The Year in Machine Learning (Part Four)

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 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.


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.


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 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.


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 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.


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, 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.


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.


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. develops and supports H2O, the open source machine learning project I profiled in Part Two of this review. As I noted in Part Two, 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.


In 2016, 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 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.


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, 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.


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 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).


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.

Gartner’s 2016 MQ for Advanced Analytics Platforms

This is a revised and expanded version of a story that first appeared in the weekly roundup for February 15.

Gartner publishes its 2016 Magic Quadrant for Advanced Analytics Platforms.   You can get a free copy here from RapidMiner (registration required.)  The report is a muddle that mixes up products in different categories that don’t compete with one another, includes marginal players, excludes important startups and ignores open source analytics.

Other than that, it’s a fine report.

The advanced analytics category is much more complex than it used to be.  In the contemporary marketplace, there are at least six different categories of software for advanced analytics that are widely used in enterprises:

  • Analytic Programming Languages (e.g. R, SAS Programming Language)
  • Analytic Productivity Tools (e.g. RStudio, SAS Enterprise Guide)
  • Analytic Workbenches (e.g. Alteryx, IBM Watson Analytics, SAS JMP)
  • Expert Workbenches (e.g. IBM SPSS Modeler, SAS Enterprise Miner)
  • In-Database Machine Learning Engines (e.g. DBLytix, Oracle Data Mining)
  • Distributed Machine Learning Engines (e.g. Apache Spark MLlib, H2O)

Gartner appears to have a narrow notion of what an advanced analytics platform should be, and it ignores widely used software that does not fit that mold.  Among those evaluated by Gartner but excluded from the analysis: BigML, Business-Insight, Dataiku, Dato,, MathWorks, Oracle, Rapid Insight, Salford Systems, Skytree and TIBCO.

Gartner also ignores open source analytics, including only those vendors with at least $4 million in annual software license revenue.  That criterion excludes vendors with a commercial open source business model, like  Gartner uses a similar criterion to exclude Hortonworks from its MQ for data warehousing, while including Cloudera and MapR.

Changes from last year’s report are relatively small.  Some detailed comments:

— Accenture makes the analysis this year, according to Gartner, because it acquired Milan-based i4C Analytics, a tiny little privately held company based in Milan, Italy.  Accenture rebranded the software assets as the Accenture Analytics Applications Platform, which Accenture positions as a platform for custom solutions.  This is not at all surprising, since Accenture is a consulting firm and not a software vendor, but it’s interesting to note that Accenture reports no revenue at all from software licensing;  hence, it can’t possibly satisfy Gartner’s inclusion criteria for the MQ.  The distinction between software and services is increasingly muddy, but if Gartner includes one services provider on the analytics MQ it should include them all.

Alpine Data Labs declines a lot in “Ability to Deliver,” which makes sense since they appear to be running out of money (*).  Gartner characterizes Alpine as “running analytic workflows natively within Hadoop”, which is only partly true.  Alpine was originally developed to run on MPP databases with table functions (such as Greenplum and Netezza), and has ported some of its functions to Hadoop.  The company has a history with Greenplum Pivotal and EMC Dell, and most existing customers use the product with Greenplum Database, Pivotal Hadoop, Hawq and MADlib, which is great if you use all of those but otherwise not.  Gartner rightly notes that “the depth of choice of algorithms may be limited for some users,” which is spot on — anyone not using Alpine with Hawq and MADlib.

(*) Of course, things aren’t always what they appear to be.  Joe Otto, Alpine CEO, contacted me to say that Alpine has a year’s worth of expenses in the bank, and hasn’t done any new venture rounds since 2013 “because they haven’t needed to do so.”  Joe had no explanation for Alpine’s significantly lower rating on both dimensions in Gartner’s MQ, attributing the change to “bias”.  He’s right in pointing out that Gartner’s analysis defies logic.

Alteryx declines a little, which is surprising since its new release is strong and the company just scored a pile of venture cash.  Gartner notes that Alteryx’ scores are up for customer satisfaction and delivering business value, which suggests that whoever it is at Gartner that decides where to position the dots on the MQ does not read the survey results.  Gartner dings Alteryx for not having native visualization capabilities like Tableau, Qlik or PowerBI, a ridiculous observation when you consider that not one of the other vendors covered in this report offers visualization capabilities like Tableau, Qlik or PowerBI.

Angoss improves a lot, moving from Niche to Challenger, largely on the basis of its WPL-based SAS integration and better customer satisfaction.  Data prep was a gap for Angoss, so the WPL partnership is a positive move.

— Dell: Arguing that Dell has “executed on an ambitious roadmap during the past year”, Gartner moves Dell into the Leaders quadrant.   That “execution” is largely invisible to everyone else, as the product seems to have changed little since Dell acquired Statistica, and I don’t think too many people are excited that the product interfaces with Boomi.  Customer satisfaction has declined and pricing is a mess, but Gartner is all giggly about Boomi, Kitenga and Toad.  Gartner rightly cautions that software isn’t one of Dell’s core strengths, and the recent EMC acquisition “raises questions” about the future of software at Dell.  Which raises questions about why Gartner thinks Dell qualifies as a Leader in the category.

FICO fades for no apparent reason.  I’m guessing they didn’t renew their subscription.

IBM stays at about the same position in the MQ.  Gartner rightly notes the “market confusion” about IBM’s analytics products, and dismisses yikyak about cognitive computing.  Recently, I spent 30 minutes with one of the 443 IBM vice presidents responsible for analytics — supposedly, he’s in charge of “all analytics” at IBM — and I’m still as confused as Gartner, and the market.

— KNIME was a Leader last year and remains a Leader, moving up a little.  Gartner notes that many customers choose KNIME for its cost-benefit ratio, which is unsurprising since the software is free.  Once again, Gartner complains that KNIME isn’t as good as Tableau and Qlik for visualization.

Lavastorm makes it to the MQ this year, for some reason.  Lavastorm is an ETL and data blending tool that does not claim to offer the native predictive analytics that Gartner says are necessary for inclusion in the MQ.

Megaputer, a text mining vendor, makes it to the MQ for the second year running despite being so marginal that they lack a record in Crunchbase.  Gartner notes that “Megaputer scores low on viability and visibility and there is a lack of awareness of the company outside of text analytics in the advanced analytics market.”  Just going out on a limb, here, Mr. Gartner, but maybe that’s your cue to drop them from the MQ, or cover them under text mining.

Microsoft gets Gartner’s highest scores on Completeness of Vision on the strength of Azure Machine Learning (AML) and Cortana Analytics Suite.  Some customers aren’t thrilled that AML is only available in the cloud, presumably because they want hackers to steal their data from an on-premises system, where most data breaches happen.  Microsoft’s hybrid on-premises cloud should render those arguments moot.  Existing customers who use SQL Server Analytic Services are less than thrilled with that product.

Predixion Software improves on “Completeness of Vision” because it can “deploy anywhere” according to Gartner.  Wut?  Anywhere you can run Windows.

Prognoz returns to the MQ for another year and, like Megaputer, continues to inspire WTF? reactions from folks familiar with this category.  Primarily a BI tool with some time-series and analytics functionality included, Prognoz appears to lack the native predictive analytics capabilities that Gartner says are minimally required. 

RapidMiner moves up on both dimensions.  Gartner recognizes the company’s “Wisdom of Crowds” feature and the recent Series C funding, but neglects to note RapidMiner’s excellent Hadoop and Spark integration.

SAP stays at pretty much the same place in the MQ.  Gartner notes that SAP has the lowest scores in customer satisfaction, analytic support and sales relationship, which is about what you would expect when an ankle-biter like KXEN gets swallowed by a behemoth like SAP, where analytics go to die.

SAS declines slightly in Ability to Deliver.  Gartner notes that SAS’ licensing model, high costs and lack of transparency are a concern.  Gartner also notes that while SAS has a loyal customer base whose members refer to it as the “gold standard” in advanced analytics, SAS also has the highest percentage of customers who have experienced challenges or issues with the software.

Looking Ahead: Big Analytics in 2016

Every year around this time I review last year’s forecast and publish some thoughts about the coming year.

2015 Assessment

First, a brief review of my predictions for 2015:

(1) Apache Spark usage will explode.

Nailed it.

(2) Analytics in the cloud will take off.

In 2015, all of the leading cloud platforms — AWS, Azure, IBM and Google — released new tools for advanced analytics and machine learning.  New cloud-based providers specializing in advanced analytics, such as Qubole and Domino Data, emerged.

Cloud platform providers do not break out revenue by workload, so it’s difficult to measure analytics activity in the cloud; anecdotally, though, there are a growing number of analysts, vendors and service providers whose sole platform is the cloud.

(3) Python will continue to gain on R as the preferred open source analytics platform.

While Python continues to add functionality and gain users, so does R, so it’s hard to say that one is gaining on the other.

(4) H2O will continue to win respect and customers in the Big Analytics market.

In 2015, H2O doubled its user base, expanded its paid subscriber base fourfold and landed a $20 million “B” round.  Not bad for a company that operates on a true open source business model.

(5) SAS customers will continue to seek alternatives.

Among analytic service providers (ASPs) the exit from SAS is a stampede.

With a half dozen dot releases, SAS’ distributed in-memory products are stable enough that they are no longer the butt of jokes.  Customer adoption remains thin; customers are loyal to SAS’ legacy software, but skeptical about the new stuff.

2016 Themes

Looking ahead, here is what I see:

(1) Spark continues its long march into the enterprise.

With Cloudera 6, Spark will be the default processing option for Cloudera workloads.  This does not mean, as some suggest, that MapReduce is dead; it does mean that a larger share of new workloads will run on Spark.  Many existing jobs will continue to run in MapReduce, which works reasonably well for embarrassingly parallel workloads.

Hortonworks and MapR haven’t followed Cloudera with similar announcements yet, but will do so in 2016.  Hortonworks will continue to fiddle around with Hive on Tez, but will eventually give up and embrace Hive on Spark.

SAS will hold its nose and support Spark in 2016.  Spark competes with SAS’ proprietary back end, but it will be forced to support Spark due to its partnerships with the Hadoop distributors.  Analytic applications like Datameer and Microsoft/Revolution Analytics ScaleR that integrate with Hadoop through MapReduce will rebuild their software to interface with Spark.

Spark Core and Spark SQL will remain the most widely used Spark components, with general applicability across many use cases.  Spark MLLib suffers from comparison with alternatives like H2O and XGBoost; performance and accuracy need to improve.  Spark Streaming faces competition from Storm and Flink; while the benefits of “pure” streaming versus micro-batching are largely theoretical, it’s a serious difference that shows up in benchmarks like this.

With no enhancements in 2015, Spark GraphX is effectively dead.  The project leadership team must either find someone interested in contributing, fold the library into MLLib, or kill it.

(2) Open source continues to eat the analytics software world.

If all you read is Gartner and Forrester, you may be inclined to think that open source is just a blip in the market.  Gartner and Forrester ignore open source analytics for two reasons: (1) they get paid by commercial vendors, and (2) users don’t need “analysts” to tell them how to evaluate open source software.  You just download it and check it out.

Surveys of actual users paint a different picture.  Among new grads entering the analytics workforce, using open source is as natural as using mobile phones and Yik Yak; big SAS shops have to pay to send the kids to training.  The best and brightest analysts use open source tools, as shown by the 2015 O’Reilly Data Science Salary Survey;  while SAS users are among the lowest paid analysts, they take consolation from knowing that SPSS users get paid even less.

IBM’s decision in 2015 to get behind Spark exemplifies the movement towards open source.  IBM ranks #2 behind SAS in advanced analytics software revenue, but chose to disrupt itself by endorsing Spark and open-sourcing SystemML.  IBM figures to gain more in cloud and services revenue than it loses in cannibalized software sales.  It remains to be seen how well that will work, but IBM knows how to spot a trend when it sees it.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Revolution Analytics in 2015 gives R the stamp of approval from a company that markets the most widely implemented database (SQL Server) and the most widely used BI tool (Excel).  As Microsoft rolls out its R server and SQL-embedded R, look for a big jump in enterprise adoption.  It’s no longer possible for folks to dismiss R as some quirky tool used by academics and hobos.

The open source business model is also attracting capital.  Two analytics vendors with open source models (H2O and RapidMiner) recently landed funding rounds, while commercial vendors Skytree and Alpine languish in the funding doldrums and cut headcount.  Palantir and Opera, the biggest dogs in the analytics startup world, also leverage open source.

Increasingly, the scale-out distributed back end for Big Analytics is an open source platform, where proprietary architecture sticks out like a pimple.  Commercial software vendors can and will thrive when they focus on the end user.  This approach works well for AtScale, Alteryx, RapidMiner and ZoomData, among others.

(3) Cloud emerges as the primary platform for advanced analytics.

By “cloud” I mean all types of cloud: public, private, virtual private and hybrid, as well as data center virtualization tools, such as Apache Mesos.  In other words, self-service elastic provisioning.

High-value advanced analytics is inherently project-oriented and ad-hoc; the most important questions are answered only once.  This makes workloads for advanced analytics inherently volatile.  They are also time-sensitive and may require massive computing resources.

This combination  — immediate need for large-scale computing resources for a finite period — is inherently best served by some form of cloud.  The form of cloud an organization chooses will depend on a number of factors, such as where the source data resides, security concerns and the organization’s skills in virtualization and data center management.  But make no mistake: organizations that do not leverage cloud computing for advanced analytics will fall behind.

Concerns about cloud security for advanced analytics are largely bogus: rent-seeking apologetics from IT personnel who (rightly) view the cloud as a threat to their fiefdom.  Sorry guys — the biggest data breaches in the past two years were from on-premises systems.  Arguably, data is more secure in one of the leading clouds than it is in on premises.

For more on this, read my book later this year. 🙂

(4) Automated machine learning tools become mainstream.

As I’ve written elsewhere, automated machine learning is not a new thing.  Commercial and open source tools that automate modeling in various ways have been available since the 1980s.  Most, however, automated machine learning by simplifying the problem in ways that adversely impact model quality.  In 2016, software will be available to enterprises that delivers expert-level predictive models that win Kaggle competitions.

Since analysts spend 80% of their time data wrangling, automated machine learning tools will not eliminate the hiring crunch in advanced analytics; one should be skeptical of vendor claims that “it’s so easy that even a caveman can do it.”  The primary benefit of automation will be better predictive models built consistently to best practices.  Automation will also expand the potential pool of users from hardcore data scientists to “near-experts”, people with business experience or statistical training who are not skilled in programming languages.

(5) Teradata continues to struggle.

Listening to Teradata’s Q3 earnings call back in November, I thought of this:


CEO Mike Koehler, wiping pie from his face after another quarterly earnings fail, struggled to explain a coherent growth strategy.  It included (a) consulting services; (b) Teradata software on AWS; (c) Aster on commodity hardware.

Well, that dog won’t hunt.

— Teradata’s product sales drive its consulting revenue.  No product sales, no consulting revenue.   Nobody will ever hire Teradata for platform-neutral enterprise Big Data consulting projects, so without a strategy to build product sales, consulting  revenue won’t grow either.

— Teradata’s principal value added is its ability to converge software and hardware into an integrated appliance.  By itself, Teradata software itself is nothing special; there are plenty of open source alternatives, like Apache Greenplum.  Customers who choose to build a data warehouse on AWS have many options, and Teradata won’t be the first choice.  Meanwhile, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are light years ahead of Teradata delivering true hybrid cloud databases.

— Aster on commodity hardware is a SQL engine with some prebuilt apps.  It runs through MapReduce, which was kind of cool in 2012 but DOA in today’s market: customers who want a SQL engine that runs on commodity hardware have multiple open source options, including Presto, which Teradata also embraces.

Meanwhile, Teradata’s leadership team actually spent time with analysts talking about the R&D tax credit, which seemed like shuffling deck chairs.  The stock is worth about a third of its value in 2012 because the company has repeatedly missed earnings forecasts, and investors have no confidence in current leadership.

At current market value, Teradata is acquisition bait, but it’s not clear who would buy it.  My money’s on private equity, who will cut headcount by half and milk the existing customer base.   There are good people at Teradata; I would advise them all to polish their resumes.

2015 in Big Analytics

Looking back at 2015, a few stories stand out:

  • Steady progress for Spark, punctuated by two big announcements.
  • Solid growth in cloud-based machine learning, led by Microsoft.
  • Expanding options for SQL and OLAP on Hadoop.

In 2015, the most widely read post on this blog was Spark is Too Big to Fail, published in April.  I wrote this post in response to a growing chorus of snark about Spark written by folks who seemed to know little about the project and its goals.

IBM Embraces Spark

IBM’s commitment to Spark, announced on Jun 15, lit up the crowds gathered in San Francisco for the Spark Summit.  IBM brings a number of things to Spark: deep pockets to build a community, extensive technical resources and a large customer base.  It also brings a clutter of aging and partially integrated products, an army of suits and no less than 164 Vice Presidents whose titles include the words “Big Data.”

When IBM announced its Spark initiative I joked that somewhere in the bowels of IBM, someone will want to put Spark on a mainframe.  Color me prophetic.

It’s too early to tell what substantive contributions IBM will make to Spark.  Unlike Mesosphere, Typesafe, Tencent, Palantir, Cloudera, Hortonworks, Huawei, Shopify, Netflix, Intel, Yahoo, Kixer, UC Berkeley and Databricks, IBM did not help test Release 1.5 in September.  This is a clear miss, given the scope of IBM’s resources and the volume of hype it puts out about its commitment to the project.

All that said, IBM brings respectability, and the assurance that Spark is ready for prime time.  This is priceless.  Since IBM’s announcement, we haven’t heard a peep from the folks who were snarking at Spark earlier this year.

Cloudera Announces “One Platform” Initiative

In September, Cloudera announced its One Platform initiative to unify Spark and Hadoop, an announcement that surprised everyone who thought Spark and Hadoop were already pretty well integrated.  As with the IBM announcement, the symbolism matters.  Some analysts took this announcement to mean that Cloudera is replacing MapReduce with Spark, which isn’t exactly true.  It’s fairer to say that in Cloudera’s vision, Hadoop users will rely more on Spark in the future than they do today, but MapReduce is not dead.

The “One Platform” positioning has more to do with Cloudera moving to stem the tide of folks who use Spark outside of Hadoop.  According to Databricks’ recent Spark user survey, only 40% use Spark under YARN, with the rest running in a freestanding cluster or on Mesos.  It’s an understandable concern for Cloudera; I’ve never heard a fish seller suggest that we should eat less fish.  But if Cloudera thinks “One Platform” will stem that tide, it is mistaken.  It all boils down to use cases, and there are many use cases for Spark that don’t need Hadoop’s baggage.

Microsoft Builds Credibility in Analytics

In 2015, Microsoft took some big steps to demonstrate that it offers serious solutions for analytics.  The acquisition of Revolution Analytics, announced in January, was the first step; in one move, Microsoft acquired a highly skilled team and valuable software assets.  Since the acquisition, Microsoft has rolled Revolution’s enhanced R distribution into SQL Server and Azure, opening both platforms to the large and growing R community.

Microsoft’s other big move, in February, was the official launch of Azure Machine Learning (AML).   First released in beta in June 2014, AML is both easy to use and powerful.  The UI is simple to understand, and documentation is excellent; built-in analytic functionality is very rich, and the tool is extensible with custom R or Python scripts.  Microsoft’s trial user program is generous, and clearly designed to encourage adoption and use.

Azure Machine Learning contrasts markedly with Amazon Machine Learning.  Amazon’s offering remains a skeleton, with minimal functionality and an API only a developer could love.  Microsoft is clearly making a play for the data science market as a way to leapfrog Amazon.  If analytic capabilities are driving your choice of cloud platform, Azure is by far your best option.

SQL Engines Proliferate

At the beginning of 2015, there were two main options for SQL on Hadoop: Hive for batch SQL and Impala for interactive SQL.  Spark SQL was still in Alpha; Drill was a curiosity; and Presto was something used at Facebook.

Several things happened during the year:

  • Hive on Tez established rough performance parity with the fast SQL engines.
  • Spark SQL went to general release, stabilized, and rolled out the DataFrames API.
  • MapR promoted Drill, and invested in improvements to the software.  Also, MapR’s Drill team spun off and started Dremio to provide commercial support.
  • Cloudera donated Impala to open source, and Pivotal donated Hawq.
  • Teradata placed its chips on Presto.

While it’s great to see so many options emerge, Hive continues to win actual evaluations.  Given Hive’s large user and contributor base and existing stock of programs, it’s unclear how much traction Hive alternatives have now that Hive on Tez offers competitive performance.  Obviously, Cloudera doesn’t think Impala offers a competitive advantage anymore, or they would not have donated the assets to Apache.

The other big news in SQL is TPC’s release of a benchmarking standard for decision support with Big Data.

OLAP on Hadoop Gets Real

For folks seeking to perform dimensional analysis in Hadoop, 2015 delivered not one but two options.  The open source option, Apache Kylin, originally an eBay project, just recently graduated to Apache top level status.  Adoption is limited at present, but any project used by eBay and Baidu is worth a look.

The commercial option is AtScale, a company that emerged from stealth in April.  Unlike BI-on-Hadoop vendors like Datameer and Pentaho, AtScale provides a dimensional layer designed to work with existing BI tools.  It’s a nice value proposition for companies that have already invested big time in BI tools, and don’t want to add another UI to the mix.

Funding for Machine Learning’s recently announced B round is significant for a couple of reasons.  First, it validates’s true open source business model; second, it confirms the continued growth and expansion of the user base for H2O as well as’s paid subscription base.

Like Sherlock Holmes’ dog that did not bark, two companies are significant because they did not procure funding in 2015:

  • Skytree, whose last funding round closed in April 2013, churned its executive team and rebranded a couple of times.  It finally listed some new customers; interestingly, some are investors and others are affiliated with members of Skytree’s Board.
  • Alpine Data Labs, last funded in November 2013, struggled to distance itself from the Pivotal ecosystem.  Designed to run on Greenplum, Alpine offers limited functionality on Hadoop, which makes it unclear how this company survives.

Palantir continued to suck up capital like a whale feeding on krill.

Google TensorFlow

Google open sourced TensorFlow, so now we have sixteen open source Deep Learning frameworks instead of just fifteen.

IBM Adds Spark Support to Analytics Server

With its customary PR blitz, IBM announces that it has added Spark integration to several products, including SPSS.   IBM gets a small pat on the head for adding Spark support to its Analytics Server software, under the premise that something is better than nothing.

There is a very narrow pool of SPSS users who will benefit from this enhancement.  Spark integration is only available to the subset of SPSS users who license SPSS Modeler; most SPSS users work with SPSS Statistics.  Users must also license SPSS Analytics Server, a product that only runs on Hortonworks HDP or IBM BigInsights.

So, if you’re using the high-end version of the second most popular commercial analytic server, and you’re willing to pay extra to integrate with the third and fourth ranked Hadoop distributions, you’re in luck today.

Analytics Server is a software middle layer installed on Hortonworks or BigInsights; it selectively supports SPSS Modeler operations in Hadoop.  Previous versions ran through MapReduce only;  IBM claims that the latest version runs through Spark when available, although the product documentation is surprisingly quiet on the subject.  There is no reference to Spark in IBM’s Release NotesInstallation Guide or User’s Guide.  Spark is mentioned deep in the Administrator Guide, under Troubleshooting; so the good news is that if the product fails, IBM has some tips — one of which should be “Install Spark.”

Analytics Server 2.1 partially supports most Modeler record and field operations.  Out of Modeler’s 37 data mining nodes, Analytic Server fully supports 8, partially supports 5 and does not support 24.  Among the missing:

  • Logistic Regression
  • k-Means
  • Support Vector Machines
  • PCA
  • Feature Selection
  • Anomaly Detection

Everyone understands that software engineering takes time, but IBM’s priorities are muddled. Logistic regression, k-means, SVM and PCA are all available today in Spark’s open source library; I suspect that IBM figures they can’t justify additional license fees if they point to algorithms that anyone can use for free  (*).  Clustering, PCA, feature selection and anomaly detection are precisely the kind of analyses users want to run on all of the data, not a sample extracted back to a server.

(*) IBM is mistaken on that point, of course.  There are a lot of business users who want the power of Spark but don’t want to mess with a programming API.  These users would happily pay for a nice business user front end like SPSS Modeler, and they won’t care what happens in the back end.

Assuming that this product actually works — not guaranteed, given the sloppy and incomplete documentation — it is better than the previous version of Analytics Server, but that is a low bar.  Spark or no, IBM is way behind SAS in this space; I’m not a great believer in SAS’ proprietary approach to distributed in-memory analytics, but compared to IBM’s offering SAS wins on depth of features and breadth of platform support.  There are no published benchmarks, but I suspect that SAS wins on performance as well.

Also, SAS knows how to write documentation, which seems to be a problem for IBM.

To its credit, IBM’s Analytic Server offers more Spark capability than current offerings by Alpine, Alteryx and RapidMiner; but H2O and Skytree offer richer and better engines for serious machine learning.

As for the majority of SPSS users, wouldn’t it be great if SPSS could just connect to a Spark DataFrame?  Or if Spark could ingest SPSS datasets?

SAS Versus R (Part 1)

Which is better for analytics, SAS or R?  One frequently sees discussions on this topic in social media; for examples, see here, here, here, here, here and here.   Like many debates in social media, the degree of conviction is often inverse to the quantity of information, and these discussions often produce more heat than light.

The question is serious.  Many organizations with a large investment in SAS are actively considering whether to adopt R, either to supplement SAS or to replace it altogether.  The trend is especially marked in the analytic services industry, which is particularly sensitive to SAS licensing costs and restrictive conditions.

In this post, I will recap some common myths about SAS and R.  In a follow-up post,  I will summarize the pros and cons of each as an analytics platform.

Myths About SAS and R

Advocates for SAS and R often support their positions with beliefs that are little more than urban legends; as such, they are not good reasons to choose SAS over R or vice-versa.   Let’s review six of these myths.

(1) Regulatory agencies require applicants to use SAS.

This claim is often cited in the context of submissions to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), apparently by those who have never read the FDA’s regulations governing submissions.  The FDA accepts submissions in a range of formats including SAS Transport Files (which an R user can create using the StatTransfer utility.)   Nowhere in its regulations does the FDA mandate what software should be used to produce the analysis; like most government agencies, the FDA is legally required to support standards that do not favor single vendors.

Pharmaceutical firms tend to rely heavily on SAS because they trust the software, and not due to any FDA mandate.  Among its users, SAS has a deservedly strong reputation for quality; it is a mature product and its statistical techniques are mature, well-tested and completely documented.  In short, the software works, which means there is very little incentive for an established user to experiment with something else, just to save on licensing fees.

That trust in SAS isn’t a permanent state of affairs.  R is gradually making inroads in the life sciences community; it has already largely displaced SAS in the academic world.  Like many other regulatory bodies, the FDA itself uses open source R together with SAS.

(2) R is better than SAS because it is object oriented.

This belief is wrong on two counts: (1) it assumes that object-oriented languages are best for all use cases; and (2) it further assumes that SAS offers no object-oriented capability.

Object-oriented languages are more efficient and easier to use for many analysis tasks.  In real-world analytics, however, we often work with messy and complex data; a cursor-based language like the SAS DATA Step offers the user a great deal of flexibility, which is why it is so widely used.  Anyone who has ever attempted to translate SAS “first and last” processing into an object-oriented language understands this point.  (Yes, it can be done; but it requires a high-level of expertise in the OOL to do it).

In Release 9.3, SAS introduced DS2, an object-oriented language with a defined migration path from SAS DATA Step programming. Hence, for those tasks where object-oriented programming is desirable, DS2 meets this need for the SAS user.  (DS2 is included with Base SAS).

(3) You never know what’s inside open source software like R.

Since R is an open programming environment, anyone can develop a package and contribute it to the project.  Commercial software vendors like to plant FUD about open source software by suggesting that contributors may be amateurs or worse — in contrast to the “professional” engineering of commercial software.

One of the key virtues of open source software is that you do know what’s inside it because — unlike commercial software — you can inspect the source code.  With commercial software, you must have faith in the vendor’s integrity, technical support and willingness to stand by its warranty.  For open source software, there is no warranty nor is one required; the code speaks for itself.

When a contributor publishes an enhancement to R, a large community of users evaluates and tests the new feature.  This “crowdsourced” testing quickly flags and logs issues with software syntax and semantics, and logged issues are available for anyone to see.

Commercial software vendors like SAS have professional testing and QA departments, but since testing is expensive there is considerable pressure to minimize the expense.   Under the pressure of Marketing and Sales deadlines, systematic testing is often the first task to be cut.  Bismarck once said that nobody should witness how laws or sausages are made; the same is true for commercial software.

SAS does not disclose the headcount it commits to software testing and QA, but given the size of the R user base, it’s fair to say that the number of people who test and evaluate each R release is far greater than the number of people who evaluate each SAS release.

(4) R is better than SAS because it has thousands of packages.

This is like arguing that Wal-Mart is a better store than Brooks Brothers because it carries more items.  Wal-Mart’s breadth of product makes it a great shopping destination for many shoppers, but a Brooks Brothers shopper appreciates the store’s focus on a certain look and personalized service.

By analogy, R’s cornucopia of functionality is both a feature and a bug.  Yes, there is a package in R to support every conceivable analytic need; in many cases, there is more than one package.  As of this writing, there are 486 packages that support linear regression, which is great unless you only need one and don’t want to sift through 486.

Of course, actual R users don’t check every package to find what they need; they settle on a few trusted packages based on actual experience, word-of-mouth, books, periodicals or other sources of information.  In practice, relatively few R packages are actually used; the graph below shows package downloads from RStudio’s popular CRAN mirror in September 2014.

CRAN Downloads

(For the record, the ten most downloaded packages from RStudio’s CRAN mirror in September 2014 were Rcpp, plyr, ggplot2, stringr, digest, reshape2, RColorBrewer, labeling, colorspace and scales.)

For actual users, the relevant measure isn’t the total number of features supported in SAS and R; it’s how those features align with user needs.

N.B. — Some readers may quibble with my use of statistics from a single CRAN mirror as representative of the R community at large.  It’s a fair point — there are at least 105 public CRAN mirror sites worldwide — but given RStudio’s strong market presence it’s a reasonable proxy.

(5) Switching from SAS to R is expensive because you have to rewrite all of your code.

It’s true that when switching from SAS to R you have to rewrite programs that you want to keep; there is no engine that will translate SAS code to R code. However, SAS users tend to overestimate the effort and cost to accomplish this task.

Analytic teams that have used SAS for some years typically accumulate a large stock of programs and data; much of this accumulation, however, is junk that will never be re-used.    Keep in mind that analytic users don’t work the same way as software developers in IT or a software engineering organization.  Production developers tend to work in a collaborative environment that ensures consistent, reliable and stable results.  Analytic users, on the other hand, tend to work individually on ad hoc analysis projects; they are often inconsistently trained in software best practices.

When SAS users are pressed to evaluate a library of existing programs and identify the “keepers”, they rarely identify more than 10-20% of the existing library.  Hence, the actual effort and expense of program conversion should not be a barrier for most organizations if there is a compelling business case to switch.

It’s also worth noting that sticking with SAS does not free the organization from the cost of code migration, as SAS customers discovered when SAS 9 was released.

The real cost of switching from SAS to R is measured in human capital — in the costs of retraining skilled professionals.  For many organizations, this is a deal-breaker at present; but as more R-savvy analysts enter the workforce, the costs of switching will decline.

(6) R is a good choice when working with Big Data.

When working with Big Data, neither “legacy” SAS nor open source R is a good choice, for different reasons.

Open source R runs in memory on a single machine; it can work with data up to available memory, then fails.  It is possible to run R in a Hadoop cluster or as table functions inside MPP databases.  However, since R runs independently on each node, this is useful only for embarrassingly parallel tasks; for most advanced analytics tasks, you will need to invoke a distributed analytics engine.   There are a number of distributed engines you can invoke from R, including H2O, ScaleR and Skytree, but at this point R is simply a client and the actual work is done by the distributed engine.

“Legacy” SAS uses file-swapping to handle out-of-memory problems, but at great cost to performance; when a data set is too large to load into memory, “legacy” SAS slows to a crawl.  Through SAS/ACCESS, SAS supports the ability to pass through SQL operations to MPP databases and HiveQL, MapReduce and Pig to Hadoop; however, as is the case with R, “legacy” SAS simply functions as a client and the work is done in the database or Hadoop.  The user can accomplish the same tasks using any SQL or Hadoop interface.

To its credit, SAS also offers distributed in-memory software that runs inside Hadoop (the SAS High-Performance Analytics suite and SAS In-Memory Statistics for Hadoop).  Of course, these products do not replicate “legacy” SAS; they are entirely new products that support a subset of “legacy” SAS functionality at extra cost.  Some migration may be required, since they run DS2 but not the traditional SAS DATA Step.  (I cite these points not to denigrate the new SAS software, which appears to be well designed and implemented,  but to highlight the discontinuity for SAS users between the “legacy” product and the scalable High Performance products.)

If your organization works with Big Data, your primary focus should be on choosing the right scalable analytics platform, with secondary emphasis on the client or API used to invoke it.

Strata + Hadoop World 2014

A sellout crowd of 5,500 met at the Javits Center in New York last week for the 2014 Strata + Hadoop World conference.  There were three major themes:

Big Data in Action.   In his keynote address, Mike Olson of Cloudera noted the shift from talking about “geeky projects like Pig, Sqoop and Oozie” to talking about applications, such as fraud detection, product design and agriculture.   An entire track in the conference featured success stories from companies such as Goldman Sachs, Transamerica, American Express, L.L. Bean, FICO and Kaiser Permanente.

Symbiosis of Analytics and Big Data.  Paul Zikopoulos of IBM observed that “Big Data without analytics is just a bunch of data.”   Zikopoulos drew an analogy to the mining industry, which uses advanced technology to extract trace amounts of valuable material from large quantities of low-grade ore; in Big Data, we use advanced analytics to extract useful insight from large quantities of low-value per byte data.  Conference sessions reflected the critical role analytic technology plays in the Big Data value chain.

Spark has arrived.  The 2013 conference included two sessions about Spark; this year, thirteen sessions featured Spark, including the sold-out full day Spark Camp.  Moreover, vendors such as ClearStory Data and Platfora openly touted Spark integration, in the belief that this capability resonates with buyers.  Other conference sponsors recently certified on Spark include Pentaho, Skytree, Tableau, Talend and Trifacta; and MapR announced a project to deliver Apache Drill on Spark.

Among the notable Spark sessions:

  • Sean Owen of Cloudera delivered an excellent demonstration of Spark’s MLLib machine learning library for anomaly detection
  • Michael Armbrust of Databricks presented on Spark SQL and its uses as both a query language and a general framework for working with structured data

Advancing a theme he introduced last year, Olson speculated in his keynote that Hadoop will “disappear” this year because enterprises increasingly view Hadoop in the context of an overall data management strategy.  He cited the recent Teradata-Cloudera partnership as evidence of this trend.  That announcement is certainly significant, but it demonstrates the opposite of Olson’s high-level point; Teradata abandoned its exclusive relationship with Hortonworks because many of its customers prefer Cloudera to HDP, and they aren’t willing to switch simply because TD sells a “Unified Data Architecture.”  Most enterprises still make decisions about Hadoop separately from decisions about other elements in the warehousing mix, and there are currently few good reasons to change that behavior.

Rana El Kaliouby of Affectiva presented an excellent example of analytics and Big Data working together.  Affectiva uses streaming facial recognition to capture millions of data points as consumers react to content, and uses machine learning algorithms to draw insight from the data.  By mapping the streaming data to emotional states, they can identify what content resonates with consumers.

Several of the sponsored topics in the plenary sessions were quite good, including presentations by MapR, Intel, ClearStory and IBM; others were about what one expects from sponsored presentations.

There were also a number of entertaining presentations that had little to do with Big Data.  Shankar Vedantum of NPR, for example, spent ten minutes sermonizing about the propensity of the human mind to select facts that confirm existing biases, and selectively used facts to illustrate his point.  He should have paid attention in “Research Methods 101”; at best, his point seemed trite, like telling a convention of nutritionists that “dieting is hard.”

Eli Collins of Cloudera delivered the obligatory “ethics and Big Data” piece, in which he argued that we should “use data for good”; his piece was immediately followed, ironically, by a presentation about using facial recognition to get people to buy more candy.  Everyone agrees that doing good is a good thing, but a technologist delivering a sermon is as silly as a Baptist minister lecturing on Oozie.

Distributed Analytics: A Primer

Can we leverage distributed computing for machine learning and predictive analytics? The question keeps surfacing in different contexts, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to write an overview of the topic.

The question is important for four reasons:

  • Source data for analytics frequently resides in distributed data platforms, such as MPP appliances or Hadoop;
  • In many cases, the volume of data needed for analysis is too large to fit into memory on a single machine;
  • Growing computational volume and complexity requires more throughput than we can achieve with single-threaded processing;
  • Vendors make misleading claims about distributed analytics in the platforms they promote.

First, a quick definition of terms.  We use the term parallel computing to mean the general practice of dividing a task into smaller units and performing them in parallel; multi-threaded processing means the ability of a software program to run multiple threads (where resources are available); and distributed computing means the ability to spread processing across multiple physical or virtual machines.

The principal benefit of parallel computing is speed and scalability; if it takes a worker one hour to make one hundred widgets, one hundred workers can make ten thousand widgets in an hour (ceteris paribus, as economists like to say).  Multi-threaded processing is better than single-threaded processing, but shared memory and machine architecture impose a constraint on potential speedup and scalability.  In principle, distributed computing can scale out without limit.

The ability to parallelize a task is inherent in the definition of the task itself.  Some tasks are easy to parallelize, because computations performed by each worker are independent of all other workers, and the desired result set is a simple combination of the results from each worker; we call these tasks embarrassingly parallel.   A SQL Select query is embarrassingly parallel; so is model scoring; so are many of the tasks in a text mining process, such as word filtering and stemming.

A second class of tasks requires a little more effort to parallelize.  For these tasks, computations performed by each worker are independent of all other workers, and the desired result set is a linear combination of the results from each worker.  For example, we can parallelize computation of the mean of a distributed database by computing the mean and row count independently for each worker, then compute the grand mean as the weighted mean of the worker means.  We call these tasks linear parallel.

There is a third class of tasks, which is harder to parallelize because the data must be organized in a meaningful way.  We call a task data parallel if computations performed by each worker are independent of all other workers so long as each worker has a “meaningful” chunk of the data.  For example, suppose that we want to build independent time series forecasts for each of three hundred retail stores, and our model includes no cross-effects among stores; if we can organize the data so that each worker has all of the data for one and only one store, the problem will be embarrassingly parallel and we can distribute computing to as many as three hundred workers.

While data parallel problems may seem to be a natural application for processing inside an MPP database or Hadoop, there are two constraints to consider.  For a task to be data parallel, the data must be organized in chunks that align with the business problem.  Data stored in distributed databases rarely meets this requirement, so the data must be shuffled and reorganized prior to analytic processing, a process that adds latency.  The second constraint is that the optimal number of workers depends on the problem; in the retail forecasting problem cited above, the optimal number of workers is three hundred.  This rarely aligns with the number of nodes in a distributed database or Hadoop cluster.

There is no generally agreed label for tasks that are the opposite of embarrassingly parallel; for convenience, I use the term orthogonal to describe a task that cannot be parallelized at all.  In analytics, case-based reasoning is the best example of this, as the method works by examining individual cases in a sequence.  Most machine learning and predictive analytics algorithms fall into a middle ground of complex parallelism; it is possible to divide the data into “chunks” for processing by distributed workers, but workers must communicate with one another, multiple iterations may be required and the desired result is a complex combination of results from individual workers.

Software for complex machine learning tasks must be expressly designed and coded to support distributed processing.  While it is physically possible to install open source R or Python in a distributed environment (such as Hadoop), machine learning packages for these languages run locally on each node in the cluster.  For example, if you install open source R on each node in a twenty-four node Hadoop cluster and try to run logistic regression you will end up with twenty-four logistic regression models developed separately for each node.  You may be able to use those results in some way, but you will have to program the combination yourself.

Legacy commercial tools for advanced analytics provide only limited support for parallel and distributed processing.  SAS has more than 300 procedures in its legacy Base and STAT software packages; only a handful of these support multi-threaded (SMP) operations on a single machine;  nine PROCs can support distributed processing (but only if the customer licenses an additional product, SAS High-Performance Statistics).  IBM SPSS Modeler Server supports multi-threaded processing but not distributed processing; the same is true for Statistica.

The table below shows currently available distributed platforms for predictive analytics; the table is complete as of this writing (to the best of my knowledge).

Distributed Analytics Software, May 2014

Several observations about the contents of this table:

(1) There is currently no software for distributed analytics that runs on all distributed platforms.

(2) SAS can deploy its proprietary framework on a number of different platforms, but it is co-located and does not run inside MPP databases.  Although SAS claims to support HPA in Hadoop, it seems to have some difficulty executing on this claim, and is unable to describe even generic customer success stories.

(3) Some products, such as Netezza and Oracle, aren’t portable at all.

(4) In theory, MADLib should run in any SQL environment, but Pivotal database appears to be the primary platform.

To summarize key points:

— The ability to parallelize a task is inherent in the definition of the task itself.

— Most “learning” tasks in advanced analytics tasks are not embarrassingly parallel.

— Running a piece of software on a distributed platform is not the same as running it in distributed mode.  Unless the software is expressly written to support distributed processing, it will run locally, and the user will have to figure out how to combine the results from distributed workers.

Vendors who claim that their distributed data platform can perform advanced analytics with open source R or Python packages without extra programming are confusing predictive model “learning” with simpler tasks, such as scoring or SQL queries.

Smart Money: Venture Capital for Analytics 2013

Thanks to Crunchbase’s downloadable database, we can report that in 2013 investors poured more than $2 billion into Analytic startups, up 38% from 2012.  Crunchbase reports 2013 funding for Analytics ventures more than five times greater than in 2009.

Source: Crunchbase
Source: Crunchbase

Palantir led the pack in new funding, going to the well twice, in October and December, to raise a total of $304m based on a valuation of $9b.  As a point of reference, at 4X revenue, industry leader SAS is worth about $12b.

Funding flowed to companies that build advanced analytics into focused vertical or horizontal solutions.  Examples include:

Investors paid special attention to vendors who specialize in social media analytic platforms:

Capital also flowed to companies offering general-purpose software, platforms and services for analytics, including:

Investors continue to fund startups offering easy-to-use interfaces for the business user, including:

Top investors in Analytics for 2013 include:

Clearly, investors are placing bets on a robust future for analytics.

Analytic Startups: Skytree

Skytree started out as an academic machine learning project developed at Georgia Tech’s Fastlab.  Leadership shopped the software to a number of software vendors prior to 2011 and, finding no buyers, launched as a standalone venture in 2012.

In April 2013, Skytree announced Series A funding of $18 million, with backing from U.S. Venture Partners, UPS, Javelin Venture Partners and Osage University Partners.   The company has 18 U.S. employees in LinkedIn.

Skytree’s public reference customers include Adconian, Brookfield Residential Property Services, CANFAR, eHarmony, SETI Institute and United States Golf Association.  This customer list did not change in 2013 despite significant investment in marketing and sales.

Skytree has formally partnered with Cloudera, Hortonworks and MapR.

Compared to its peers, Skytree reveals very little about its technology, which is generally a yellow flag.

urlSkytree’s principal product is Skytree Server, a server-based library of distributed algorithms.   Skytree claims to support the following techniques:

  • Support Vector Machines (SVM)
  • Nearest Neighbor
  • K-Means
  • Principal Component Analysis (PCA)
  • Linear Regression
  • Two-Point Correlation
  • Kernal Density Estimation (KDE)
  • Gradient Boosted Trees
  • Random Forests

Skytree does not show images or videos of its user interface anywhere on its website.  The implication is that it lacks a visual interface, and programming is required.  Skytree claims a web services interface as well as interfaces to R, Weka, C++ and Python.

For data sources, Skytree claims the ability to connect to relational databases (presumably through ODBC); Hadoop (presumably HDFS); and to consume data from flat files and “common statistical packages”.

Skytree claims the ability to deploy on commodity Linux servers in local, cluster, cloud or Hadoop configurations.  (Absent YARN support, though, the latter will be a “beside” architecture, with data movement).

A second product, Skytree Advisor, launched in Beta in September.  Skytree Advisor is mostly interesting for what it reveals about Skytree Server.  The product includes some unique capabilities, including the ability to produce an actual report, but the user interface evokes a blue screen of death.   The status of this offering seems to be in doubt, as Skytree no longer promotes it.