Friday, May 29, 2009

Using BI to Manage Your Startup

We heard several different perspectives on how Start Ups use Business Intelligence at the May meeting of the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG. The meeting was a panel, moderated by Dan Scholnick of Trinity Ventures. Dan opened the meeting by introducing himself and then asking the panelists to introduce themselves.

The first panelist was Naghi Prasad, VP, Engineering & Operations at Offerpal Media, a start up that allows developers to monetize social applications and online games. Offerpal Media is a marketing company that does real time advertisement targeting and uses a variety of analytics techniques such as AB testing. Naghi told us that Business Intelligence is essential to the companies business and baked into their framework.

Next up was Lenin Gali, Director of Business Intelligence at ShareThis, a start up that allows people to share content with friends, family and their network via Email, SMS and social networking sites such as FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn. ShareThis also uses AB testing, and as a content network has to deal with large amounts of data.

Third was Bill Lapcevic, VP of Business Development at New Relic, which provides Software as a Service (SaaS) performance management for the Ruby on Rails web development platform. New Relic has acquired 1700 customers over its first year as a start up with a single sales person. Their customers are technical and they use their platform to track the addiction or pain of each customer, and to estimate their potential budget.

The final panelist was Bill Grosso, CTO & VP of Engineering at Twofish, a start up that offers SaaS based virtual economies for Virtual Worlds and Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). For the operator, a virtual economy is Sam Walton's analytics dream, as you see into every players wallet and capture their every purchase and exchange. TwoFish uses their experience with running multiple virtual economies to tell their customers what they are doing right and wrong in developing a virtual economy.

Dan's first question was "What are some of the pitfalls of Business intelligence?" Bill Lapcevic told us that they have a real time reporting system that can track can track revenue by the minute. The problem is that you can become addicted to data and spend too much time with it. Sometime you need to get away from your screen and talk to the customer. Lenin agreed with this and added that they have problems with data quality. Naghi told us that while a benefit is the surprises that they find from the data, a problem is that they are never finished with their analytics. Bill Grosso was concerned with premature generalization. You need to wait until you have enough data to support conclusions and revisit the conclusions as more data arrives.

There was a wide variety of answers to the question of which tools each panel member used. According to Naghi Prasad, "MySQL is a killer app, it will kill your app!" Offerpal Media uses Oracle for their their database. While they like some of the features of Microsoft SQL Server, they are constrained to have only one Database Administrator (DBA) and DBAs are best when they specialize in one database system. They use open source Kettle for ETL and Microsoft Excel for data presentation. Naghi extolled the virtues of giving users data in a spreadsheet they were comfortable with and Excel pivot tables allows the user to manipulate their data at will. After surveying what was available, they implemented their own AB testing package.

ShareThis is on the leading edge of technology use. Lenin told us that they are 100% in the cloud, using the LAMP stack with MySQL and PHP. They have a 10 Terabyte in an Aster Data Systems database, and use both Microstrategy and Hadoop with Cascading for data analysis and reporting. Running this system takes about 1.5 system admins.

As might be expected, the New Relic system is built on Ruby on Rails and uses sharded MySQL to achieve the required database performance. In their experience it is sometimes worth paying a little more for hardware than optimizing the last ounce of performance from a system. They have developed many of their own analytics tools that they expect to sell as product to their customers.

As TwoFish does accounting for virtual worlds, their servers are not in the cloud, rather they are locked in their cage in a secure data center. While Bill Grosso lusts after some features in Microsoft SQL Server, they use MySQL with Kettle for ETL. They have developed their own visualization code that sits in front of the Mondrian OLAP engine. They expect to do more with the R language for statistical analysis and data mining.

Dan asked the panel how they get the organization to use their Business Intelligence product Bill Grosso lead by saying that adoption has to come from the top. If the CEO is not interested in Business intelligence, then nobody else will be either. He also called for simple metrics that make a point. Bill Lapcevic agreed that leadership should come from the top. The idea is to make the data addictive to users and to avoid to many metrics. Sharing data widely can help everyone understand how they can contribute to improving the numbers. Lenin thought that it was important to make decisions and avoid analysis paralysis. Naghi offered that Business Intelligence can scare non Business Intelligence users. You have to provide simple stuff, and make sure that you score some sure hits early on to encourage people. Finally remember that different people need different reports so make sure each report is specialized to the requirements of the person receiving it.

There were more questions asked, too many to describe in detail here. All in all, we had an informative discussion throughout the evening with a lot of good information shared.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Virtual Worlds - Real Metrics

Avoid hyperinflation! This was the salient piece of advice for running a virtual economy that I got from Bill Grosso's talk to the April meeting of the SDForum Emerging Technology SIG. The talk was entitled "Virtual Worlds and Real Metrics". Bill is CTO of TwoFish, a startup that provides virtual economies to online worlds. Bill has an undergraduate degree in Economics, so he has both academic knowledge and the practical experience of seeing the insides of virtual economies in online worlds.

In case you are wondering what a virtual economy is, two leading examples are found in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Both are massive multiplayer online (MMO) worlds. World of Warcraft is a fantasy game based on combat where players receive rewards for gameplay. The economy greases interactions between players and allows them to exchange rewards. Although it is not the primary point of the game, the World of Warcraft economy is estimated to be larger than many small countries around the world. Second Life is an online world where you can establish a second life for yourself. Like all the other aspects of Second Life, the economy is intended to provide a virtual reflection of a real economy.

Although it is attractive to think that virtual economies are like real economies, Bill spent quite some time disabusing us of this notion. Unlike real money, virtual money may have different costs in different localities, sometimes you get a bulk discount on large purchases of virtual money and in some cases old money may expire. Another issue is that money does not circulate in the same way are real money. In the real world money, once set free, circulates from person to person, business to business. In a virtual world, money is usually created by the game, flows through a player and then back to the game. It seems that the degree to which money circulates between players is a good measure of how "real" the economy is in a virtual world.

For measuring money velocity, virtual worlds do have an advantage. In the real world, statisticians estimate the money supply, then estimate the total number of number of transactions in the economy and divide one by the other to get money velocity. In a virtual world, the man behind the curtain sees into every players wallet and every transaction. The calculation of money velocity is exact. Moreover, by linking demographics and other knowledge to players you have a Business Intelligence analytics wonderland, precise reports on every aspect of the economy that can be used for all sorts of marketing purposes.

Hyperinflation has been and always will be a pitfall of virtual economies. It can come from bad design of the virtual economy, but is it more likely to come from players finding and exploiting bugs in the game, and there are always bugs in a game. Eternal vigilance is the price for avoiding hyperinflation, so the analytics reports are an important part of managing this part of the economy as well.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Gartner BI Summit

Suzanne Hoffman, VP Sales at Star Analytics, recently attended the Gartner BI Summit and she gave the SDForum Business Intelligence SIG a short overview of the conference at the April meeting. You can get her presentation from our web site. There were several threads that ran through her presentation, one is the scope of Business Intelligence (BI). Another related thread is Business Intelligence and Performance Management (PM or EPM). Note that when "E" is prefixed to a acronym, it stands for Enterprise.

Although the title of the conference is the Gartner BI Summit, there seemed to be a lot of concern for placing BI within the context of Information Management (IM or EIM), where Information Management includes both search and social software for collaboration as well as BI and PM. On a side note, I have always found enterprise search to be terrible, as discussed previously. Anything that can be done to improve enterprise search is worthwhile, and both analytics and social efforts like bookmarking or tagging can and should be applied to make it better.

Gartner sees BI evolving from something that is mostly pushed by Information Technology (IT) to something that is more broadly focused on Performance Management driving Business Transformation. There has been tension between the terms Business Intelligence and Performance management for some time. For example, I wrote a semi-serious post on the subject in 2004. At the BI SIG we have always used BI an umbrella term that encompasses customer and supply chain analytics and management. On the one hand, maybe BI is too associated with IT and not enough with the end users such as business analysts. On the other hand Performance Management may have a narrower focus on financial analysis, which is a large and important part of analytics, but not the whole enchilada by any means.

Which ever term is chosen as the umbrella, we will continue to call our SIG the Business Intelligence SIG for as long as Gartner has BI Summits.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Next Revolution in Data Management

Cringely wrote a great post today called "The Sequel Dilemma". His point is that we are in the midst of a revolution in the way we do data management, the database is the like a horse and buggy soon to be run over by the next generation of data management tools like, for example, the Google database system that I wrote about last year. I particularly liked his comment:
Right now almost every web application has an Apache server fronting a database box running MySQL or its closed source equivalent like Oracle, DB2, or SQL Server. The data bottleneck in all those applications is the SQL box, which is generally doing a very simple job in a very complex manner that made total sense for minicomputers in 1975 but doesn’t make as much sense today.