Netezza Announces New Interoperability with Microsoft's BI Platform

Netezza Inc. last week appeared to close the loop on one of its perceived competitive shortcomings when it unveiled a new interoperability strategy for Microsoft Corp.'s business intelligence (BI) platform

Until now, Netezza's data warehouse (DW) appliances have often been seen as rip-and-replace propositions designed chiefly to displace existing DW systems. Competitors Dataupia Corp. and ParAccel Corp. claim to work with (to complement and accelerate) existing DW platforms; Netezza, they contend, requires that customers move away from these systems, at least as platforms for enterprise data warehouses (EDW).

Netezza's new strategy focuses on improved interoperability with Microsoft's Office, Performance Point Server and SQL Server-based BI assets -- namely, Analysis Services, Integration Services and Reporting Services. The announcement may be seen as a big deal for Netezza, a bigger deal (with broad DW ramifications) for Microsoft, or a subtle refinement of the status quo.

There are respects in which Netezza, a pioneer of the modern DW appliance model, is perceived as more of a greenfield DW option -- or, in some cases, as a rip-and-replace alternative to existing IBM, Microsoft or Oracle DW systems. Consider the perspective of a DW architect based in the U.K., who -- when interviewed late last year about Oracle Corp.'s then-new Database Machine -- indicated that he'd opt for a Netezza-only solution, if he'd had his way. "[I]f it were purely down to me, I'd rather just scrap the current system [mixed Oracle and SQL Server DWs] and start again with Netezza. We'd have a brand-new, dazzlingly fast solution within a few weeks," he said. "The best project I ever worked on was a greenfield telco [in] which I was lucky enough to select and implement a Netezza system back in 2003. It was a dream come true to someone who has worked with Oracle for many years."

Netezza officials acknowledge as much. "We're looking at a broadening market for Netezza as we go forward. We're starting to move into more and more mainstream types of accounts in the industry," said Phil Francisco, vice president of product management and marketing with Netezza. "In doing so, what this gives customers of Netezza in those sorts of environments is the ability to stay with a Windows or Microsoft-based application platform, which they've probably had for quite some time, and still enjoy the benefits of a very high-performance DW behind it."

Francisco rejects the idea that Netezza has been more of a greenfield- or rip-and-replace proposition, however. "Previously, we were able to use ODBC to connect to the Microsoft applications, so you'd have OLE DB running over ODBC," he said.

If that's the case, what's particularly new about Netezza's claimed "interoperability" with SQL Server and Microsoft's BI stack? In this case, too, Netezza is touting OLE DB connectivity. It's via OLE DB, in fact, that Netezza claims to deliver on its promised interoperability with Office, PerformancePoint and SQL Server-based BI services.

The difference, Francisco insisted, is in the implementation. "In the past, [interoperability] was possible, [but] it wasn't particularly high performance. This OLE DB [connector] delivers high-performance connectivity. One of the things we've done is we've implemented the connector on our platform without creating a lot of overhead, so we're able to get extremely high performance out of the data warehouse system itself."

Francisco demurs when asked to talk more specifically about Netezza's interoperability strategy vis-à-vis Microsoft. Right now, he said, there's the OLE DB connector; tomorrow, Netezza is mulling several options -- including, possibly, .NET connectivity. "We were at a crossroads of adding either a .NET provider or an OLE DB connector. In consultation with Microsoft, we decided to go with the OLE DB connector," he said.

"The fact that now you can use the full [SQL Server] toolset, including Integration Services, means that there can be high-throughput data sets getting moved back and forth." Will Netezza commit to delivering the .NET provider? What other collaborative efforts is it mulling with Microsoft? Francisco said, "There's nothing that I can talk about today. It's all part of a larger strategy that we're not talking about in great detail right now. Certainly, our desire is to make sure that that level of interoperability increases."

Trouble with Madison?
One thing that Francisco and other appliance industry watchers do want to talk about is Microsoft's Project Madison strategy, its ongoing project to incorporate (assimilate) the assets of the former DATAllegro Corp. -- including that company's shared-nothing, massively parallel processing (MPP) technology.

With this in mind, Francisco said, the partnership between Microsoft and Netezza suggests that Redmond envisions a big DW tent, with room for several different players. "In the near-term, DATAllegro doesn't complicate it [our relationship with Microsoft]. In the long-term, I don't know. It may or may not. It's really hard to say. The Project Madison work that they have going on at Microsoft [is designed to] incorporate the DATAllegro elements to get higher performance and a higher level of scalability to multiple terabytes, but that is a long-term project. Even by Microsoft's current reckoning, they're talking about availability sometime in 2010," he said.

"What they see now is that Netezza has growing market momentum. We've now reached the point where we have hundreds of customers online, and we've continued to grow, so Microsoft is clearly a good partner for Netezza and vice-versa."

Netezza veteran Foster Hinshaw, now a principal with rival appliance player Dataupia, has a much different take on the announcement, as you might expect. To Hinshaw, Netezza's accord with Microsoft suggests that Redmond is having more trouble than it first anticipated with Project Madison. "I think it's really Microsoft's acknowledgement that the DATAllegro play didn't work for them, and they have to look at other solutions in order to solve some of the issues that they have," he said.

News Attracts Little Attention
Perhaps not. After all, the Netezza interoperability story generated nary a blip -- much less a press release -- on Microsoft's in-house PR page. Microsoft officials, for the record, did not respond to requests for comments. In fact, the partnership seems to be a Netezza-driven affair, with Netezza building or enhancing linkages to Microsoft's BI platform.

Francisco says that Netezza is an "active" partner with Microsoft. Moreover, he said, the partnership -- including any as-yet-undetermined areas of collaboration -- will benefit Netezza and Microsoft customers alike.

"It would suffice to say that we are part of the Microsoft Partner Program and that we do have active conversations with them," he said. "I think that prior to this, we had customers that had Microsoft applications, but this was really a good stepping-off point for making that partnership stronger."

Dataupia's Hinshaw maintains that Netezza has always had connectivity solutions for Microsoft BI. More to the point, he said, Netezza has always had OLE DB connectivity to Microsoft BI.

"That connector has been around forever, and they've been using it with different customers," he said. "I'm sure they've optimized it from where it had been," Hinshaw added, returning to the issue of Microsoft's Project Madison play. "I think it is a more significant [announcement] than the little bit the press gave it, because it does show Microsoft's interest in the data warehousing space. It shows that DA didn't do what they needed it to do for SQL Server."

Francisco argues that it behooves Dataupia to raise doubts about Microsoft's execution with Project Madison, as high-end SQL Server data warehousing is more of a threat to Dataupia -- with its SQL Server accelerator strategy -- than to Netezza. "[Dataupia's] strategy tends to be more focused around the acceleration of existing data warehouse platforms, including SQL Server," he said. "What we're really talking about is the ability to use the application layer services with SQL Server with the base data warehouse system being a [Netezza] NPS platform, so you get the performance of the NPS appliance and the familiarity of the Microsoft applications. We're not talking about using [NPS] as an accelerator [for SQL Server] like they do."

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