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Analytical database tech at core of Actian-ParAccel deal, Pivotal plan

The EMC-VMware launch of Pivotal and Actian's ParAccel buy share a theme: Both feature analytical databases and play to the big data trend.

These days, the big data landscape is full of twists and turns, and last week was no exception. First, EMC and VMware formally unveiled their big data spinoff known as Pivotal. Then serial acquirer Actian Corp. said it had bought ParAccel, a massively parallel processing (MPP) analytical database maker that was in the news late last year when selected its technology for use in the Amazon Redshift cloud data warehouse.

Both moves have analytics at the heart and big data as a backdrop.

To create Pivotal, EMC volunteered its Greenplum unit, which also makes an MPP analytical database. VMware, itself a 2007 EMC spinoff that is still majority-owned by the storage vendor, anted up an assortment of application-development and cloud holdings. The captain of the new ship is Paul Maritz, the former Microsoft development and platforms executive who served as VMware CEO until last September, when he initially became EMC's chief strategy officer.

While both Actian and Pivotal are pulling together assets to go after big data analytics, the former approach resembles that of familiar predecessors (such as CA, Platinum Software, Oracle and many others) that over time stitched together small and diverse best-of-breed software companies.

The Pivotal approach is seemingly a bit more novel. It's intended as a fresh attempt to hit the ground running in what Pivotal and others see as a new market based around big data analytics. Supporting the idea that this is something new is General Electric, which -- to the tune of a $105 million investment -- joined EMC and VMware to create a triumvirate of backers for Pivotal. What particularly interests GE is the promise of big data analytics as a way to roll up data from the vast arrays of Internet-enabled sensors found these days in its medical, electrical and industrial equipment around the world.

But Pivotal's approach is less novel if you take note that its lineage too resembles that of the familiar software company rollup. Greenplum's analytical engine is pretty well known to the data management crowd. But Pivotal's technologies also include the Cloud Foundry cloud platform software, Java-based Spring application development framework, GemFire in-memory data cache and more. These bits and pieces became part of EMC's or VMware's product portfolios over several years. The company line is that these growth-oriented properties will be unfettered now that they're being reformulated into a new startup. A jaundiced view might hold that these development, cloud and data management tools were simply a poor fit within either storage giant EMC or virtualization maven VMware.

In comparison to the high-profile purchases of a variety of other analytical database vendors, Actian's acquisition of ParAccel seems a bit low-key. In recent years, Teradata bought Aster Data, IBM bought Netezza , Hewlett-Packard bought Vertica and EMC bought Greenplum, the purchasers all being established industry leaders.

One wonders if the train left before ParAccel got to the station. It may be the case that, at the moment, the industry's full-fledged pursuit of Hadoop and NoSQL databases leaves less mindshare for innovative analytic database software.

The ParAccel purchase does give Actian a chance to play on a bigger stage. The company, once known as Ingres Corp. -- as with so many other database vendors, Michael Stonebraker was a leader in that effort -- forged an early relational database success but ended up as something of an odd man out in the 1990s RDBMS race. It was purchased by ASK Corp., which in turn was bought by CA. After making the Ingres DB open source, CA spun off the company in 2005. It was renamed Actian in 2011.

Actian is backed by Garnett & Helfrich Capital, a $350 million venture firm that focuses on buyouts of midsize companies from large IT vendors. The purchase of ParAccel caps, for now at least, a shopping spree that included object database maker Versant last December and data integration specialist Pervasive Software in April, the latter deal starting out as a rare unsolicited offer. The purchases place an interesting assortment of software around the Ingres database, but absorbing these distinct companies will prove a test of Actian's capabilities to execute.

Actian and Pivotal come to the problem of big data analytics from two stances but with similarities. They both sport analytical database engines. They both offer software resembling a data fabric. These efforts may each help to define the big data market a little better.

Meanwhile, attention will continue to form around the Redshift implementation of ParAccel pursued by Amazon. But while Redshift may be a game changer for data warehousing in the cloud, it does not appear to have provided the kind of deal that allowed ParAccel to maintain its independence.

Jack Vaughan is's news and site editor. Email him at

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