and an optimised database, your project issues are in fact identical to those of any other DW project. Analysis, user requirements, data quality, sourcing, design and reporting all have to be done, although the appliance may certainly be able to handle large volumes of data at a much better price point than a traditional hardware/database combination. Since the hardware and software on a project may typically account for less than 20% of the project costs, this is an undeniably useful thing, but hardly takes us into toaster territory.

Yet the label matters. In a rather breathless blog yesterday:

http://www.itbusinessedge.com/blogs/mia/index.php/2006/09/05/flaming-web-20/

Mike Stevens, who I don’t know personally but appears to have a background in PR rather than hands-on data warehouse project implementation, claims that appliances spell “trouble for traditional data warehouse vendors” since an appliance may cost just USD 150k whereas “conventional solutions cost millions”. He falls into the language trap of the appliance. Your data warehouse still has to to deal with all those people-intensive things (data sourcing reporting, testing) whether you use a conventional SQL database and a regular server, or a specialist DW appliance. The issues are all identical, except with an appliance you have some additional cost since less familiar skills will need to be brought to bear (there are more Oracle skills out there than Netezza ones). The savings on hardware by using an appliance may be very significant and comfortably justified on a large data warehouse, but such a project is not going to cost USD 150k and a quick plug in the wall socket.

If this kind of misconception is so easily repeated by journalists (or at least bloggers) then I wonder how widespread this view is amongst IT managers, and how much this has helped data warehouse “appliances” catch on? Would Netezza have done quite so well if they had been labelled something less reassuring, like a “data warehouse turbo toolkit”? It was said that HP was so bad at marketing it would, if it sold sushi, describe it as “cold dead fish”. The “appliance” vendors shows that smart marketing can still be done within hi-tech.

Impartial Advice?

HP continues with its plans for the business intelligence space with an announcement of in-house data warehouse technology:

http://www.computerworld.com:80/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9008218&intsrc=news_ts_head

with a new business unit. The offering with be based around HP’s attempt at a “data warehouse appliance”, called Neoview. This is a competitor to Teradata and Netezza, but at this stage it is hard to tell how functional this is, since it is unclear that there are any deployed customers other than HP itself.

The timing of this announcement is curious given HP’s acquisition of data warehouse consultancy Knightsbridge. Certainly data warehousing is a big market and Teradata is a tempting target – after all, most of the really big data warehouse deployments in retail, telco and retail banking use Teradata. There are lots and lots of juicy services to be provided in implementing an “appliance”, which in fact is no such thing. An appliance implies something that you just plug in, whereas data warehouse appliances are just a fast piece of hardware and a proprietary database, still requiring all the usual integration efforts, but with the added twist of non-standard database technology. Certainly plenty of business for consultants there.

However HP’s home-grown offering will not sit well with its newly acquired Knightsbridge consulting services, who made their reputation through a quite fiercely vendor-independent culture which always prided itself in choosing the best solution for the customer. People trust independent consultants to give them objective advice, since they are not (or at least they hope they are not) tied to particular vendor offerings. Presumably HP’s consultants will be pushing HP’s data warehouse solution in preference to alternatives, and so can hardly be trusted as impartial observers of the market. An analogy would be with IBM consultants, who while they may work with non-IBM software are clearly going to push IBM’s offerings given half a chance.

If you were a truly independent consultant how would you react to a brand new data warehouse appliance with a track record only of one deployment, and that in the vendor itself? Would you immediately be pushing that as your preferred solution, or would you be counseling caution, urging customers to wait and see how the new tool settles down in the market and how early customers get on with it? If you are a Knightsbridge consultant now working for HP, what would your advice be? Would it be any different to the advice you’d have offered in December 2006 before you became part of HP?

This kind of conflict of interest is what makes thing difficult for customers when choosing consultants. It is hard to find ones who are truly independent. Of course consultants always have their own agenda, but usually this is about maximising billable hours. If they are tied to a particular solution then that is fine if you are already committed to that solution, but you will need to look elsewhere for objective advice about it.

Teradata steps into the light

In a logical move that I would say was overdue, Teradata finally became its own boss. It has long been nestling under the wing of NCR, but there was little obvious synergy between ATM machines and data warehouse database software, and so it seems to me eminently sensible for Teradata to stand on its own two feet. Running two quite different businesses with the same company is always a problem, as different business models lead to natural tensions as the company tries to accommodate different needs within the same corporate structure.

Teradata accounts for about USD 1.5 billion of revenue, around one third of NCR. The challenge for Teradata is growth. It has succeeded when others failed in the specialist database market, dominating the high end data warehouse market despite competing with Oracle, IBM and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft. Yet revenues have been pretty flat in the last couple of years, and there is new competition in the form of start-up Netezza, which although tiny compared to Teradata is nonetheless making steady inroads, and causing pricing pressure. Teradata has generally loyal customers though notoriously opaque pricing, which has enabled it to achieve good margins (especially on support), though its finances were never entirely clear as they were wrapped up with NCR. Splitting the company out will allow the market to value Teradata on its own merits.

A long journey

An Accenture study:

http://www.informationweek.com/research/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=196800921

quantifies how much time middle managers in enterprises waste seeking out information, and comes out at two hours a day i.e. a quarter of an average working day. When they find it, half of the information turns out to be of no use. This sounds about right to me, and ilustrates just how far BI really has yet to go in being genuinely useful, and also shows just how bad the true state of information is in large companies.

The issue is not only that technologies are insufficiently intuitive. In my experience there are a number of factors that come into play:

– no culture of sharing information
– inconsistent data definitions
– poor data quality
– inability to locate appropriate data sources
– insufficient understanding of how to use BI tools effectively.

If you set out to produce a useful new report in some area and succeed in doing so, what incentive is there for you to make this easily shared around the company, and to help others find it? In most companies this would be pure altruism, and so people just keep the information on their hard disk, and indeed may gain kudos from the “information is power” syndrome. Overcoming such cultural barriers is hard, and few companies succeed. I should say that Accenture themselves do as good a job as anyone I have seen, where their consultants are actively tasked with documenting project lessons and storing these, with appropriate keywords, in an internal knowledge management system. However I have not seen this in other consultancies to anything like the same extent.

The other problems are all too familiar to people working in BI. Inconsistent data definitions and poor data quality are the heart of what MDM is all about, and we know how immature that is. Yet without fixing this then accurate and easy to obtain information is still elusive. A further problem which some technologies are starting to address is the sheer job of finding an existing report. Ironically there is an excellent chance that if yoiu want some partioular report, then someone else did too and has already built it. The troiuble is that may be in an Excel spreadsheet on a hard drive, or sitting on a shared server but you simply have no easy way of finding that it is there. It is ironic that Google allows us to search the whole internet in moments, yet finding a report within our own company is a much tougher proposition. Enterprise search vendors like Fast and Apptus, as well as Google itself, are beginning to apply smart technology to the problem, but here it is still early days.

Finally, most end users either don’t have access to create a new report easily, or are not trained in making best use of BI tools, or simply don’t have time to learn. This is why Excel is so popular; it is familiar and ubiquitous, and so people would rather get data into Excel and play with it there than learn a new BI tool.

I believe that these are mostly quite intractable problems, only some of which lend themselves to new and better technology. So anyone with a magic bullet e.g. “the answer is SOA” is talking nonsense. It is only by addressing the organisational, cultural and data ownership issues in combination iwth enterprise search and better tool training that a company can improve that two hours a day per person. It will be long, hard slog, and buying the latest trendy tool is not enough, whatever the salesman tells you.

Santa comes early for HP

In a surprise move HP has snapped up Knightsbridge in a move to bolster its technology services business.  Knightsbridge had carved out a strong reputation for handling large data warehouse and BI projects for US corporations, and had grown to over USD 100M in revenue.  It was up with IBM as one of the two leading data warehouse consulting organisations.  This in itself makes it clear why it was attractive to HP, who do not have anything like such a strong reputation in this area.  Knightsbridge was growing strongly in 2006, and the financial terms of the deal are not public, but one would assume HP paid a good price for such a good business.  This will no doubt provide a happy retirement for the Knightsbridge founders, but it is less clear as to how well the Knightsbridge culture, which was quite fiercely vendor-independent, will sit within a behemoth like HP, which has its own technology offerings.  It was revealing that Knightsbridge CEO Rod Walker had dismissed service company acquisitions in an interview just a year ago, and for reasons which sounded pretty sensible.   No doubt this will present an interesting spin challenge for the Knightsbridge PR staff, but perhaps they will have other things on their minds, such as dusting off resumes.

“If the cultures of the two companies are not a near-perfect match, people will leave, and services is a people business.”  I couldn’t have put it better myself Rod.

A more lucid approach

I have wondered for some time why business intelligence has been so slow to come up with software as a service solutions.  Celequest has done so, and this week sees the launch of another, called LucidEra.  This company aims to offer a ciomplete BI suite including ETL, data quality, database schema, OLAP server and reporting.  Given that enterprises are prepared to trust their customer data to third parties e.g. salesforce.com, there is no reason I can see why they would not do the same with business intelligence. 

The advantages of a service offering is seem to me twofold,  First is the easier and more reliable deployment.  Many problems in software stem from environmental incompatibilities e.g. some weird combination of releases of Oracle and Tomcat and something else that cause obscure bugs which the vendor could never have tested for, and which are hard to reproduce.  This problem goes away with hosted solutions, where the web browser is just about the only software the client can screw around with.  Secondly, though this is a commercial rather than technical issue, the leasing that software as a service typically uses means an easier point of entry.  One mid-ranking customer can sign off on a few months of leasing in a way that they could not for a multi-hundred thousand dollar software purchase, which would end up in steering committees and a formal procurement process.  

Salesforce has shown what can be done with this approach if well executed.  It will be interesting to track the progress of LucidEra, Celequest and others that emerge into this space.

A failure of imagination

An article on “the future of Business intelligence” is always a bold undertaking, but I think the one just out by Brian Watson could be a lot bolder.  I don’t think that just making BI “more real time” or plugging a load of reports into Google is really going to change the world of BI, and indeed to some extent it is disappointing just how unimaginative the software community has been in recent years with respect to BI.  Although it is a large and growing market, there are many pretty fundamental issues that have barely improved in a decade.

Starting with data quality, everyone agrees that data quality it pretty horrible in most companies, yet what has really come on the market to address it?  No vendor is making more than USD 50 million in revenue (Trillium is about the largest) and yet every big company has a large, expensive, data quality problem.  I like the more automated discovery approach taking by US start-up Exeros, and indeed something similar can be seen (but is not articulated in its marketing) by Uk software vendor Datanomic, and yet these companies are still pretty small. Surely there is room for compelling innovation here?

Getting data out of source systems has become somewhat commoditised.  Products like Ab Initio have increased throughput, but in general the technology is slipping into the database (as with IBM buying Ascential and Oracle buying Sunopsis).

When it comes to the data warehouse itself, this is a cottage industry, with few true packages.  Most data warehouses are built by hand, which suits systems integrators just fine (all those yummy billable hours) but does not serve customers well.  TDWI reckon an average data warehouse takes 16 months to deploy, USD 3 million to build and costs 72% of its development costs in support every year.  This is a dismal state of affairs, yet other than one new design approach (Kalido) and adding ODS functionality to ERP (SAP BW) there has been little to move things forward here. 

On the database side of things there has been more activity, with Teradata carving out a proftable niche at the top end, and now Netezza biting at its ankles.  There are one or two software solutions in the works also e.g. Kognitio.  So here at least is some sign of life.

The reporting suites have mostly consolidated around a few vendors: Business Objects, Cognos and Hyperion, with a few smaller players like Microstrategy and Actuate. There are only so many ways you can display a report, so it is not surprising that this area is showing consolidation rather than a lot of innovation. 

Master data management is at least coming out of the closet as an issue, but here we see a flood of companies rebadging some tired old products as “MDM”, yet relatively few companies with genuinely new approaches.  At least here there seems to be some genuine customer interest, if not heavy spending so far.

Data visualisation tools still lurk in the shadows, with no vendors really breaking out of niches, though Spotfire is doing a good job, especially in pharmaceuticals.  Yet companies like Fractal Edge and others which have genuinely interesting user interfaces are still very small. 

I think there is an opportunity for a more hosted approach to BI, as is being taken by Celequest.  If people are prepared to trust their customer information to be stored outside their enterprise (salesforce.com) then why not their BI data?  I am surprised that more has not happened so far here.

All in all, I think that the BI industry has a lot of potential for improvement in innovation, yet is showing few signs of bold thinking right now. Customers should not have to live with the relatively poor status quo. Although venture capital is now scarce for enterprise software plays, a large multi-billion dollar market with 10% annual growth and a generally pretty low standard of solutions is a market crying out for innovation, rather than incremental improvement. 

 

The BI market keeps on growing

In IDC’s latest annual report, it gives the size of the “data analysis” market, which includes data warehousing, business intelligence and generally anything analytic, as being worth a chunky USD 16.5 billion in software (systems integration related to this would be greater than this), up 11% from last year.  They also reckon that this market will grow at a healthy clip of 10% a year for the next five years, based on the fact that “analysis” is now one of the top two spending items for IT executives.

Recently I pointed out that the specialist players in what is more commonly called the business intelligence market grew revenues at 23% in calendar 2005 over 2004, though the IDC figures include the BI offerings of the industry giants Oracle, SAP, IBM and Microsoft, as well as a broad set of other companies and categories e.g. data mining offerings. 

A large and growing market not only causes the behemoths to want to gobble up smaller players with good technology, as Oracle recently did with Sunopsis, but in principle should interest venture capital firms to back innovative start-ups in the area.  However VCs seem too starry-eyed at the moment over social networking web sites to want to return to anything as tedious as enterprise software, with all its long sales cycles, costly software development and grumpy and conservative enterprise buyers.  Still, fashions change, and who in 2002 (when venture firms turned firmly against the internet in the wake of the crash) would have been betting that a web site company set up in 2005 for consumers, with no obvious mechanism for making money, would be snapped up just over a year later for USD 1.65 billion?  Perhaps it is time to get ahead of the curve and look ahead to when enterprise software will be fashionable again.  Any VCs feeling brave?

 

BI on demand

I write recently about the emergence of software as a service as one of the few bright spots in enterprise software at present.  With perfect timing, today a vendor came along and announced a software as a service offering in the business intelligence field.  Celequest is a start-up and it is certainly early days to see how well this idea takes off, but this is certainly an interesting development.  Celequest has the credibility of being run by Dias Nesamoney, who was founder iof Infomatica, and is backed by VCs Bay Partners and Lightspeed Ventures, who both have long track records.  The company was set up in 2002, and has some good customers like Citigroup, Cendant and Brocade, though it is not clear from the company’ website what scale these deployments are.  The application covers dashboards, analytics and data integration technology.  As far as I am aware the company uses an in-memory database “appliance” though from what I can gather the volume of data dealt with by this application so far is modest.  However this is not the point and no doubt will imcrease over time as the concept gains acceptance.  Celequest has made an astute partnership with salesforce.com, with a bridge to AppExchange.  There is also a connector to SAP. 

Certainly, there are barriers to the widesprea acceptance of this approach.  Large enterprises will be naturally conservative about the idea of letting their data out of the corporate firewall, particularly when it is key performance data of he type that BI applications use.  It is also unclear what sort of scale issues come into play when data is being accessed from beyond the coirporate network.  However for many companies, and especially SMEs, such issues will seem less important than the convenience of being able to deploy a business intelligence solution without the usual hassle of complex software installation and an army of systems integrators.  No doubt where Celequest has begun to tread, others will follow, and it will be a healthy new area of competition in the business intelligence industry.