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2/4/2013
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Big Data Startup Attivio Takes On Big Rivals

Attivio has a growing number of competitors in the unified information access market, including IBM, Oracle and HP. What's its niche?

Many organizations are struggling to find ways to manage unstructured content such as email, articles, call logs, Web pages and social media posts. Making matters more complex is the fact that this data is arriving in larger volumes and at faster speeds.

Finding business insights in this mishmash of information is a challenge. And unified information access (UIA) platforms are designed to face that challenge by combining database and search technologies to perform simple processing and analysis.

Attivio, a 6-year-old startup headquartered in Newton, Mass., is one of many tech companies working on unified information products. Its Active Intelligence Engine (AIE) software platform, for instance, integrates structured and unstructured data in a single index.

[ Is your marketing team investing in data analytics and other business intelligence tools? Read more at Why CMO Tech Spending Is Good For IT. ]

According to Attivio chief technical officer Sid Probstein, the company's goal is to bridge the gap between different types of digital information. "We've been focused on UIA since the beginning. We believed very firmly that the world was going to get tired of the split between unstructured data, traditionally accessed by search engines, and structured data, traditionally accessed by business intelligence," said Probstein in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

AIE allows enterprises to use both search queries and SQL to retrieve data. "The enterprise is typically awash in silos," Probstein said. "It's very hard to get data together from different sources."

That's where Attivio has found its niche.

"We keep structured data from databases in structure," Probstein said. "We're retaining tables. We can do joins. And we support full SQL, just the way a database does." But unlike a database, AIE has an index for full-text search. "We're really a linearly scalable system that allows you to put lots of data -- structured and unstructured, articles, email, Web pages and social media -- from inside or outside the company," he explained. Users can aggregate data quickly and then use AIE to build business-related apps that access information from diverse sources.

With more than 100 employees, Attivio secured $34 million in growth capital funding last year and last month raised another $8 million from a General Electric pension fund. Its AIE products are currently deployed in a number of real-world environments, particularly in the financial industry. "Our largest clients are financial services firms that use us to build projects or applications on top of one big scalable infrastructure," said Probstein.

AIE appears well-suited to banking and financial users, who are adept at analyzing data to find market opportunities. "They are very good at assembling data and building applications," Probstein said. "In fact, if you look back at the history of computer apps, banks have traditionally built their own (programs) because no one could provide a generic app that met their needs."

Probstein acknowledges that Attivio has a growing number of competitors in the unified information access market, including such "mega-vendors" as IBM, Oracle and Hewlett-Packard via its acquisition of enterprise software company Autonomy in 2011.

"Big data" as an industry buzz phrase may be taking its lumps these days, but Probstein believes the term's underlying message is sound. "The term is getting a lot of backlash on Twitter and elsewhere," he said. "I think it's because people talk about volume and Hadoop, and they think those things are synonymous with big data."

But it's more than that, he believes. "Big data is morphing," Probstein said. "It's really about the science and art of being data-driven. If you look at companies like Amazon, they're literally changing entire industries with the way they approach (data). They do a tremendous amount of experimentation. Companies need to start doing that for themselves."

InformationWeek is conducting a survey on the state of database technology in the enterprise. Take our InformationWeek 2013 Database Technology Survey now. Survey ends Feb. 15.

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