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Seth Grimes
Seth Grimes
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Leading, Lagging And Lame BI And Data Warehousing Transformations

Lessons learned from attempts at innovation and renewal at Microsoft, Teradata, MicroStrategy and Actuate.

He not busy being born is busy dying, or so I hear, including in technology, where the rule is innovate or fail. Contrast four flavors of business intelligence/data-warehousing market transformation at segment leaders Microsoft, MicroStrategy, Teradata and Actuate.

Call the varieties "Keep up with the Joneses" (business platform leader Microsoft), "Bet the Farm" (BI-indepedent MicroStrategy), "Steady as She Goes" (enterprise data warehousing kingpin Teradata), and "Who Am I?" (BI reporting specialist and open-source leader Actuate).

Microsoft Parallel Data Warehouse

How is it that 30-plus years on, Microsoft can't shake the image among the cognoscenti of technology laggard? Never first to market, and never technically best (so far as I can tell), yet able to maintain its position by a combination of good-enough-and-sometimes-eventually-great software, strong platform integration (including with Microsoft PowerPivot), market muscle, aggressive pricing, and tenacity.

Microsoft bought DATAllegro in July 2008 with the goal of adding parallel processing to the SQL data-warehousing platform... within 18-24 months. Well, the Parallel Data Warehouse is finally here in a SQL Server 2008 Release 2 edition, announced last week at the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) conference, slated to ship next month. "The delay in release may reflect Microsoft's caution with a rather complex product," says Kurt Mackie, writing at

I see here essentially no technical innovation beyond platform integration in the 28 months since Microsoft's DATAllegro acquisition. What's in the forthcoming release? As expected, Microsoft replaced DATAllegro's Ingres open-source DBMS with SQL Server and ported from Linux to Windows.

PDW is a massively parallel processing (MPP) data-warehousing appliance and will initially be available on HP hardware. DATAllegro ran on Dell; PDW will eventually come out on Dell, Bull, and IBM hardware. Frankly, I find the notion of an "appliance" with five different hardware options quite curious. The need to bring along five hardware vendors may slow development.

Columnar storage -- pioneered by Sybase IQ like 20 years ago, now available in Vertica, ParAccel, the Infobright MySQL engine, EMC Greenplum, Aster Data's nCluster, and other analytical database systems -- will have to wait for the Denali SQL Server release, annouced last week at PASS for possible late 2011 availability.

Column-oriented stores can accelerate many analytical queries, dramatically reduce disk I/O, and slash storage requirement via aggressive compression. But Microsoft was either unwilling or unable to include it in the initial PDW edition.

SQL Server 2008 Release 2 PDW also lacks in-database analytics, the ability to embed analytical computations in the DBMS, which reduces data movement, enhances security, and simplifies application development.

Most of Microsoft's analytical DBMS competitors now support in-database analytics, including ParAccel, which is set to announce in-database capabilities in its forthcoming PADB 3.0 release.

Teradata and its Analytics Ecosystem

Teradata has a strong embedded analytics play (which I explored in Frequently Asked Questions about In-Database Analytics, sponsored by Teradata, earlier this year; Teradata also paid my expenses to attend the recent Partners conference). Like PDW, Teradata has yet to implement a column store. Otherwise, the company seems to be doing just fine as evidenced by the company's 2010 Q3 results.

Teradata's transformation has two facets: solidifying its core enterprise data warehousing platform, including further development of a lower-end appliance line, and building out its partner ecosystem, which includes diverse BI, analytics, data-integration, and services providers. This latter step hardly makes Teradata unique among analytical DBMS vendors, but it does make Teradata notable in that, unlike most others, it has the cash and capacity to buy rather than partner.

Rather than lose focus by acquiring, for instance, companies in the text-analytics, BI visualization, reporting, or location intelligence platforms, Teradata strives to provide smaller and/or specialized partners with an ideal, high-performance analytics back-end and an entrée to enterprise accounts.

Teradata also works with large BI front-end partners that include otherwise-rivals such as Microsoft and Oracle, and also with many-partnered specialists such as Hadoop-commercializer Cloudera and BI stalwart MicroStrategy.

MicroStrategy Goes Mobile

MicroStrategy has dashboards, reporting, and dimensional analysis (a.k.a. Relational OLAP) down cold. And now the company has, from all appearances, gone mobile mad. MicroStrategy is in good shape as one of the two major BI independents (the other is Information Builders) and has bet big in a bold move to vault into a dominant mobile-BI position.

What kind of bet? (I assume payoff for company co-founder and principal owner Michael Saylor will be a bigger boat.) MicroStrategy is not only refacing its products -- check out the videos and demos -- and creating a device-suited user experience with appropriate touch and gesture interface methods. MicroStrategy is also transforming itself.

According to a September Computerworld story, MicroStrategy "has deployed 1,100 Apple iPads to executives and sales personnel to conduct critical job-related tasks. The company said it expects 700 more iPads to be deployed soon." So every one of MicroStrategy's 1,800 employees will get an iPad.

A leading BI industry analyst told me a few weeks back that MicroStrategy salespeople were told to pursue only opportunities that involve mobile, leading to grumbling that they had lost half their sales pipeline. I'm betting that most lost prospects will be back.

Actuate: You Can't Run, But You Can Hide

Last transformer: mid-size reporting specialist Actuate, which has relabeled itself a bit back "The people behind BIRT." Not the sweetest-sounding label, and not a change that has reintroduced the growth the company had hoped for. What was Actuate's most recent transformative step? A similar relabeling -- a puzzling one.

First, background: BIRT is Business Intelligence and Reporting Tools -- tools, not applications or solutions -- a top-level, Actuate sponsored project within the Eclipse open-source tools environment, providing reporting for Java/J2EE applications, and the core of a corresponding Actuate commercial product portfolio that the company calls ActuateOne. ActuateOne includes a newer component, Xenos "document and data transformation" and integration software.

Actuate recently changed its stock ticker symbol change, from ACTU to BIRT. "This change underscores the momentum Actuate has seen with BIRT," said CEO Pete Cittadini. "It is time to ensure that it is apparent to all that we are the people behind BIRT."

What momentum is that?

Actuate reported 3rd quarter results of $5.1 million in BIRT-related business out of non-GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) revenue of $40.5 million, $39.8 million GAAP, so that BIRT represents under 15% of latest-quarter revenues. For this the company changed its ticker symbol?!

The biggest effect I see is to make past share prices inaccessible for many retail investors... noting that the $5.17 November 15 closing price is down from a high of $8.74 on Oct 30 2007 (and down from a bubble peak of over $34 in 2000). History is blank at Yahoo Finance, although what's past is provided by MSN Money.

After looking at Actuate's Q3 report, an IT industry executive commented to me, "In terms of their health, the 106% license revenue growth looks great until you see that $11.0M were 'related to the favorable resolution of software licensing dispute with IBM,' which means that license revenues, net of the presumably one-time item, were $6.8M *down* 20% year over year. I can't stand when people make claims like that -- as soon as you scratch the surface, what's presented as good news turns out to be bad news."

To be fair, the executive I spoke to likes Actuate's cash position but didn't love the long-term finanicals, with 2009 revenue less than 2006 revenue, licensing revenues declining in favor of a higher maintenance mix. My contact comments, "frankly, as an open-source oriented business, I'm surprised they're shrinking professional services as well. I'd think they'd be cranking that up."

In Actuate's defense, I am 100% sure that BIRT is delivering business value to users, who include software developers and systems integrators who (legitimately) use the open-source tools without paying Actuate a dime, multiples beyond what Actuate earns from the software. If that business value were reflected in licensing revenues, BIRT would represent much more than 15% of Actuate's gross income.

As my executive friend commented to me, "business model transitions are very hard. The old saw about changing the engines mid-flight is true."

Change Is Constant

Another old saw says that change is constant. (That one dates back 2,500 years to Heraclitus.) I've reported four models of BI/DW vendor transformation.

Microsoft, with SQL Server 2008 R2 Parallel Data Warehouse, is reacting to change, to technical innovation that has left it an enterprise data warehousing laggard. MicroStrategy is welcoming change, transforming itself and its products, anticipating even more.

Teradata continues to solidify rather than transform its core and has, instead, evolved its business model to build an ecosystem of partners that will carry/accompany it into new realms. And Actuate, well, seems to think that a symbolic change will transform what a new business model did not. There's much to learn from each approach and each experience.

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