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Appliances and Solid State to Mobile and Excel: Reflections on Teradata Partners 2010

The Teradata Partners User Conference is one of the largest dedicated data warehousing conferences, pulling BI professionals from all over the world. Its attendees are collectively the most sophisticated users of BI anywhere. Given that Teradata is reinvigorated since the spinoff from NCR and more nimble and responsive, this is a good fit. Here are highlights of what I learned in my brief (1 day) visit to Partners.

Teradata Appliances

Teradata is having good success selling the 2650 machine, which customers are using primarily for departmental warehouses and dependent data marts. Customers like the product because unlike some competitors (e.g. Netezza), the box is easily expandable and highly scalable. You buy only the nodes you need, and if you reach the capacity of the box, you simply buy another, connect it with the first via gigabyte Ethernet, and redistribute the data. With other appliances, you need a forklift upgrade. (Although a Netezza customer said this wasn’t a major inconvenience.) The only downside to the 2650 appliance is that many people still don’t know that it exists. And Teradata, which always priced its products at a premium, recently lowered the list price on the 2650, making it competitively affordable.

Solid State

I also had a chance to bump into the always pleasant and insightful Dan Graham, who was recently promoted to general manager of enterprise systems at Teradata Labs. Congrats Dan! In his new role, he is spending a lot of time thinking about how to integrate solid state disk into Teradata’s big iron. He said it’s a big challenge to do it right and he’s determined to make Teradata a leader in dynamic allocation of data to solid state drives. He also said solid state also has thorny implications for pricing.


I also had fun talking with Dan two weeks ago at Hadoop World where he was nonplussed about comments made by some of the more exuberant voices in the Hadoop and NoSQL community about how Hadoop will displace relational databases. A recent Tweet of his sums it up: “It’s Hadoop 1.ohmygod.” Seriously, as a distributed file system, Hadoop in its current and near future states won’t offer the analytical interactivity of a relational database. The two are complementary, not competitive—at least for the foreseeable future.

Viz Contenders

Tableau. Visualization vendor Tableau had a sizable booth at Partners, reflecting its rising star status. Tableau is a Windows desktop tool that is easy to install, easy to use, and affordable (less than $1,000 for a single user). It makes it easy for users to explore data visually and publish live views to a server environment ($10,000+) for others to consume. It works well with new analytic appliances because it queries remote databases, and its recently added in-memory database can cache frequently used data sets to improve performance.

BIS2. Also exhibiting was BIS2, an up-and-coming visualization vendor, that takes a different approach to the graphical display quantitative information than Tableau. BIS2 is a server-based environment that generates complex SQL against large, complex relational databases to render what it calls “super graphics.” These are rich, multi-layered visualizations often displayed as heatmaps. Unlike the desktop-oriented Tableau, BIS2 is an enterprise visualization platform that can be embedded in other applications. Today, most of the world’s airlines use BIS2.

Managed Excel

I bumped into Donald Farmer of Microsoft, Suzanne Hoffman of Simba, and Sam Tawfik of Teradata within about 30 minutes of each other, and they all had the same message: Excel now runs directly against major databases without a mid-tier. Microsoft’s PowerPivot queries remote data sources to populate a scalable, local column store, whereas Teradata’s newly launched and misnamed Teradata OLAP enables Excel to query Teradata using MDX running against Aggregate Join Indexes (a virtual cube.) Bravo Teradata for getting out in front of the new charge to make Excel a managed BI environment. Of course, other vendors have already jumped on that bandwagon, including, including Lyzasoft, Quest (Toad), and startup Bonavista Systems (which makes Excel look like Tableau.) Others that will soon join the parade are SAP with its BEx replacement called Pioneer and IBM Cognos with desktop product in the labs.

Farmer spooked me a bit when he said one customer in Europe has deployed 100,000 copies of PowerPivot. I’ve assumed PowerPivot would be sparsely deployed since it’s an Excel add-in designed for hard core data jockeys. But Microsoft thinks otherwise: Donald reminded me that PowerPivot is free and that it will soon be included in trial versions of Microsoft Office to improve the product’s visibility outside of BI professionals, who are the product’s biggest champions currently. When I voiced concern about spreadmart proliferation among PowerPivot users, he said the big gating factor is the 10MB limit for attachments imposed by most email servers. Whew! He also said Microsoft is trying to make SharePoint so attractive as a collaboration platform that it becomes the preferred method for sharing PowerPivot data. We’ll see!


MicroStrategy. I talked briefly with MicroStrategy’s lead man, Sanju Bansal on the show floor, and attended the company’s Tuesday evening session on mobile BI. I told Sanju that I admired MicroStrategy’s “make or break” bet on mobile BI, and its first mover advantage. I added that if the bet succeeds, MicroStrategy could be a very different company in five years, selling information-driven apps and development platforms into a consumer market. Sanju corrected some of my conjectures. He said the bet on mobile was a “make” play only and the target market for its mobile products will be business customers, not consumers.

MicroStrategy, like Teradata, has been pigeonholed at the high-end of the BI market for a long time, generating much of its revenues from its installed base. To continue to grow and exert influence over the industry, it needs to make a legitimate play for the “low end” where there are more customers. MicroStrategy estimates that there are 5 billion mobile users. That’s pretty big low-end market to play in and is a contributing factor to its aggressive push into the mobile arena.

Mobile Visualization. What’s great about mobile BI is that the limited screen real estate forces developers to adhere to key visualization principles, like “less is more.” Mark LaRow of Microstrategy told me a few months ago that mobile BI apps are more usable than their Web counterparts because they are purpose-built and highly focused. They are designed to enable a single function, and as a result, mobile applications are much more intuitive to use than general-purpose BI applications that are overloaded with functionality. Sometimes strait jackets bring enlightenment.

Posted on October 28, 2010


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