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Revisiting What is a Data Warehouse Appliance?

There have been many developments in the appliance marketplace, including the release of new products and the appearance of several new appliance vendors.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

I take a break this month from my series of articles on Enterprise 2.0 and Business Intelligence to revisit the subject of data warehouse appliances. I intended originally to publish my thoughts as a short blog, but the interesting (and complex) nature of the topic led to the blog material growing into this article!

In the 2007 Business Intelligence Network research report Data Warehouse Appliances: Evolution or Revolution, Richard Hackathorn and I stated that a data warehouse appliance should adhere to the following requirements:

  • One purpose – sole purpose is supporting data warehouse processing

  • One package – tested, ordered, and delivered as a single system

  • One install – installed and maintained as a single system

  • One support point – single point of service provided by a single vendor

The report also identified four main categories of data-related appliances: native data warehouse appliance, software data warehouse appliance, packaged data warehouse appliance and a data management appliance.

Since the report was published, there have been many developments in the appliance marketplace, including the release of new products and the appearance of several new appliance vendors. These developments and additional research provided an opportunity for me to evaluate whether the original appliance report definitions are still valid.

The original one purpose, one package, one install and one support requirements can be looked at from two perspectives. The first is the way the appliance is packaged, installed and supported; and the second is the purpose of the appliance.

One Package, One Install, One Support Point

Regardless of the purpose of an appliance, it makes sense that any organization would like to receive a single package, and install and maintain it as a single entity. In fact, it seems crazy that businesses have to be the systems integrators of the hardware and software they use. Surely this is the job of the hardware and software vendors? The answer, of course, depends on how generalized and complex the required system is. The more focused the solution, the easier it is to package.

It would still seem reasonable that software companies could package system, database and integration software into a single supported solution. This would reduce complexity, lower IT resource requirements and simplify support. To be fair, some vendors do provide this for small and medium-sized companies. An example here is the Microsoft Windows Small Business Server. This type of packaging is more difficult to do for larger companies because their IT systems are more complex and often highly tailored and customized. Perhaps this is why many business groups in large organizations are deploying their own solutions and bypassing the IT group.

When installing and supporting a single packaged appliance, there are really three main alternatives available: packaged hardware, packaged software, and packaged hardware and software. The latter two options are the most important ones.

In the packaged software appliance marketplace, there is new category of appliance gaining ground – the virtual appliance. If you visit a supplier of virtual appliance software, such as VMware, you will find a wide range of different virtual appliances that can be downloaded. This approach enables software products to be evaluated and tested without the need to install prerequisite software products – these are already integrated into the virtual appliance.

The virtual appliance approach can also be used to run multiple software appliances on the same hardware, and many companies are doing this. This is somewhat analogous to the use of time-sharing software on mainframe systems many years ago. I use the virtual appliance approach to test Windows-based products on my Apple Macintosh. When I have finished evaluating a package, I simply delete the virtual appliance. It also means I don’t have to worry about virus software. If a virtual appliance gets infected, I just delete the virtual machine file, and then load a fresh uninfected copy of the appliance.

One Purpose

The purpose a data warehouse appliance is “supporting data warehouse processing.” This means that the appliance should provide all the components required to support data warehousing. Many of the so-called data warehouse appliances on the market fail in this regard. Many of these products don’t provide, for example, data integration software. In fact, often the data integration software cannot even run on the appliance – it must run on an attached system. This is very similar to the way database machines worked many years ago.

Many data warehouse appliances are really database appliances where the interaction with the appliance is at a database request level using a language such as SQL. This may be why more recent products from vendors such as ParAccel and Vertica are now marketed as database appliances optimized for analytical processing. This is a far more accurate description than a data warehouse appliance.

In addition to data-related appliances, there are several other types of appliances on the market, including application integration appliances (Cast Iron SystemsSonoa Systems, for example) and application appliances such as the Cognos Now operational BI appliance.

Where Are We Heading?

The appliance marketplace is changing rapidly. There have already been significant changes since the Business Intelligence Network appliance report was published in 2007, and this is why Richard Hackathorn is now working on a new version of the report.

In my opinion, the current approach by many appliance vendors of focusing on selling price/performance does not have long-term viability. Industry history clearly demonstrates this. Instead, the future lies in business application appliances that can run as hosted (applications-as-a-service) or on-premise solutions. This approach offers a packaged business solution that provides simplicity, fast deployment and a quick business return on investment. Many “data warehouse appliance” products are being purchased by OEMs for creating such applications solutions.

There will continue to be, however, many types of appliances on the market; and their purpose will be defined by the software components they provide and also by the way they interface to the host systems and networks to which they are connected (database appliances, application integration appliances, application appliances, etc.). They will also be defined by the type of packaging they employ (software appliance, virtual appliance, hardware/software appliance).

Many appliance vendors will go out of business, some may be acquired and a few could become market leaders. My preference is business application appliances that are easy to install and use, and that provide fast business benefits. IBM had a very successful product that is similar to an application appliance. It was called the AS/400, and business users loved it. It has now evolved into the IBM System iSeries. Sometimes nothing really changes in the IT industry! The real differences this time around are that appliances are now commoditized and more open.

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