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Is That an Appliance or a Configuration?

Data warehouse appliances are getting a lot of attention but some vendors are hopping on the bandwagon with products that are merely go-to-market configurations. Customers win either way, with lower costs and easier implementation options, but you'll have to decide if you need more of the "moving parts" that make up a complete BI and DW infrastructure.

Preconfigured "appliances" have become a hot trend in business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing (DW) and the information management imperatives of corporations. New vendors have come to market with tightly coupled packages of database, storage and server technology aimed at dramatically reducing design, implementation, maintenance and setup costs, as well as the expertise required to run BI and DW systems.

Not to be left behind, the bigger, more established vendors have jumped into the fray with new, not-quite-appliance offerings that enable customers to choose from configuration templates. While the potential cost and time savings are welcome, organizations should be careful not to view appliances (or not-quite-appliances) as a magic pill to cure complex BI and DW ills. Amid the hype, companies must remain committed to developing an enterprise BI architecture and a sustainable information management strategy rather than look at appliances as quick fixes.

Nearly all corporations today have BI at or near the top of their agendas. Yet they are finding out that ramping up BI and DW infrastructures is a big challenge. This exploration often brings sticker shock as CIOs encounter the potential costs of new software, servers, storage and services.

In this arena, the hot product of the moment is the data warehouse appliance. The idea of a special-purpose, plug-and-play device is already popular in networking and hardware circles. The database software world is now picking up on this idea, and it's particularly appealing for BI and DW initiatives because that’s where the pain is acute and where past practice has been to set those activities aside on separate systems to avoid dragging down the performance of transaction systems.

DATAllegro, Netezza and Greenplum working with Sun have accelerated the DW appliances market. All three make use of some assemblage of open-source database software, the Linux operating system and commodity hardware and storage. These vendors are aiming to do what Teradata has been doing for more than two decades: market a "database machine" for decision support. So is Kognitio, which was founded in 1988 as WhiteCross by Teradata renegades. Kognitio offers the WX2 appliance, which the company claims eliminates one of the most challenging of a database administrator’s responsibilities, indexing. Appliance vendors are putting competitive pressure on Teradata, which is viewed as expensive, as well as on the primary general-purpose database providers, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle, by providing systems tailored specifically to BI and analytical queries.

DW appliances try to commoditize factors that made Teradata unique. Teradata focused on producing a massively parallel processing (MPP) platform that used a proprietary interconnect, called BYNET, that has long been considered much faster than Ethernet, Infiniband or other standard networking approaches. The DW appliance vendors believe that times have changed and that by using commodity parts they can address the majority of analytical queries at a much lower price.

The appliance buzz is not lost on HP, IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems. Right now, however, with the possible exception of Sun, their offerings tend more toward "packages" than appliances. HP’s go-to-market strategy is based on size configurations; it is ramping up Neoview, which is based on the former Tandem NonStop MPP technology altered to handle BI, data warehousing and analytics. IBM takes the configuration approach further with its Balanced Configuration Units of hardware, software and storage. A key enabler is IBM’s DB2 version 9 (code-named "Viper"), which provides greater self-tuning, built-in data movement and compression technology.

Sun offers Information Appliance Foundations, which are combinations of Oracle 10g and Sun servers and storage. It’s interesting to see Sun and Oracle partnering again, given the rift that soured this once-famous duo when Oracle jumped on the Linux bandwagon. Sun is also a key partner of Greenplum’s, which is counting on Sun’s channel and has produced a true DW appliance to work with Sun’s "Thumper" Sun Fire X4500 data server.

The bottom line is that some appliances are appliances and some are merely go-to-market configurations. Companies should keep that in mind when evaluating what the vendors have to offer and decide whether they want a stand-alone DW appliance or just a smarter, more price-sensitive configuration of a general-purpose system tailored for BI, DW and analytics.

The appliance trend signals a new stage of maturity in the BI and DW markets. As companies come to depend on BI and new analytical applications for management processes, such as yield management and pricing optimization to drive operations, timely information and analysis are ever more critical. But in their quest for solutions that will deliver competitive advantage quickly, companies must assess the options carefully.

Technology advances and converging trends toward commoditization of hardware, chips, storage, network interconnects and even database software are making the DW appliance a realistic option. However, these systems are new, and inside, vendors are trying to implement pretty advanced database technology on top of open systems. Before ripping out established DW systems, companies should focus appliances on single-purpose, test projects first.

Perhaps the clearest change in the market is that the pressure from the DW appliance vendors is forcing the big players – those that can package more of the "moving parts" that make up a complete BI and DW infrastructure – to establish clearer configurations and pricing. Companies should benefit from these better integrated, value-priced packages.

David Stodder is vice president and research director of Information Management and IT Performance Management at Ventana Research. He was previously editorial director and editor-in-chief of Intelligent Enterprise. Write him at [email protected].