GreenPlum Sees a Sunny Market for its DW Appliance

GreenPlum has a plum perch in the sizzling DW appliance market

At a time when data warehouse (DW) appliance vendors are sprouting up like so many spring crocuses, appliance stalwart GreenPlum -- which first started shipping its DW offering in 2005 -- is something of an early bloomer.

Thanks to a savvy partnering strategy (hitching itself to a global computing giant -- Sun Microsystems Inc -- to accelerate sales and the explosive growth in the data warehousing and business intelligence (BI) segments, GreenPlum has found itself on a plum perch in the sizzling DW appliance segment.

Market watcher Gartner Inc. certainly thinks so. In its most recent "Magic Quadrant" market survey, Gartner lists GreenPlum as a "Visionary" -- just below established powers such as Netezza Inc. and Sybase Inc., and ahead of DW appliance competitors DATAllegro Corp. and Kognitio

There are a couple of reasons for this, GreenPlum officials argue -- starting with their company's partnering strategy.

Almost two years ago, GreenPlum signed a sales and marketing agreement with Sun, tapping the Unix giant's channel expertise and worldwide reach -- as well as its SunFire-branded hardware -- to push its DW appliance software. The result, says Luke Lonergan, GreenPlum's CTO and co-founder, is that GreenPlum obtained access to Sun's deep and wide sales channel, along with a hook into its data warehousing-savvy customer base.

The Sun deal almost wasn't, Lonergan recalls. "We'd been talking with Hewlett-Packard and actually had a deal inked from them on our fax machine the day we met Jonathan Schwartz here in San Mateo. The difference between HP and Sun for us was {that] we had this perception of Sun as a large Tier 1 systems vendor being very aggressive and working with us to develop this market, whereas with HP we had a company that … didn't seem as hungry to us."

Lonergan also cites affinities between Sun -- its culture is personified, to a degree, by pony-tailed CEO Jonathan Schwartz -- and GreenPlum. "From our perspective, it seemed easier to work with Sun because they were where we were in terms of culture and staging. Plus, they gave us access to the very senior executive level, people like Jonathan and Scott McNealy."

There's even a sense, Lonergan concedes, in which having a hardware heavy doing its end of the business helps a software specialist such as GreenPlum better pitch -- and subsequently sell -- its end of the business.

"We try to be the best partner we can to the people who sell the hardware that runs our software. That includes helping [hardware OEMs] select and package the hardware that works best with our software. We let them handle the actual design and the marketing of [the hardware]," he notes. "It's a real partnership we have with Sun in that we have created an appliance that is sellable by [them] to their customers as a box. They're good at designing it and marketing it and delivering it anywhere in the world. That's what they do best."

Sun is an intriguing phenomenon in the DW appliance segment: over the last six months, both ParAccel and Kognitio have established relationships with the Unix giant. Lonergan thinks it's a case of Sun's having a good hardware story, for one thing, as well as proof of a still-coalescing conventional wisdom: namely, that Sun has a demonstrable ability to sell boxes preloaded with data warehousing software.

He doesn't think the broadening of Sun's DW appliance partner base will occur to the detriment of the Sun-GreenPlum relationship. "I think what's happening now with these other software companies that are trying to come in and benefit from our success in the marketplace is that they're trying to clone some of that, so they're looking to Sun to help sell [their solutions]," he says. "From Sun's perspective, I think they're really trying to say, like any good hardware vendor, that their hardware can run whatever you want to throw at it."

Another reason GreenPlum has taken off, Lonergan argues, is its PostgreSQL (nee POSTGRES, or Postgres) underpinnings. Unlike competitive solutions that rely on proprietary database technology (or competitive open source databases, for that matter), Postgres is well-suited for analytic workloads, experts say. It's for this reason, in fact, that Sun's acquisition of prominent open source database vendor MySQL doesn't have GreenPlum sweating, either.

"From what the developers [have] told me, MySQL shows its origins as an in-memory database with the internals, and the internals of Postgres, while still sketchy, are more solid," says veteran data warehouse architect Mark Madsen, a principal with consultancy Third Nature and a member of TDWI's Research Collaborative. "If you look at it, MySQL really needs a decent storage engine to perform specific tasks. [It's] great architecture, but if you're an appliance guy, you need the full set, not a framework sans engine."

From Lonergan's perspective, the decision to build GreenPlum on top of Postgres (as opposed to MySQL) has paid huge dividends.

"When we were starting out, there was a push by our investors and everyone around us that … [we] should use MySQL. From a technology standpoint, there was just no way, then or now, that you could use MySQL to do this kind of work," he argues. "It takes a long time to get that kind of technology right, and Postgres had a lot of the core elements that were needed. It didn't have everything, however. We had, reasonably, three or four years of technology development to outfit the Postgres engine with what's needed to do BI. Even back then, it was the obvious choice over MySQL, at least for what we wanted to do."

Recently, there's been a shift of sorts in the DW appliance segment: vendors such as Netezza, DATAllegro, and Dataupia were once apt to talk up their technologies as replacements for DW solutions from Teradata Corp., Oracle Corp., or IBM Corp. Increasingly, however, DW appliance players seem apt to talk about coexistence; it's not so much ripping and replacing, but augmenting -- supercharging -- Oracle, DB2, SQL Server, or even Teradata implementations.

One reason for this, suggests Third Nature's Madsen, is that many vendors don't want to have to manage still another database platform.

Lonergan and GreenPlum, on the other hand, aren't shy about talking about rip-and-replace.

"We're replacing Oracle systems, we're replacing Teradata systems, and we're doing Greenfield systems, or new areas of analytics," Lonergan comments. "Truthfully, we just don't see that many [requests for coexistence], at least in Oracle situations. Normally, when we get to them, they've already tried [Oracle] out and it's already not getting the job done," he continues. "

Granted, there is that barrier, where [a customer will] say 'It's another database they have to deal with,' and sometimes we win and sometimes we don't win that argument. If they have enough business pain, and they have to solve a real business problem, they'll frequently decide to use our system."

This begs another question: how large of a data warehousing pie is there, at least for companies that (like GreenPlum and its competitors) sell complementary, rip-and-replace, or greenfield DW solutions? Lonergan, for his part, says GreenPlum is seeing plenty of greenfield implementations, in addition to the requisite appetite for rip-and-replace solutions. In other words, he indicates, there's plenty of demand, which -- much like the proverbial rising tide --benefits all DW appliance players.

"There are a couple of things we've all been taking advantage of, especially this tremendous need worldwide for data analysis and [for] data analysis functionality," he concludes. "If business conditions begin a downturn, that's when the difference begins to become apparent."

GreenPlum is looking to expand its operations in the Asia-Pacific and EU regions to help fuel its growth. Lonergan, for example, cites a tremendous appetite for greenfield data warehouses -- deployed largely to enable new customer-facing or profit-generating applications or services -- in Asia-Pacific.

"In Asia, it's much more services-focused, so [the questions we're getting are] how can [GreenPlum] help a telephone company deliver on its forecast for SMS and other new products it needs to introduce?" he says. "That's where, to me, the interest really is, and where we really are building relationships is by delivering those kinds of applications that are helping vendors do what they need to do."