The Year in Machine Learning (Part Four)

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This is the fourth installment in a four-part review of 2016 in machine learning and deep learning.

— Part One covered Top Trends in the field, including concerns about bias, interpretability, deep learning’s explosive growth, the democratization of supercomputing, and the emergence of cloud machine learning platforms.

— Part Two surveyed significant developments in Open Source machine learning projects, such as R, Python, Spark, Flink, H2O, TensorFlow, and others.

— Part Three reviewed the machine learning and deep learning initiatives of Big Tech Brands, industry leaders with significant budgets for software development and marketing.

In Part Four, I profile eleven startups in the machine learning and deep learning space. A search for “machine learning” in Crunchbase yields 2,264 companies. This includes companies, such as MemSQL, who offer absolutely no machine learning capability but hype it anyway because Marketing; it also includes application software and service providers, such as Zebra Medical Imaging, who build machine learning into the services they provide.

All of the companies profiled in this post provide machine learning tools as software or services for data scientists or for business users. Within that broad definition, the firms are highly diverse:

Continuum Analytics, Databricks, and H2O.ai drive open source projects (Anaconda, Apache Spark, and H2O, respectively) and deliver commercial support.

Alpine Data, Dataiku, and Domino Data Lab offer commercially licensed collaboration tools for data science teams. All three run on top of an open source platform.

KNIME and RapidMiner originated in Europe, where they have large user communities. Both combine a business user interface with the ability to work with Big Data platforms.

Fuzzy Logix and Skytree provide specialized capabilities primarily for data scientists.

DataRobot delivers a fully automated workflow for predictive analytics that appeals to data scientists and business users. It runs on an open source platform.

Four companies deserve an “honorable mention” but I haven’t profiled them in depth:

— Two startups, BigML and SkyMind, are still in seed funding stage. I don’t profile them below, but they are worth watching. BigML is a cloud-based machine learning service; SkyMind drives the DL4J open source project for deep learning.

— Two additional companies aren’t startups because they’ve been in business for more than thirty years. Salford Systems developed the original software for CART and Random Forests; the company has added more techniques to its suite over time and has a loyal following. Statistica, recently jettisoned by Dell, delivers a statistical package with broad capabilities; the company consistently performs well in user satisfaction surveys.

I’d like to take a moment to thank those who contributed tips and ideas for this series, including Sri Ambati, Betty Candel, Leslie Miller, Bob Muenchen, Thomas Ott, Peter Prettenhofer, Jesus Puente, Dan Putler, David Smith, and Oliver Vagner.

Alpine Data

In 2016, the company formerly known as Alpine Data Labs changed its name and CEO. Alpine dropped the “Labs” from its brand — I guess they didn’t want to be confused with companies that test stool samples — so now it’s just Alpine Data. And, ex-CEO Joe Otto is now an “Advisor,” replaced by Dan Udoutch, a “seasoned executive” with 30+ years of experience in business and zero years of experience in machine learning or advanced analytics. The company also dropped its CFO and head of Sales during the year, presumably because the investors were extremely happy with Alpine’s business results.

Originally built to run in Greenplum database, the company ported some of its algorithms to MapReduce in early 2013. Riding a wave of Hadoop buzz, Alpine closed on a venture round in November 2013, just in time for everyone to realize that MapReduce sucks for machine learning. The company quickly turned to Spark — Databricks certified Alpine on Spark in 2014 — and has gradually ported its analytics operators to the new framework.

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It seems that rebuilding on Spark has been a bit of a slog because Alpine hasn’t raised a fresh round of capital since 2013. As a general rule, startups that make their numbers get fresh rounds every 12-24 months; companies that don’t get fresh funding likely aren’t making their numbers. Investors aren’t stupid and, like the dog that did not bark, a venture capital round that does not happen says a lot about a company’s prospects.

In product news, the company announced Chorus 6, a major release, in May, and Chorus 6.1 in September. Enhancements in the new releases include:

— Integration with Jupyter notebooks.

— Additional machine learning operators.

— Spark auto-tuning. Chorus pushes processing to Spark, and Alpine has developed an optimizer to tune the generated Spark code.

PFA support for model export. This is excellent, a cutting edge feature.

— Runtime performance improvements.

— Tweaks to the user experience.

Lawrence Spracklen, Alpine’s VP of Engineering, will speak about Spark auto-tuning at the Spark Summit East in Boston.

Prospective users and customers should look for evidence that Alpine is a viable company, such as a new funding round, or audited financials that show positive cash flow.

Continuum Analytics

Continuum Analytics develops and supports Anaconda, an open source Python distribution for data science. The core Anaconda bundle includes Navigator, a desktop GUI that manages applications, packages, environments and channels; 150 Python packages that are widely used in data science; and performance optimizations. Continuum also offers commercially licensed extensions to Anaconda for scalability, high performance and ease of use.

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Anaconda 2.5, announced in February, introduced performance optimization with the Intel® Math Kernel Library. Beginning with this release, Continuum bundled Anaconda with Microsoft R Open, an enhanced free R distribution.

In 2016, Continuum introduced two major additions to the Anaconda platform:

Anaconda Enterprise Notebooks, an enhanced version of Jupyter notebooks

Anaconda Mosaic, a tool for cataloging heterogeneous data

The company also announced partnerships with Cloudera, Intel, and IBM. In September, Continuum disclosed $4 million in equity financing. The company was surprisingly quiet about the round — there was no press release — possibly because it was undersubscribed.

Continuum’s AnacondaCon 2017 conference meets in Austin February 7-9.

Databricks

Databricks leads the development of Apache Spark (profiled in Part Two of this review) and offers a cloud-based managed service built on Spark. The company also offers training, certification, and organizes the Spark Summits.

The team that originally developed Spark founded Databricks in 2013. Company employees continue to play a key role in Apache Spark, holding a plurality of the seats on the Project Management Committee and contributing more new code to the project than any other company.

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In 2016, Databricks added a dashboarding tool and a RESTful interface for job and cluster management to its core managed service. The company made major enhancements to the Databricks security framework, completed SOC 2 Type 1 certification for enterprise security, announced HIPAA compliance and availability in Amazon Web Services’ GovCloud for sensitive data and regulated workloads.

Databricks also launched a free Community edition; a five-part series of free MOOCs; completed its annual survey of the Spark user community, and organized three Spark Summits.

In December, Databricks announced a $60 million “C” round of venture capital. New Enterprise Associates led the round; Andreessen Horowitz participated.

Dataiku

Dataiku develops and markets Data Science Studio (DSS), a workflow and collaboration environment for machine learning and advanced analytics. Users interact with the software through a drag-and-drop interface; DSS pushes processing down to Hadoop and Spark. The product includes connectors to a wide variety of file systems, SQL platforms, cloud data stores and NoSQL databases.

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In 2016, Dataiku delivered Releases 3.0 and 3.1. Major new capabilities include H2O integration (through Sparkling Water); additional data sources (IBM Netezza, SAP HANA, Google BigQuery, and Microsoft Azure Data Warehouse); added support for Spark MLLib algorithms; performance improvements, and many other enhancements.

In October, Dataiku closed on a $14 million “A” round of venture capital. FirstMark Capital led the financing, with participation from Serena Capital.

DataRobot

DataRobot, a Boston-based startup founded by insurance industry veterans, offers an automated machine learning platform that combines built-in expertise with a test-and-learn approach.  Leveraging an open source back end, the company’s eponymous software searches through combinations of algorithms, pre-processing steps, features, transformations and tuning parameters to identify the best model for a particular problem.

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The company has a team of Kaggle-winning data scientists and leverages this expertise to identify new machine learning algorithms, feature engineering techniques, and optimization methods. In 2016, DataRobot added several new capabilities to its product, including support for Hadoop deployment, deep learning with TensorFlow, reason codes that explain prediction, feature impact analysis, and additional capabilities for model deployment.

DataRobot also announced major alliances with Alteryx and Cloudera. Cloudera awarded the company its top-level certification: the software integrates with Spark, YARN, Cloudera Service Descriptors, and Cloudera Parcels.

Earlier in the year, DataRobot closed on $33 million in Series B financing. New Enterprise Associates led the round; Accomplice, Intel Capital, IA Ventures, Recruit Strategic Partners, and New York Life also participated.

Domino Data Lab

Domino Data Lab offers the Domino Data Science Platform (DDSP) a scalable collaboration environment that runs on-premises, in virtual private clouds or hosted on Domino’s AWS infrastructure.

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DDSP provides data scientists with a shared environment for managing projects, scalable computing with a variety of open source and commercially licensed software, job scheduling and tracking, and publication through Shiny and Flask. Domino supports rollbacks, revision history, version control, and reproducibility.

In November, Domino announced that it closed a $10.5 million “A” round led by Sequoia Capital. Bloomberg Beta, In-Q-Tel, and Zetta Venture Partners also participated.

Fuzzy Logix

Fuzzy Logix markets DB Lytix, a library of more than eight hundred functions for machine learning and advanced analytics.  Functions run as database table functions in relational databases (Informix, MySQL, Netezza, ParAccel, SQL Server, Sybase IQ, Teradata Aster and Teradata Database) and in Hadoop through Hive.

Users invoke DB Lytix functions from SQL, R, through BI tools or from custom web interfaces.  Functions support a broad range of machine learning capabilities, including feature engineering, model training with a rich mix of supported algorithms, plus simulation and Monte Carlo analysis.  All functions support native in-database scoring.  The software is highly extensible, and Fuzzy Logix offers a team of well-qualified consultants and developers for custom applications.

In April, the company announced the availability of DB Lytix on Teradata Aster Analytics, a development that excited all three of the people who think Aster has legs.

H2O.ai

H2O.ai develops and supports H2O, the open source machine learning project I profiled in Part Two of this review. As I noted in Part Two, H2O.ai updated Sparkling Water, its Spark integration for Spark 2.0; released Steam, a model deployment framework, to production, and previewed Deep Water, an interface to GPU-accelerated back ends for deep learning.

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In 2016, H2O.ai added 3,200 enterprise organizations and over 43,000 users to its roster, bringing its open source community to over 8,000 enterprises and nearly 70,000 users worldwide. In the annual KDnuggets poll of data scientists, reported usage tripled. New customers include Kaiser Permanente, Progressive, Comcast, HCA, McKesson, Macy’s, and eBay.

KNIME

KNIME.com AG, a commercial enterprise based in Zurich, Switzerland, distributes the KNIME Analytics Platform under a GPL license with an exception permitting third parties to use the API for proprietary extensions. The KNIME Analytics Platform features a graphical user interface with a workflow metaphor.  Users build pipelines of tasks with drag-and-drop tools and run them interactively or in batch.

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KNIME offers commercially licensed extensions for scalability, integration with data platforms, collaboration, and productivity. The company provides technical support for the extension software.

During the year, KNIME delivered two dot releases and three maintenance releases. The new features added to the open source edition in Releases 3.2 and 3.3 include Workflow Coach, a recommender based on community usage statistics; streaming execution; feature selection; ensembles of trees and gradient boosted trees; deep learning with DL4J, and many other enhancements. In June, KNIME launched the KNIME Cloud Analytics Platform on Microsoft Azure.

KNIME held its first Summit in the United States in September and announced the availability of an online training course available through O’Reilly Media.

RapidMiner

RapidMiner, Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, develops and supports RapidMiner, an easy-to-use package for business analysis, predictive analytics, and optimization. The company launched in 2006 (under the corporate name of Rapid-I) to drive development, support, and distribution for the RapidMiner software project. The company moved its headquarters to the United States in 2013.

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The desktop version of the software, branded as RapidMiner Studio, is available in free and commercially licensed editions.  RapidMiner also offers a commercially licensed Server edition, and Radoop, an extension that pushes processing down to Hive, Pig, Spark, and H2O.

RapidMiner introduced Release 7.x in 2016 with an updated user interface. Other enhancements in Releases 7.0 through 7.3 include a new data import facility, Tableau integration, parallel cross-validation, and H2O integration (featuring deep learning, gradient boosted trees and generalized linear models).

The company also introduced a feature called Single Process Pushdown. This capability enables RapidMiner users to supplement native Spark and H2O algorithms with RapidMiner pipelines for execution in Hadoop. RapidMiner supports Spark 2.0 as of Release 7.3.

In January 2016, RapidMiner closed a $16 million equity round led by Nokia Growth Partners. Ascent Venture Partners, Earlybird Venture Capital, Longworth Venture Partners, and OpenOcean also participated.

Skytree

Skytree Inc. develops and markets an eponymous commercially licensed software package for machine learning. Its founders launched the venture in 2012 to monetize an academic machine learning project (Georgia Tech’s FastLab).

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The company landed an $18 million venture capital round in 2013 and hasn’t secured any new funding since then. (Read my comments under Alpine Data to see what that indicates.) Moreover, the underlying set of algorithms does not seem to have changed much since then, though Skytree has added and dropped several different add-ons and wrappers.

Users interact with the software through the Skytree Command Line Interface (CLI), Java and Python APIs or a browser-based GUI. Output includes explanations of the model in plain English. Skytree has a grid search feature for parameterization, which it trademarks as AutoModel, labels as “ground-breaking” and is attempting to patent. Analysts who don’t know anything about grid search think this is amazing.

In 2016, Skytree introduced a freemium edition, branded as Skytree Express. Hold out another six months and they’ll pay you to try it.

As is the case with Alpine Data, if you like Skytree’s technology wait for another funding round, or ask the company to provide evidence of positive cash flow.

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