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Cindi Howson

Oracle Announces Exalytics for In-Memory, Visual BI

At Oracle Open World, the company announced a new combination hardware/software solution, laying down the gauntlet to SAP and specialty visualization vendors.

Oracle announced a new appliance dubbed Exalytics this week, further boosting the vendor’s BI capabilities. The product is currently in beta and is expected to be generally available by the end of the year.

Exalytics is a combination hardware/software solution that brings in-memory and visual discovery into the OBI EE 11g product line. It is the latest addition to Oracle’s expanding collection of engineered systems that includes Exadata for transaction processing and data warehouse and Exalogic for the middle-tier application server. In previous blogs and product reviews, I’ve been critical of Oracle’s lack of innovation and lackluster commitment to in-memory. This solution addresses both criticisms.

Oracle acquired TimesTen in 2005, an in-memory database used predominantly for transaction processing. Support for TimesTen as a data source was added to OBI EE 11g last August 2010, but Oracle gave the impression it was more check-mark to having in-memory for BI, not a deeper integration. Oracle argued that in-memory is not the only way to boost performance. There’s Exadata (for example)!

It is true that for speed-of-thought analysis, there are multiple ways to achieve performance, and in-memory is just one approach. However, it’s an important one, both more flexible than, say, indexes and cheaper than SSD; with SAP releasing HANA (an in-memory appliance) and the rapid growth of vendors such as QlikTech and Tableau, Oracle has been lagging in this area.

With the Exalytics appliance, TimesTen has been enhanced for columnar compression, additional analytic functions (such as WHEN and RANK), and tuned for analytic queries (such as subqueries). There is a new, adaptive in-memory cache and summary advisory to determine what should go in memory and what is better left on disk. An administrator can override the advisor’s selections. Both the business metadata layer from OBI EE as well as selected data sets are loaded into memory. Similar to HANA but in stark contrast to QlikTech, Exalytics can be queried with straight SQL. Another differentiator to Exalytics is that Essbase has also been optimized for in-memory, allowing for better performance in planning and forecasting applications. From a hardware point of view, the appliance has 1 TB of DRAM running on four Intel Xeon E7-4800 processors.

In Oracle’s own testing, the vendor has cited 20 times faster performance than current OBI EE implementations. One beta customer cited 100 times better performance in some drill paths. One of the vendor’s smartest moves is ensuring that Exalytics complements rather than competes with Exadata. The Exalytics system plugs into Exadata via two InfiniBand ports. This approach also addresses customers’ concerns about what to do when all the data doesn’t fit into memory.

In addition to in-memory, the upcoming release includes visual discovery capabilities. Previously, Oracle OEM’d Tableau, an agreement established by Hyperion prior to that acquisition. The agreement was discontinued earlier this year. Exalytics includes such features as micro charts and trellis charts (also known as small multiples). There is a new “Presentation Suggestion Engine” that will also recommend a visualization based on the data, no doubt an idea taken from Tableau’s “Show Me” feature. All of this is a vast improvement for current customers and for the Oracle’s BI positioning.

However, based on an early demo of the controlled beta, I don’t think it’s a slam dunk to beat more nimble competitors. Slow them, perhaps, but beat them? I’m not convinced. The rise of visual discovery tools has as much to do with the visual appeal and rapid time to insight of the products as with their ease of deployment. Although Exalytics may solve some issues with ease of deployment and performance tuning, the enterprise architecture of OBI EE and its dependence on Fusion middleware components makes it less attractive to lines of business and SMBs.

Furthermore, there are some things that competitive products do better. For example in Tableau and Tibco Spotfire, it’s the powerful auto filters and data brushing that Exalytics does not appear to address. In QlikTech, the set analysis and faceted search are better. (For more details and comparisons on how visual discovery vendors compare, refer to the recently updated BI Scorecard Product and Vendor Summary here.)

Further, it seems that the new visualization capabilities are tied to the Exalytics appliance. This can be a tough sell for customers who have already invested in OBI EE software and were not otherwise planning hardware expenses. I understand that the interactive, visual experience would be less powerful if the environment were slow, but I’d like to see Oracle offer some of the software improvements as part of the standard OBI EE upgrade. MicroStrategy, in contrast, recently released Visual Insight as part of its Report Service license, a module most customers have already invested in.

Beyond these criticisms, that Oracle is releasing a major new appliance, with powerful visual and in-memory capabilities only one year after OBI EE 11g was released, seems to show that Oracle is serious about in-memory and more capable of delivering BI innovation. I look forward to putting the new product to the test and to hearing more about pricing and packaging.


Cindi Howson

About the Author

Cindi Howson is a TDWI faculty member and the founder of BI Scorecard, a resource for in-depth BI tool evaluations based on exclusive hands-on testing. She is the author of Successful Business Intelligence: Secrets to Making BI a Killer App, SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0, The Complete Reference and is a frequent contributor to Information Week. Prior to founding BI Scorecard, Howson was a manager at Deloitte & Touche and a BI standards leader for a Fortune 500 company. She has an MBA from Rice University.

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