Solving data challenges

Don’t believe the hype. Across sport, and music, you hear it all of the time. A band come through with a massive buzz, release one decent song and then fade away. A young footballer starts in a blaze of glory, but ends up washed up and forgotten five years later. Hype is no guarantee of success.

It’s the same in enterprise technology, and especially true in the ever-expanding world of data storage and analysis.

Cloud data warehouses promised the world, but have they delivered? The publicity was carefully managed, but reality has got in the way of the hype. The sheer volume of data means pricing has rocketed for businesses. Not only that, but performance has slowed. Simply, organisations are getting less bang for their buck.

This is where Actian comes in.

The Californian company is a market leader in hybrid data management, cloud integration and analytics solutions, helping thousands of businesses across the globe and industries solve their data challenges. It caused ripples, but very little surprise, when last year HCL Technologies acquired 80% and Sumera Equity Partners took 20% of Actian for $330 million.

In short, Actian is living up to the hype.

In April, it unveiled Avalanche, the industry’s first 3rd generation cloud data warehouse. Billed as a high-performance hybrid cloud and on-premise data warehouse that delivers a managed service, Avalanche is offered on a pay-as-you-go model, which means no unexpectedly sharp cost increases and, in just 20 minutes, you can create a cluster, load your data and start analysing it.

“Avalanche allows our customers to run very large date appliances with large numbers of users – hundreds or even thousands,” says Emma McGrattan, Actian’s SVP of Engineering. “For example, in financial services you give somebody a copy of a tool like Power BI and they start building their own dashboards and queries, and Microsoft have made that really easy to do.

“But the queries that can be generated behind the scenes can be really quite a beast, because you won’t get people who are well-trained in writing queries doing it. So typically what we’re seeing with Avalanche is that it’s massively appealing when it’s large-scale, where there’s a need to have a large number of users with complex queries hitting large volumes of data.

“We also continue to have an on-premise footprint. In those environments where hyper-capability matters, other products can’t manage that. There isn’t an on-premise equivalent, so we think there’s a really large appeal there.”

Actian’s portfolio of products is three-part: data integration, which handles data movement of any scale between clouds, between clouds and on-premise, and between on-premise systems; data management technologies, which tend to be traditional products which have been powering business operations for a number of decades; and data analytics products. This is where Avalanche lives.

“We are very excited about it,” adds McGrattan. “When we look at market trends on analytics, the days of the massive appliance spenders owning the entire footprint are behind us and people are realising they can easily move to the cloud and free up space on the existing appliances.”

It is this hybrid approach – marrying on-premise and cloud platforms – that appears to be particularly appealing to businesses.

“We’ve got a number of customers where they have traditional business systems that they are reluctant to change, but they’re using the cloud for analytics,” says McGrattan. “We address on-premise and cloud data and find a way to bring that together.

“I also think regulatory compliance is a big driver of the hybrid approach. In Europe, with concerns around GDPR, organisations are making sure there is minimal risk attached to their data. In financial services and healthcare, we’ve seen a reticence to move data to the cloud, because of the compliance requirements and they want to be sure that the regulators can see the steps they should be performing on the data. Avalanche means we can give them an on-premise footprint and a cloud footprint and then we have the ability to write queries which can actually join the data from the on-premise footprint and the cloud footprint seamlessly.”

While the approach of most data warehousing companies is to tell businesses to bring all of the data to them in order to process it in a single location, Actian does it differently.

“It can get quite expensive doing it like that,” says McGrattan. “Our approach is to tell organisations to leave the data wherever it’s being generated and what we’ll do is bring the queries processing power to the data.

“So let’s say you want a list of customers who have spent over $1 million in the last quarter because you want to join that with some other data for a report. We’ll just reach out to the Oracle database there to get the answers you need to join with the data you need, instead of having to copy the entire data set.

“The idea of putting all data into a massive data lake hasn’t worked, because the volumes are really high and those lakes are really slow. So we decided to go with the approach of leaving the data where it is. Our way means businesses quickly learn where all of the data sources across their organisation are, how they’re being used and the value they’re getting from them.”

Emma McGrattan, SVP of Engineering, Actian

Companies also want help seeing the wood for the trees. To improve hyper-personalisation interaction with their customers, they need to harness data from multiple sources into one overall view. Actian solves that by bringing all of the different strands of data together.

Its approach works across a myriad of industries; some more unlikely than others.

“Very understandably a lot of our clients don’t like us talking about the work we do with them but one client in the UK, Oxford University, is keen to publicise it,” says McGrattan. “It has a clinical trials services unit, and it’s trying to identify the causes of preventable deaths, such as heart-attacks, diabetes and so on.

“It’s doing this by tracking 5,000 data points from 500,000 individuals. So it’s tracking billions of data points every day and trying to identify the causes of heart attacks and cancers so it can eradicate them. It has huge data volumes and needs to be able to react to the data in real time, and be able to package that data up so it can provide it to drug manufacturers and health services. It uses our tech to do all of that.

“The Irish Revenue Commission also runs everything it does on our technology. It researched people who weren’t paying taxes and now uses that data to identify people who are following the same steps who might end up avoiding paying their taxes. If our systems go down, then the ports and the airports have to close in Ireland because it can’t process customs and immigrations – so it’s mission critical.”

Another client is German airline Lufthansa, which uses Actian’s technology for flight planning. This covers everything from ensuring the correct number of vegan meals are stocked on each flight, to re-routing thousands of flights in the event of mass disruption. During a major incident, Actian’s appliances work out critical things like how much fuel it will take to re-route every flight and ensuring a runway can cope with the size of an aircraft.

From helping to eradicate preventable deaths to ensuring your flight lands safely, the sheer scale of data across every industry can be quite overwhelming. One prospective client Actian is working with wanted to analyse 64 petabytes of data, a number – and word – that was barely conceivable just five years ago. And with the growth of data, so comes the growth of users wanting to analyse it. This relentless upscaling is where McGrattan believes the biggest challenge exists as it continues to look to the future.

“While everything is evolving rapidly, we also know trends don’t tend to change as quickly as predicted,” she concludes. “People are predicting the death of data warehousing appliances, but 20 years ago we all thought the mainframe would be dead.

“I think these things will still be around for a long time, and trying to figure out how best to do that is the challenge we are constantly addressing.”


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