Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of Birthrights and DNA in the BI Cloud World

I have been so busy getting ramped up on GoodData that I haven’t had a minute to post here in over a week.  On Friday, I am headed out to our R&D Center in Prague, Czech Republic - looks horrible doesn't it? :) - for a week to do a brain-meld with our engineering team and deep-dive the GoodData architecture. I’ve learned a lot about it in the past two weeks but clearly, there’s nothing like sitting down with the hard-core developers and discovering how the sausage has really been made for the past two years.

One of the unique things about this platform is the fact it was designed for the cloud from the get-go. “Born and bred in the cloud” as they say.  And that was several years ago, before the cloud “explosion”, when the idea of running a full BI stack in the cloud was just a fantasy to most people.  They said it couldn’t be done (matter of fact, some folks still claim that, but reality proved them wrong in 2009) but Roman Stanek and his guys did it and I think the results speak for themselves (here's one of many examples).

I think the “born and bred in the cloud” stamp is important because there is so much hype and hyperbole about all things “cloud” these days. Especially in the BI space.  A lot of times when you hear or read things about clouds, it tends to feel like this (with apologies to my Thailand readers who obviously understand that script).

To separate the wheat from the chaff, you really have to ask the right questions. Namely, is your architecture really cloud-based or did you simply throw bits over the wall onto a bunch of hosted boxes (or VMs)?  Do you understand the meaning and implications of real multi-tenancy? Are you simply shifting technology because it’s hip (marketing-wise), or do you truly possess cloud DNA? And on the non-technical side, do the economics make sense?

In the mid-1990s, ASPs (application service providers) were all the rage. Everyone wanted to “go ASP”.  I worked for some of them. But the “software” crawled, got in the users’ way, was hell to maintain and deploy, and the costing model didn’t work.  Many (most) went belly-up. But hey, at the time, it sounded good and the VCs wrote checks.  But already back then, painful lessons were learned.  Namely that it’s virtually impossible to change horses in the middle of a race. 

The inherent value of “born and bred in the cloud” platforms is not simply technical to me.  Clearly the engineering is intricate and “cool”, but what’s really at stake is what Roman calls “price-based costing”.  (Speaking of pricing and clouds, check out Roman’s latest blog post, it’s √† propos!).  This is a Peter Drucker concept but it applies really nicely to cloud-based economics.    

Price-based costing is defined as “choosing a desired sales price and costing out production to meet that sales price with a desired profit margin”.  The idea is to first determine what you want to charge for a product or service, and then work the development economics backwards to achieve that price point. When you’re starting from scratch with a cloud-based technology, you can pull that off, because parameters, cost and elasticity are linearly deterministic.  The up-front costs are fairly low and the flexibility is fantastic.  Additionally, the tools are cheap, commonly available and simple.  

Consider that the GoodData backend is almost all coded in Perl on Linux with a REST interface!  (I’m not suggesting Perl or Linux are “simplistic” but I worked the MSFT development stack all my life, and I can see orders of magnitude in complexity reduction here).  

So now, if you have legacy bits and a “ground-based” engineering platform (and people), you’re stuck on a price structure in this bearish economy, and you can’t just flip to a cloud model as a panacea, no matter what your Marketing people tell you.  Whether you sell proprietary or open source software, you’re in the same predicament. Sure, you can provide less functionality or cripple your offering (or worse yet, try to make do with less people), but just throwing it inside a “cloud” won’t do it economically, and the outcome will likely be painful. The DNA just isn’t there. 

So when some BI vendors simply slap some code (open source or not) onto AMIs (say like Mondrian for example) and call it a BI on-demand offering with a ROLAP engine, it makes me wonder if they “get” the concept at all.  Mind you I ponder the same thing about big league BI tooling players who simply re-package their (oh so heavy) bits into virtual boxes and call it a cloud day as well. 

With a genuine “born and bred” cloud model, you have fine grained leeway in adjusting the pricing dial. Guess what, you can even turn it down all the way to zero and still survive for a long time at given data volumes.  At GoodData, for example, you can get 10MB accounts for free.  Not a huge amount, certainly, yet sufficient to “play with”.  But no matter how many people sign up for that, GoodData’s cloud platform can handle it both volume wise and cost wise at ridiculous scale and at the flip of a switch.  Scalability in a “born and bred” cloud platform is very (did I say very?) cheap.  And pricing can be finely tuned by throttling the technology, not the other way around. And this isn’t about taking a loss for marketing purposes. GoodData, like any other sound business (except OSS maybe), isn’t about giving stuff away for free, believe you me.

So I guess my point would be: caveat emptor.  The next time you’re considering replacing that big honking on-premise BI tool with the vendor’s “new improved” cloud-based on-demand version, check under the hood and make sure that “born and bred” DNA is there (hint: not likely).  And the next time you’re considering a “native” SaaS cloud vendor for your BI analytics, ask the right questions about what makes their backend tick.  You might be in for an interesting smoke and mirrors show.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On Bringing the Good News While Clearing Out Fungus.

I wanted to spend a little time sharing some good news with you.  I am going to be Technical Evangelist for a relatively new company called GoodData.  As evangelism means "bringing the Good News" to the world, this is truly a match made in Heaven for yours truly, as I will now be bringing the GoodData news to the world.

Many of you will have heard about GoodData before of course.  Most people in our industry know it was founded by serial entrepreneur Roman Stanek of NetBeans and Systinet fame.  Sun acquired NetBeans circa 1999 for $10M and HP grabbed Systinet in 2006 for a mere bag of shells ($100M of them actually). 

GoodData is backed by heavy-hitting investors including Andreessen Horowitz  (Marc was also an initial angel investor) but also O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures  and General Catalyst.  It's always nice when you can point to Marc Andreessen pitching your company on CNNMoney.  GoodData also cleared another funding round last week as anyone following our industry will have heard.  This kind of news does not go unnoticed these days.

So what is GoodData about?  GoodData is an on-demand business intelligence platform for collaborative analytics (phew!).  This means the software runs in the cloud (Amazon's EC2 to be precise), so clearly the model benefits from all the usual technical, deployment, and financial benefits SaaS brings to the table.  But more importantly, and what really sold me on the concept, is the following equation (and those who follow me know my affinity for all things KISS):
gd = BI - BS

In English, this says GoodData is business intelligence without all the "bullshiitake" (term borrowed from my hero Guy Kawasaki).  So let's talk a little bit about that breed of mushroom.

  • When you need to implement a BI project but depend on IT to setup infrastructure and purchase software before you can even get started, that's bullshiitake.
  • When you need a PhD or significant training to start using a complicated overkill BI tool, that's bullshiitake.
  • When it takes you weeks or even months to analyze time-critical data for your company and show results to an impatient boss, that's bullshiitake.
  • When you can't collaborate with your peers and customers (internal or external) or integrate with outside apps while doing agile BI, that's bullshiitake.

GoodData represents a new way of thinking and acting about BI by removing these "mushrooms".  In that sense, GoodData is really re-inventing how BI consumers and producers interact, behave, grow, and produce results together.   And that, to me, goes way beyond a pure technology play.  It is a “next curve” move and an industry-shifting vision I wanted to help forge.

So in the coming weeks and months, I am going to be talking about the technical and social aspects of this industry-shifting platform. You'll be able to reach me at my new work email and I will be twitting on the @gooddata stream as well.

My pitch to BI professionals will be simple. If you seek independence, control of your environment, quick and deep results, and the flexibility to enhance your company’s bottom line, then you need to try out GoodData. We represent a fundamental new way of thinking about BI.  My role will be to show you how and why.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

BI in a New York Minute is Born

In my last post, I mentioned I was going to do a "trial & error" run on a recent concept of providing weekly BI tidbits (news items) for people on the go.  Having had some time to reflect on this endeavor a little further over the weekend, and after consulting with some key people, I've decided to try another tack.  Fact is, I prefer keeping my main blog for "deeper" less frequent posts. 

So instead, I've decided to create another way to dessiminate this information. Additionally, I'm giving up on the idea of posting items on a weekly basis. Why cover weekly periods when in fact, BI news is occurring pretty much 24/7 in real time nowadays including weekends.  

To deliver better, I have created a new blog called "BI News in a New York Minute" where I simply post tidbits in real time.  When I get them, you get them.  People can subscribe to this stream via the blog (obviously) or by pulling feeds from http://biminute.blogspot.com/atom.xml.  Additionally, I've linked BI News in a New York Minute to Twitter so updates are also broadcast there when available (almost, but not annoyingly, in real time).  So if you aren't following me in twitland yet, point here and click "follow" :)

This is just one modality of a more general media concept I am working on for the Business Intelligence industry.  In the meantime, I am hopeful (and grateful if) you will give me feedback and suggestions!

Yours in BI.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Your Weekly BI News in a “New York Minute”

I’m a glutton for BI information to the point of addiction. A day rarely goes by without my “scanning” three hundred or so feeds, blogs, twits, websites and other news and information sources pertaining to business intelligence.  I did the same thing when I was on the software development side, mind you, but using significantly less online sources and way more books. I find BI to be so dynamic an industry that by the time most books are published, the information is already obsolete.  And that’s just on the technical side.  On the business front, things change and evolve even faster.

So I started looking around for an aggregated “digest” of the day’s salient BI news points. I was looking for something that spanned the multitude of industry areas in BI from engineering and product news (platform to front-end), to business development, partnerships, personnel (who quit, joined or got fired), distribution (SaaS and cloud issues), venture funding, important conferences, and so on.  In a nutshell, all the areas that affect our industry one way or another. To my surprise, I couldn’t find anything readily available.  Something someone could take on a train or pull down to a mobile device during a daily commute to get a quick “scoop” on the week’s happenings in BI.

Then I figured, why not try my hand at compiling such a list on a weekly basis.  I know this is fairly subjective, but while scanning my own sources, I always “pull over” several items for more in-depth examination. I do this very quickly (I’m a very fast reader) and often “bucketize” these links using Delicious.com for further examination and/or analysis.  Clearly people have different areas of interest but I figured this pruned list could benefit some folks with no more than a “New York Minute” to spare.

I’m not sure how best to format and present this yet. I didn’t want to start off with some sort of mailing list offering because, quite honestly, I’ve never stuck with a mailing list subscription more than a couple of weeks myself.  So for now I’m going to try and post this on my blog on a weekly basis every Friday.  If I detect minimal interest, then I’ll try another approach.  I'll also include more items in future weeks.  This is more of a "trial and error" endeavor at this point.  Meanwhile, and without further ado (or order), here’s my BI Digest for the week of October 5th, 2009 "in a New York Minute".
  • Discrete SaaS player 1010Data scores a big contract in the retails space by signing up Dollar General.
  • MicroStrategy is far from Open Source but giving away software for free nevertheless now. Trojan horse or good value?
  • Awesome webinar on what was learned in the past 20 years in BI compliments of Claudia Imhoff and WhereScape
  • "But can it core a apple"? On integrating OLTP and OLAP in the same database engine. One of the most commented (and educational, for me) Curt Monash posts I’ve seen.
  • First of a two-part in-depth series on MapReduce vs. relational databases.
  • You might not be paying your DBA enough money to put up with this (alternatively, you might be using the wrong DBMS platform ).
  • BI and DW “implementors“ take heed. You may need more duct tape after all (this doesn’t just apply to the software development community, believe me).
  • For a deep (and I mean deep) dive into what customer analytics in retail are all about.
  • A really novel (read: smart) way to engage your market without the BS, hassle and expenses of conventional physical conferences as described by Merv Adrian who tried it.
  • Dashboards in Excel 2010 (yawn). Sorry it’s been hard to get excited about MSFT BI in, oh say about 18 months now.
  • Can (or should) InfoBright actually kick MonetDB’s rear-end? The numbers are (almost) in.
  • In-memory databases and the Kognitio men who love them.
  • Well, looks like nobody is using EC2 after all (NOT!)
  • Larry invites Marc to Oracle Open World next week. See rumors fly...
  • At least one person is excited about Gemini (but it’s a monkey so..).
  • If you live and breathe “fabric” and grok fiber over Ethernet, this one’s for you.

And that's the way BI is.  Goodnight, and enjoy your weekend!