Data Warehousing Appliances: Growing Bigger Than A Breadbox, Softer Than The Bread

Jameskobielus_8By James Kobielus

Now for my core coverage area — data warehousing (DW) — and the topic of my first Forrester research report, coming soon. (Everybody note: Boris Evelson is our lead BI analyst. But given that BI and DW are joined at the hip, I had to put in my two cents on the intersections of these (and other related topics — I also cover CEP for Forrester as it impacts information and knowledge management professionals).

The DW appliance wars are upon us. This can be seen in vendors' eagerness to slap the appliance label on a growing range of hardware-integrated solutions, most of which are much bigger than a breadbox, and also far more complex and costly — though, ostensibly, less so than the software-centric solutions they hope to supplant. Every vendor claims that its appliances are true "plug-and-play" solutions, though few customers are so naïve as to imagine that a complex IT solution can be as easy to install and setup as, say, a toaster-oven. In addition, vendors and industry observers are proliferating rival definitions of what constitutes a true appliance.

Depending on which vendor's religion you subscribe to, an appliance may come closer to one or the other end of the following solution spectrum:

• Simple DW appliances: Some DW appliances are simple "black boxes" that are designed and optimized for a single function or transaction type. Simple appliances, often packaged as blades or stand-alone assemblies, allow little if any modification or customization by the user.

• Complex DW appliances: Most DW appliances fall into this category. This sort of appliance is a complex assemblage of processing, input/output, storage, and other components integrated across one or more racks in an enterprise data center. Often, a complex appliance consists of one or more modular blades, which may or may not be able to stand alone.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for vendors to stretch the concept of an appliance to the breaking point. Unfortunately, one of the core features that most people associate with appliances — their physical tangibility — is starting to fall by the wayside. Increasingly, vendors are exploring the nouveau notion of the "virtual appliance." This refers to the concept of a self-contained software package that can be deployed rapidly to diverse operating and hardware platforms through virtualization technologies such as VMWare and Xen. It's not clear how these "virtual appliances" differ from existing development paradigms, such as Java, that also promise the ability to "write once run anywhere."

The DW appliance concept is softening along the human dimension as well. To further stretch the concept, more and more appliance vendors incorporate prepackaged professional services into their concept of an appliance. Some vendors are stressing global services as a core feature of their appliance offerings. According to this approach, the appliance is a broader solution package that includes services to help customers install, set up, maintain, and optimize the pre-configured hardware/software assembly.

CIOs, enterprise architects, and other professionals must wade through this welter of confusing, overlapping definitions to compare and contrast appliances against each other — and against the standard "software + servers + storage" DW deployment model.

A high-level guideline for DW practitioners: Use the same core criteria to evaluate DW appliances as you apply to traditional DW solutions: price-performance, functionality, flexibility, scalability, manageability, integration, and extensibility. Try not to invest any magic value in some solution simply due to the fact that the vendor has brought it to market under the "appliance" label.