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SAS Institute, a long-established provider analytics software, showed off its latest technology innovations and product road maps at its recent analyst conference. In a very competitive market, SAS is not standing still, and executives showed progress on the goals introduced at last year’s conference, which I coveredSAS’s Visual Analytics software, integrated with an in-memory analytics engine called LASR, remains the company’s flagship product in its modernized portfolio. CEO Jim Goodnight demonstrated Visual Analytics’ sophisticated integration with statistical capabilities, which is something the company sees as a differentiator going forward. The product already provides automated charting capabilities, forecasting and scenario analysis, and SAS probably has been doing user-experience testing, since the visual interactivity is better than what I saw last year. SAS has put Visual Analytics on a six-month release cadence, which is a fast pace but necessary to keep up with the industry.

Visual discovery alone is becoming an ante in the analytics market,vr_predanalytics_benefits_of_predictive_analytics_updated since just about every vendor has some sort of discovery product in its portfolio. For SAS to gain on its competitors, it must make advanced analytic capabilities part of the product. In this regard, Dr. Goodnight demonstrated the software’s visual statistics capabilities, which can switch quickly from visual discovery into regression analysis running multiple models simultaneously and then optimize the best model. The statistical product is scheduled for availability in the second half of this year. With the ability to automatically create multiple models and output summary statistics and model parameters, users can create and optimize models in a more timely fashion, so the information can be come actionable sooner. In our research on predictive analytics, the most participants (68%) cited competitive advantage as a benefit of predictive analytics, and companies that are able to update their models daily or more often, our research also shows, are very satisfied with their predictive analytics tools more often than others are. The ability to create models in an agile and timely manner is valuable for various uses in a range of industries.

There are three ways that SAS allows high performance computing. The first is the more traditional grid approach which distributes processing across multiple nodes. The second is the in-database approach that allows SAS to run as a process inside of the database. vr_Big_Data_Analytics_08_top_capabilities_of_big_data_analyticsThe third is extracting data and running it in-memory. The system has the flexibility to run on different large-scale database types such as MPP as well Hadoop infrastructure through PIG and HIVE. This is important because for 64 percent of organizations, the ability to run predictive analytics on big data is a priority, according to our recently released research on big data analytics. SAS can run via MapReduce or directly access the underlying Hadoop Distributed File System and pull the data into LASR, the SAS in-memory system. SAS works with almost all commercial Hadoop implementations, including Cloudera, Hortonworks, EMC’s Pivotal and IBM’s InfoSphere BigInsights. The ability to put analytical processes into the MapReduce paradigm is compelling as it enables predictive analytics on big data sets in Hadoop, though the immaturity of initiatives such as YARN may relegate the jobs to batch processing for the time being. The flexibility of LASR and the associated portfolio can help organizations overcome the challenge of architectural integration, which is the most widespread technological barrier to predictive analytics (for 55% of participants in that research). Of note is that the SAS approach provides purely analytical engine, and since there is no SQL involved in the algorithms, its overhead related to SQL is non-existent and it runs directly on the supporting system’s resources.

As well as innovating with Visual Analytics and Hadoop, SAS has a clear direction in its road map, intending to integrate the data integration and data quality aspects of the portfolio in a singlevr_Info_Optimization_04_basic_information_tasks_consume_time workflow with the Visual Analytics product. Indeed, data preparation is still a key sticking point for organizations. According to our benchmark research on information optimization, time spent in analytic tasks is still consumed most by data preparation (for 47%) and data quality and consistency (45%). The most valuable task, interpretation of the data, ranks fourth at 33 percent of analytics time. This is a big area of opportunity in the market, as reflected by the flurry of funding for data preparation software companies in the fourth quarter of 2013. For further analysis of SAS’s data management and big data efforts, please read my colleague Mark Smith’s analysis.

Established relationships with companies like Teradata and a reinvigorated relationship with SAP position SAS to remain at the heart of enterprise analytic architectures. In particular, the co-development effort that allow the SAS predictive analytic workbench to run on top of SAP HANA is promising, which raises the question of how aggressive SAP will be in advancing its own advanced analytic capabilities on HANA. One area where SAS could learn from SAP is in its developer ecosystem. While SAP has thousands of developers building applications for HANA, SAS could do a better job of providing the tools developers need to extend the SAS platform. SAS has been able to prosper with a walled-garden approach, but the breadth and depth of innovation across the technology and analytics industry puts this type of strategy under pressure.

Overall, SAS impressed me with what it has accomplished in the past year and the direction it is heading in. The broad-based development efforts raise a final question of where the company should focus its resources. Based on its progress in the past year, it seems that a lot has gone into visual analytics, visual statistics, LASR and alignment with the Hadoop ecosystem. In 2014, the company will continue horizontal development, but there is a renewed focus on specific analytic solutions as well. At a minimum, the company has good momentum in retail, fraud and risk management, and manufacturing. I’m encouraged by this industry-centric direction because I think that the industry needs to move away from the technology-oriented V’s toward the business-oriented W’s.

For customers already using SAS, the company’s road map is designed to capture market advantage with minimal disruption to existing environments. In particular, focusing on solutions as well as technological depth and breadth is a viable strategy. While it still may make sense for customers to look around at the innovation occurring in analytics, moving to a new system will often incur high switching costs in productivity as well as money. For companies just starting out with visual discovery or predictive analytics, SAS Visual Analytics provides a good point of entry, and SAS has a vision for more advanced analytics down the road.

Regards,

Tony Cosentino

VP and Research Director

Microsoft has been steadily pouring money into big data and business intelligence. The company of course owns the most widely used analytical tool in the world, Microsoft Excel, which our benchmark research into Spreadsheets in the Enterprise shows is not going away soon. User resistance (cited by 56% of participants) and lack of a business case (50%) are the most common reasons that spreadsheets are not being replaced in the enterprise.  The challenge is ensuring the spreadsheets are not just personally used but connected and secured into the enterprise to address consistency and a range of  and potential errors. These issues all add up to more work and maintenance as my colleague has pointed out recently.

vr_ss21_spreadsheets_arent_easily_replacedAlong with Microsoft SQL and SharePoint, Excel is at the heart of the company’s BI strategy. In particular, PowerPivot, originally introduced as an add-on for Excel 2010 and built into Excel 2013, is a discovery tool that enables exploratory analytics and data mashups. PowerPivot uses an in-memory, column store approach similar to other tools in the market. Its ability to access multiple data sources including from third parties and government through Microsoft’s Azure Marketplace, enables a robust analytical experience.

Ultimately, information sources are more important than the tool sets used on them. With the Azure Marketplace and access to other new data sources such as Hadoop through partnership with Hortonworks as my colleague assessed, Microsoft is advancing in the big data space. Microsoft has partnered with Hortonworks to bring Hadoop data into the fold through HDInsights, which enable familiar Excel environments to access HDFS via HCatalog. This approach is similar to access methods utilized by other companies, including Teradata which I wrote about last week. Microsoft stresses the 100 percent open source nature of the Hortonworks approach as a standard alternative to the multiple, more proprietary Hadoop distributions occurring throughout the industry. An important benefit for enterprises with Microsoft deployments is that Microsoft Active Directory adds security to HDInsights.

As my colleague Mark Smith recently pointed out about data discovery methods, the analytic discovery category is broad and includes visualization approaches. On the visualization side, Microsoft markets PowerView, also part of Excel 2013, which provides visual analytics and navigation on top of the Microsoft’s BI semantic model. Users also can annotate and highlight content and then embed it directly into PowerPoint presentations. This direct export feature is valuable because PowerPoint is still a critical communication vehicle in many organizations. Another visual tool, currently in preview, is the Excel add-in GeoFlow, which uses Bing Maps to render visually impressive temporal and geographic data in three dimensions. Such a 3-D visualization technique could be useful in many industries.  Our research into next generation business intelligence found that deploying geographic maps (47%) and visualizing metrics on them (41%) are becoming increasing important but Microsoft will need to further exploit location-based analytics and the need for interactivity.

Microsoft has a core advantage in being able to link its front-office tools such as Excel with its back-end systems such as SQL Server 2012 and SharePoint. In particular, having the ability to leverage a common semantic model through Microsoft Analytical Services, in what Microsoft calls its Business Intelligence Semantic Model, users can set up a dynamic exploratory environment through Excel. Once users or analysts have developed a BI work product, they can publish the work product such as a report directly or through SharePoint. This integration enables business users to share data models and solutions and manage them in common, which applies to security controls as well as giving visibility into usage statistics to see when particular applications are gaining traction with organizational users.

Usability, which our benchmark research into next-generation business intelligencevr_ss21_employee_spreadsheet_skills_are_adequate identifies as the number-one evaluation criterion in nearly two-thirds (64%) of organizations, is still a challenge for Microsoft. Excel power users will appreciate the solid capabilities of PowerPivot, but more casual users of Excel – the majority of business people – do not understand how to build pivot tables or formulas. Our research shows that only 11 percent of Excel users are power users and most skill levels are simply adequate (49%) compared to above average or excellent. While PowerView does give some added capability, a number of other vendors of visual discovery products like Tableau have focused on user experience from the ground up, so it is clear that Microsoft needs to address this shortcoming in its design environment.

When we consider more advanced analytic strategies and inclusion of advanced algorithms, Microsoft’s direction is not clear. Its Data Analysis eXpressions (DAX) can help create custom measures and calculated fields, but it is a scripting language akin to MDX. This is useful for IT professionals who are familiar with such tools, but here also business-oriented users will be challenged in using it effectively.

A wild card in Microsoft’s BI and analytics strategy is with mobile technology. Currently, Microsoft is pursuing a build-once, deploy-anywhere model based on HTML5, and is a key member of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) that is defining the standard. The HTML5 standard, which has just passed a big hurdle in terms of candidate recommendation is beginning to show value in the design of new applications that can be access through web-browsers on smartphones and tablets.  The approach of HTML5 could be challenging as our technology innovation research into mobile technology finds more organizations (39%) prefer native mobile applications from the vendors specific application stores compared to 33 percent through web-browser based method and a fifth with no preference. However, the success or failure of its Windows 8-based Surface tablet will be the real barometer of Microsoft mobile BI success since its integration with the Office franchise is a key differentiator. Early adoption of the tablet has not been strong, but Microsoft is said to be doubling down with a new version to be announced shortly. Success would put Office into the hands of the mobile workforce on a widespread basis via Microsoft devices, which could have far-reaching impacts for the mobile BI market.

As it stands now, however, Microsoft faces an uphill battle in establishing its mobile platform in a market dominated by Android and Apple iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad. If the Surface ultimately fails, Microsoft will likely have to open up Office to run on Android and iOS or risk losing its dominant position.  My colleague is quite pessimistic about Microsoft overall mobile technology efforts and its ability to overcome the reality of the existing market. Our technology innovation research into mobile technology finds that over half of organizations have a preference for their smartphone and tablet technology platform, and the first ranked smartphone priorities has Apple (50%), Android (27%) and RIM (17%) as top smartphone platforms with Microsoft a distant fourth (5%); for tablets is Apple (66%), Android (19%) and then Microsoft (8%). Based on these finding, Microsoft faces challenges on both the platform front and if they adapt their technology to support others that are more preferred in business today.

Ultimately, Microsoft is trying to pull together different initiatives across multiple internal business units that are known for being very siloed and not organized well for customers.  Ultimately, Microsoft has relied on its channel partners and customers to figure out how to not just make them work together but also think about what is possible since they are not always given clear guidance from Redmond. Recent efforts find that Microsoft is trying to come together to address the big data and business analytics challenge and the massive opportunity it represents. One area in which this is coming together is Microsoft’s cloud initiatives. Last year’s announcements of Azure virtual machines enables an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) play for Microsoft and positions Windows Azure SQL Database as a service. This could make the back end systems I’ve discussed available through a cloud-based offer, but currently this is only offered through the client version of the software.

For organizations that already have installed Microsoft as their primary BI platform and are looking for tight integration with an Excel-based discovery environment, the decision to move forward is relatively simple. The trade-off is that this package is still a bit IT-centric and may not attract as many in the larger body of business users as a more user-friendly discovery product might do and address the failings of business intelligence. Furthermore, since Microsoft is not as engaged in direct support and service as other players in this market, it will need to move the traditionally technology focused channel to help their customers become more business savvy. For marketing and other business departments, especially in high-velocity industries where usability and time-to-value is at a premium and back-end integration is secondary, other tools will be worth a look. Microsoft has great potential and with analytics being the top ranked technology innovation priority among its customers I hope that the many divisions inside the global software giant can finally come together to deliver a comprehensive approach.

Regards,

Tony Cosentino

VP and Research Director

As volumes of data grow in organizations, so do the number of deployments of Hadoop, and as Hadoop becomes widespread, more organizations demand data analysis, ease of use and visualization of large data sets. In our benchmark research on Hadoop, 88 percent of organizations said analyzing Hadoop data is important, and in our research on business analytics 89 percent said it is important to make it simpler to provide analytics and metrics to all users who need them. As my colleague Mark Smith has noted, Datameer has an ambitious plan to tackle these issues. It aims to provide a single solution in lieu of the common three-step process involving data integration, data warehouse and BI, giving analysts the ability to apply analytics and visualization to find the dynamic “why” behind data rather than just the static “what.”

The Datameer approach places Hadoop at the center of the computing environment rather than looking at it as simply another data source. This, according to company officers, allows Datameer to analyze large, diverse data sets in ways that traditional approaches cannot, which in turn enables end users to answer questions that may have fallen outside of the purview of the standard information architecture. However, Datameer does not offer its software as a replacement for traditional systems but as a complement to them. The company positions its product to analyze interaction data and data relationships to supplement transactional data analysis of which both are key types of big data that need analysis. Of course, given that most companies are not likely to rip and replace years of system investment and user loyalty, this coexistence strategy is a pragmatic one.

Datameer approaches analytics via a spreadsheet environment. This, too, is pragmatic because, as our business analytics benchmark research shows, spreadsheets are the number-one tool used to generate analytics (by 60% of organizations). Datameer provides descriptive analysis and an interactive dialog box for nested joins of large data sets, but the tool moves beyond traditional analysis with its ability to provide analytics for unstructured data. Path and pattern analyses enable discovery of patterns in massive data sets. Relational statistics, including different cluster techniques, allow for data reduction and latent variable groupings. Data parsing technology is a big part of unstructured data analysis, and Datameer provides prebuilt algorithms for social media text analytics and blogs, among other sources. In all, more than 200 prebuilt algorithms come standard in the Datameer tool set. In addition, users can access spreadsheet macros, open APIs to integrate functions and use the Predictive Model Markup Language (PMML) for model exchange.

In Datameer’s latest version 2.0 it has advanced in providing business infographics tool that provides a visualization layer that enables exploratory data analysis (EDA) through a standard library of widgets, including graphs, charts, diagrams, maps and word clouds. Visualization is one of the key areas lacking in big data deployments today. Analysts work in a free-form layout environment with an easy-to-use drag-and-drop paradigm. Datameer’s WYSIWYG editor provides real-time management of the creation and layout of infographics, allowing analysts to see exactly what the end design will look like as they create it. It also now distributes through HTML5, which allows cross-platform delivery to multiple environments. This is particularly important as Datameer is targeting the enterprise environment, and HTML5 provides a low-maintenance “build once, deploy anywhere” model for mobile platforms.

Datameer is an innovative company, but its charter is a big one, given that it is in a competitive environment at multiple levels of the value delivery chain. Its ability to seamlessly integrate analytics and visualization tools on the Hadoop platform is a unique value proposition; at the same time, it will likely need to put more effort into visualization that is available from other data discovery players. All in all, for enterprises looking to take advantage of large-scale data in the near term that don’t want to wait for other vendors to provide integrated tools on top of Hadoop, Datameer is a company to consider.

Regards,

Tony Cosentino – VP & Research Director

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