In this information age, Big Data is attracting broad attention as the key to new business insight. What is less apparent is how this broad lens may be trained and focused, and what tools may be applied to derive real business value from data that is exploding in terms of Gartner analyst Doug Laney’s 3Vs - volume, velocity and variety. In recent updates to its information management portfolio, Dell has taken a stab at this challenge through delivery of an integrated BI solution that is accessible to wide range of businesses and useful in many organizational roles.
If Dell is not currently top of mind in the BI sphere, the company is looking to change that as part its transition from hardware or point solutions vendor to provider of holistic solutions that "enable efficient ecosystem management" across the company’s end user, enterprise, software and services domains. Investments in the company’s burgeoning software business (a new Software Group was formed in the spring of 2012) are a key piece of this strategy, with acquisition - notably of Quest Software - and organic development leading the charge in the development of end-to-end capabilities. Within the software division, the company now has multiple offerings that are classified under three umbrellas: data centre and cloud management, mobile workforce management (around BYOD), and information management, with security and data protection capabilities bundled into the whole. In the information management bucket, Dell counts database management, business intelligence/analytics, application & data integration, and Big Data analytics as particular areas of specialization.
Dell’s involvement is information management is of longer standing than is commonly recognized, and ongoing. According to Matt Wolken, general manager, information management, Dell Software, the company has been "laying out systems that lie underneath information and business intelligence capabilities for some time [15 years]. Dell really came into BI consulting through the Perot acquisition [services firm acquired in 2009], and most of the software capabilities were created through acquisition. At the time we acquired Quest, for example, we did not have a large BI tool. And since then, we jointly acquired another business analytics company - Kitenga for unstructured analytics. So we continue to grow that BI capability." Currently, Dell has approximately 800 employees working on database and analytics development.Wolken described the information management portfolio as "one tool chain" for "all data" from "one vendor" - or as a series of products for database management, integration of applications and data stores, and to "inform," or enhance existing BI investments through the implementation of solutions that can handle structured and unstructured data. Database management, based on Toad functionality obtained through the Quest acquisition in 2012 is an important offering for Dell: there are approximately three million users of the Toad DBA and developer tools. Integration capabilities were acquired with Boomi, which was originally focused on app to app integration in cloud environments, but that Dell has adapted to serve as a more general purpose integration platform for ETL, master database management and API management. The "inform" piece is essentially discovery tools that provide many different users with access to company data that is governed by IT, as well as data that resides outside the company in unstructured formats.
While these components are designed to work together, each can add unique value as it is deployed, allowing user organizations to layer on capability as they need and as they are able. This creates "rapid time to value," Wolken added, as "solutions that are overly large and complex can sometimes fail because the two to three years in deployment time can make them less functional. We focus on the functionality and capability that the person utilizes and on making sure they have good ROI for the products."
To ensure that utility, it has been necessary to address information market trends. Dell’s investment in BI tools is a response to changes in the way data is used within the organization and to the explosion of data volume and types. As the Dell image below highlights, over time, the predominance of transactional data stored in mainframe environments has given way to an exponential increase in information generated by unstructured social and machine data.
So what has this meant for the typical business user? Essentially, a proliferation of information management tools that do not talk to each other. As Wolken explained, within the enterprise, it is not uncommon to find two sets of IT staff and tools to manage structured data (because there are likely at least two vendor solutions in place), one set to manage text, one for semi-structured, and one set of staff and tools to manage social and machine data. The result is delivery of data by IT at a pace that is not acceptable to the line of business manager, who looks to buy his/her own query tools, data and staff.
To address this growing complexity, Wolken described BI development at Dell as: "agnostic to where the data is - whether it’s on-premise in an IT server or at Salesforce.com; agnostic to data type; and agnostic to vendor silos." Dell’s goal, he added, is to "recreate the simplicity that existed ten years ago" through construction of a tool set that can manage these requirements, while providing data access to users in various roles, whether they be database, (ETL) integration, data warehousing, aggregation or analysis. This means an integrated tools for database management (Toad), data and app integration (Boomi and Share Plex), data warehousing (Quick Start), data analysis (Data Point and Kitenga) and end user discovery (Decision Point and Kitenga), as well as integration with database partners Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and Cloudera.
"Because different data types have different characteristics," Woken noted, "the underlying structure is changing in the database, which is creating different economic profiles [need for fast DB technologies to handle massively parallel processing, or economical solutions, such as Hadoop]." Through tools that enable users to move between different environments and pull data from any one, Dell has provided a platform for mixing and matching these economic profiles according to business resources and need to deliver new levels of business agility for individual end user organizations.
Dell’s answer to the unstructured data challenge was provided in version 2 of Kitenga Analytics released this February, the company’s flagship Big Data analytics suite (acquired with Quest) which provides for sentiment analysis and features expanded search, indexing and predictive capabilities (Predictive Modeling Markup Language (PMML). Wolken described Kitenga as an "unstructured analytical tool that sits on top of Hadoop, but talks directly to MapReduce to offer a much more friendly environment. It doesn’t require the use of MapReduce structured queries: it is actually a GUI that allows the user to arrange the elements of the query, perform the query and to send the results off deeper into the organization where recipients can see it, understand the value and provide their own point of view on the data." Kitenga also provides some of the contextual functionality that allows for more targeted queries - users may add ontology, taxonomy, dictionary and tautology modules that help users to understand relationships, and ultimately derive more meaning from the data. This kind of contextual query, Wolken explained, approximates the natural language capability that the business user in particular might find special benefit it: "think of it as a Google textbox that goes through a portal and searches through the data that was returned from the query," he added.
A key thrust behind work in Dell’s information management portfolio has been to provide access to as many types of users as possible, while maintaining the integrity of the data and the data repository. To achieve this, Dell has transformed its intelligence feed - the BI suite built into the Quest Toad solution, which typically had been used to provision data for other users - into a new product that allows extraction of data and its port to line of business users without manipulation of the original database. By layering new functionality onto core capabilities, Dell has provided an analytics tool that can empower specific end users and enable specific use cases for data analytics. Role-based IT and LOB access to data, self-service and collaboration capabilities, as well as BI across heterogeneous data environments are some of the key capabilities that Dell believes will help customers derive real business value from information. Additional features in version 2.0 of the Toad portfolio include: storyboards for Decision Point users to publish and share analysis; an app for consumption of storyboards via an iPad or web browser; improved integration of the data toolsets and improved automation of data access for users; additional connectors to MS Analysis Services, Amazon’s DynamoDB and RedShift cloud data warehouse; and enhancements to visualization tools.