TDWI Conference Presages BI, DW Industry Rebirth

The mood at this year’s TDWI Winter World Conference may indicate that 2010 will turn out to be a great year for BI and DW.

A salient theme at this year’s TDWI Winter World Conference, held last week in Las Vegas, was rebirth. Keynote addresses from industry veterans Frank Buytendijk and Mark Madsen focused on imaginative problem-solving, and both speakers concluded their addresses by urging attendees to revisit long-standing assumptions or practices. Several vendors claimed to have done just that, touting different (or notionally unique) spins on BI, DW, and performance management.

For example, Buytendijk, vice president and fellow of Enterprise Performance Management with Oracle Corp., counseled attendees to think way outside the proverbial box, invoking German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel to underscore his point. His thesis: the business dilemmas which prompt decision-making should be embraced as opportunities. Buytendijk argued that a business-centric focus on zero-sum decision-making -- in which choices are viewed in a binary (i.e., either/or) context -- just isn’t getting the job done.

The problem, according to Buytendijk, stems from a business tendency to conceptualize dilemmas -- which he says decision-makers tend to misidentify as “challenges” -- in zero-sum terms. In place of a pragmatic approach -- where a decision-maker might adopt any of several options, perhaps in piecemeal -- executives commit themselves fully to a single course of action. It doesn’t have to be that way, Buytendijk stressed.

Madsen, a former CIO and a veteran DW architect, addressed the issue of what might be called path-of-least-resistance BI and DW. He used the metaphor of a road-building project team that decides to pave over an existing -- albeit twisting and turning -- cow path. Why not do so? After all, Madsen allowed, it’s already there: it’s well-understood, it’s functional, and it goes where you need it to go.

BI and DW, Madsen suggested, have long been paving the proverbial cow path. He introduced cow-path-paving as Exhibit A in the case against top-down decision-making, citing example upon example of historical episodes (starting with seminal botanist Carolus Linneaus) in which not-so-good top-down schemes wound up triumphing over compelling -- but far less taxonomical -- bottom-up approaches.

Madsen also gave TDWI attendees a crash course in Information History 101, describing the first reports (Sumerian cuneiform tablets); the first OLAP engine (a cuneiform tablet in three dimensions); the first metadata (a class of “meta scrolls” that itemized the contents of the 750,000 scrolls housed at the Great Library at Alexandria); the first DW performance issues (the human resources required to manage a collection of 17 million 3.5-inch index cards), and the first ad hoc query issues (Madsen suggested attendees try querying a “data warehouse” of 17 million index cards).

In a Q&A session that followed his speech at TDWI’s Executive Summit, Madsen expanded upon this theme, arguing that some of the issues that have long bedeviled data warehouse and BI practitioners -- e.g., static or inflexible data models; counter-intuitive, difficult-to-use, or uninvolving BI tools -- have ceased to be (or will soon cease to be) issues.

He cited unconventional DW tools from vendors such as Expressor Software Corp., WhereScape Inc., and Illuminate Solutions, along with the version 2.0 release of LyzaSoft Inc.’s Lyza (a revamped analytic workbench that fuses social media and BI) as examples in kind. What’s more, existing tools have changed, too: the Teradata Inc. or SAS Institute Inc. of today differs drastically from their decade-ago selves. The bottom line, Madsen claimed, is that there’s no reason to continue paving over the BI and DW cow path. Help is out there.

New Companies, New Products

There were several new faces at TDWI Las Vegas, including software-as-a-service (SaaS) start-up SpatialKey, a company that uses geographic information system (GIS) technology to deliver location intelligence (LI). A spin-off of rich Internet applications (RIA) specialist Universal Mind, SpatialKey officially launched last September.

Its flagship product is SpatialKey On Demand, an LI offering that uses visualization -- chiefly in the form of heat maps -- to correlate business information with GIS content, via Google Maps. At this point, SpatialKey is a front-end-only play: it sucks data from in-house or SaaS applications -- managing director Tom Link used a demo that pulled data from -- and exposes an RIA Web client to users. It isn’t intended to be embedded in (or otherwise incorporated as part of) portal, custom-built, or third-party applications. Link stressed that SpatialKey is an evolving technology, however.

Also exhibiting was Bis2, a company that touts its own spin on LI, according to CTO Andrew Cardno, who has a creditable resume. He helped found Compudigm, a company (since acquired by Bally Technologies Inc.) that markets analytic technology for the casino industry. Bis2 -- pronounced “biz squared” -- uses vibrant visualizations (Cardno demonstrated several heat map-like “supergraphics”) to elucidate location or GIS data.

Cardno has developed a reputation as a data visualization maverick. Data viz-watcher Stephen Few, a principal with consultancy Perceptual Edge, argues that Cardno’s supergraphics can oversimplify or distort the data on which they purport to be based -- but other respected industry watchers (including both Madsen and CBIP John O’Brien, a principal with Connect: The Knowledge Network) praise Cardno’s unorthodox approach to BI and data visualization.

End-user analytics specialist LyzaSoft touted a new and largely unprecedented take on BI: a fusion of end-user analytic and social-media concepts and methods. Its revamped Lyza 2.0 analytic studio -- which LyzaSoft officially unveiled at TDWI -- ships with a new social-media accessory, dubbed Lyza Commons.

The (uneasy) union of social media and BI was a hot topic at TDWI -- Third Nature’s Madsen gave a standing-room-only presentation on the intersection of social media and BI -- and a consensus, endorsed by analysts such as Madsen and Shawn Rogers, a principal with BI consultancy Analytic Response, was that Lyza Commons seemed to get most things right.

Look for more on Lyza, SpatialKey, and Bis2 in a future article.

Finally, Algebraix Data Corporation took the wraps off a new analytic database entrant, A2DB, that uses technology based on mathematical set theory to deliver what it says is faster real-time data access that can run on commodity hardware. Because the A2DB is populated in real-time and in response to specific queries, it's also largely self-tuning, Algebraix officials told BI This Week. The company claims as much as a 300x speed advantage. At this point, Algebraix is still in the process of briefing analysts and has only one customer reference: a prominent, UK-based public sector services firm. Its performance and resource-saving claims, however, will likely bear watching.

Product Rebirth

Even as TDWI Las Vegas gave new or upstart vendors a chance to flex their muscles, it also functioned as a kind of rebirthing opportunity for established players.

Consider long-time SAS Subsidiary DataFlux, which touted its first unified DM offering, the DataFlux Data Management Platform. The new DataFlux DM platform is the long-percolating product of the SAS/DataFlux Project Unity effort, which kicked off almost two years ago. Under the auspices of Project Unity, SAS’ data integration assets -- chiefly, its ETL and data connectivity technologies -- were taken up by DataFlux. The new DataFlux Data Management Platform is the first fruit of that effort. It comprises a one-stop shop for data management, complete with data quality (DQ), data profiling, data monitoring, master data management (MDM), business rules management (BRM), event processing, data federation, and -- of course -- ETL.

It’s an ambitious effort on DataFlux’s part, placing it squarely into competition with DI mainstay Informatica Corp. (the marketing team of which promptly pushed back against DataFlux). A number of DataFlux luminaries, including CEO Tony Fisher, were on hand to meet with prospects, analysts, and journalists.

This year’s Las Vegas show marked the rebirth of analytic appliance specialist Dataupia Inc. Nine months ago, Dataupia had hired a new CEO -- in place of founder and DW visionary Foster Hinshaw, who had stepped down because of health concerns -- and was hemorrhaging staff. Insider reports had Dataupia struggling to attract new venture capital (VC) funding, too.

One year later, Dataupia seems back on track. It is proud of both its cash-positive status(no small feat in the current climate, officials said) and a huge (albeit not new) 510 TB DW configuration. More importantly, founder and CEO Foster Hinshaw was present on the show floor and in the conference area. Dataupia replaced some crucial human resources -- chiefly, former CTO (and respected data warehousing technologist) John O’Brien and long-time director of marketing, Samantha Stone -- but Hinshaw sounded genuinely optimistic about its future.

All told, this year’s TDWI Las Vegas conference had a far more optimistic feel than last year’s which -- with its smaller attendance and sober vendor presentations -- presaged one of the most difficult years in industry history. If the mood at this year’s TDWI Winter World Conference was any indication, 2010 should be far brighter.