Reflections on Strata NYC 2014

I had a chance to attend Strata in New York back in October.  I had been wanting to attend Strata for a few years, but had not had a chance until now.  A few impressions: (in the form of brief bullets)

  • It’s huge! (Over 3,000 attendees)
  • Very corporate!  (A bit too corporate, too stuffy, seemed like legal departments censored some presentations)
  • All the cool kids are using/learning Spark (and Scala)
  • Map Reduce is old news.
  • Enterprises move slow like dinosaurs, are just figuring out what Map Reduce is
  • Way too many vendors
  • Not enough interesting/inspiring presentations

Those were just my impressions, others may have other opinions.

Pentaho and Vertica as Business Intelligence / Data Warehousing solution


I recently wrapped up a BI/Data Warehouse implementation project where I was responsible for helping a rapidly expanding international e-commerce company replace their aging BI reporting tool with a new, more flexible solution. The old BI reporting tool was based on a “in-memory” reporting engine, was more of a “departmental solution” than an enterprise-grade one, and was not optimally designed. For example, users found themselves downloading data from different canned reports to Excel where they ran VLOOKUPs and pivot tables to compute simple metrics such as average order value and average unit retail. Needless to say despite best of intentions, there had been a communication gap between business users and IT developers on reporting requirements during the implementation of the original BI tool.

In designing and implementing the new solutions, I set the following strategic tenants / guiding principles:

  • leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software; minimize customization and emphasize configuration instead (i.e., chose to buy instead of build, and made sure to not to build too much after buying)
  • involve all stakeholders and business users throughout process
  • enable business users to use self-service BI tools as much as possible
  • train as needed; up-skilling user base on self-service tools is better than hiring army of BI analysts
  • leverage data warehouse for both internal and external reporting
  • minimize amount of aggregation in Data Warehouse (we did almost no aggregation)
  • maximize the processing power of the ROLAP engine by pairing it with a high-performance analytical database (i.e., columnar MPP database)
  • stick to Kimball data warehouse design approach as much as possible, but be pragmatic where needed; Star Schema, Star Schema, Star Schema! (no snowflakes here)
  • take an iterative approach where possible – need to “ship” on time – understand that 1st release will not be “perfect” but does need to meet business requirements
  • for external reporting, provide canned reports only initially; test user adoption and work with clients to understand and address reporting needs over time

We looked at traditional players, open source, emerging technologies, and Cloud BI SaaS providers. I made sure business and IT stakeholders were part of the vendor selection process, ensuring they attended demos and vendor presentations. In the end, Pentaho best matched all our needs, providing us with both a solid ETL and BI reporting engines. Since we looking at providing both internal and external reporting with this solution, traditional BI vendors were prohibitively expensive, and “cloud offerings” were not compatible with our current IT capabilities and architecture (our data was not in the cloud).

Solution Description – Vertica + Pentaho BI/PDI

I proposed and received approval from our senior management and company board of directors to use Pentaho and Vertica as our Business Intelligence (BI) / Data Warehouse (DW) solution.


HP Vertica is a columnar MPP database that is 20-100 times faster than Oracle. HP Vertica is available in a Community Edition; allowing organizations to use all the features of the database for free for data up to 1TB on three nodes. You can also install the database on a single node, though for a true proof of concept, you should get at least 3 nodes. We started using Vertica 6.1 Community Edition for proof of concept (POC) and then later upgraded to an enterprise license when we went live in production.


Pentaho is an open source BI platform and ETL tool. I liked the fact that it was open source; allowing us to highly customize the BI implementation if we chose to, as well as develop our own ETL connectors and routines. Some of the client tools are a bit quirky, but I do not what BI/ETL software isn’t, given the complexity of these tools. Overall the product is solid and delivers as expected. We got the enterprise edition for the additional features and product support from Pentaho. One thing that is annoying, is all the configuration files that are spread all over the place. To be fair, this is probably more of a Java application configuration issue, than a Pentaho issue.

When I tell people that I’m using Pentaho, they are usually surprised; then I find out they were using Pentaho 3.x and then I’m not surprised by their reaction. Pentaho 4.x is a big step up from previous major releases, and Pentaho 5.0 is looking really good (I like their UI redesign). I encourage anyone who looked at an early version of Pentaho to take another look. The product has matured and is worth another look.

When I was selecting a BI vendor, the thought “no one ever got fired for choosing IBM (Cognos)” crossed my mind. I could have gone the “safe” route and used one of these other tools. However, I believe the combination of Vertica + Pentaho has delivered more value to the organization in a shorter amount of time that it would have been for us to realize with these other vendors. For our organization, for our business needs, and for the realities of our IT capabilities at the time, Pentaho + Vertica was the way to go. We delivered the project on time and within budget (and without astronomical first-year costs). We have 100% user adoption internally, and are getting very positive feedback from our merchant clients.


  • Recognized by CEO for on-time, on-budget implementation; received “A” grade on end-of-year Enterprise-wide Strategic Initiatives Scorecard
  • Excellent user adoption
  • Positive feedback from external clients
  • Reduced manual reporting tasks over 50% (and over 80% in certain departments)

Reflections on Big Data Roundtable hosted by JNK Securities

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a Big Data round table discussion organized by JNK Securities, a broker-dealer based in NY w/ offices in DC. The attendees seemed to be evenly split between technologists/practitioners and finance professionals hoping to get a pulse on market trends. The conversation was moderated by Atul Chhabra, entrepreneur and formerly Director of Cloud Strategy at Verizon.

The finance professionals were eager to understand how Hadoop, NoSQL, and other Big Data technologies were going to disrupt (or not) existing technology vendors. One person had asked how easy it would be for existing companies to replace their Oracle installs with Hadoop, or NoSQL database, if Oracle licensing agreements were structured to penalize such migration. As was quickly pointed out by the crowd, it is not “termination fees” that are the problem in moving away from Oracle, but the level of investment (i.e., cost) that would be necessary to refactor existing code and applications to ensure the application would function as expected. One way RDBMS vendors increase their product’s “stickiness” and cost of migration is to promote their database’s proprietary language (PL/SQL for Oracle, TSQL for Microsoft) over ANSI standards. If an application relies heavily on these stored procedures, it will have to be rewritten in the new database’s language (or in standard ANSI SQL to make it more easily transferable in the future). Of course, that’s assuming there are no hidden “gotchas” in the code itself, such as a programmer making a direct JDBC call to a database and hard coding the SQL in the web application code itself. Bottom line, it would be very expensive to rewrite existing code; and very hard to justify doing so since by itself it does not add any additional value to the company. Additionally, as Atul pointed out, migrating off Oracle may be unlikely to reduce licensing costs for enterprises since these licensing contracts are typically based on number of employees, or clients – migrating one application off Oracle would not affect number of employees, so the licensing costs remain the same, and in fact increase if there are licensing costs for the new technology (there usually is). What is more likely is for companies to build new tools, new applications using emerging technologies and leave legacy systems as is.

An interesting idea put out by one of the attendees was that they way we think about coding and building applications will dramatically change now that we are in the age of Big Data and Big Compute. There is a fundamental shift in thinking how we design applications – instead of coding for the limits of hardware assume “best case scenarios” of unbounded scalability, unending amounts of storage and RAM thanks to developments in Big Data architecture, horizontal scaling, and massively parallel processing (MPP). For example, no longer code applications and file systems to purposely delay processing while waiting for hard drives to spin up or to perform file seek operations; instead assume instantaneous read/write thanks to SSDs, assume infinite storage (through HDFS-like architecture), and assume unbounded parallelism (i.e., no longer bounded by number of cores on one particular server)

Overall, it was a great event, good dinner conversation with smart people.  Looking forward to future events.

Reflections on "Hadoop Certification – is it worth it" 18 months later

It has been over a year and half since I took the Cloudera Hadoop Developer Certification course and exam and posted my initial impressions of it on my blog. I have received more comments than I had expected, thank you for reading and sending me comments! There have been a few trends in the comments, some displayed, others kept private. The main ones are:

  1. People really want to get their hands on the Cloudera training materials
  2. People are very eager to get Hadoop jobs
  3. People are trying to transition into Hadoop from different (technical) backgrounds
  4. People want to know if they need to know Java to work with Hadoop
  5. People really want to know if getting a certification in Hadoop will land them a job.

Here is an update to each of these trends:

#1) I cannot share the Cloudera training materials with you, sorry. I wish you the best, but I cannot distribute these materials. They are also pretty old at this point, chances are some of the content is outdated by now. It seems like many of the people asking me for the training materials haven’t picked up any books on the subject at all.  So, please check out the available online resources or pick up some books (Hadoop, the Definitive Guide, comes to mind) .

#2) There is tremendous amount of interest in learning Hadoop (and getting the training materials) in India. If it
is hard to find experienced Hadoop developers in the US right now, I imagine it must be even harder in India (for now, anyway) and there must be many, many job openings right now. I can imagine the outsourcing firms trying to staff up to meet the unmet demand in the US and elsewhere. Almost all the comments and private messages sent to me for training materials were from India. I do not know how much a training course costs in India, but there are plenty of training options, in addition to Cloudera and Hortonworks’ online offerings.

#3) Career switchers (or more accurately, technology-platform-switchers) will need to impress hiring managers with their transferable skill sets and show (not tell) their passion for technology and big data. This is true for any job applicant.

#4) Regarding Java, yes, it is good to know Java to work with Hadoop, but it is not required. You can use other languages, such as python, through the Hadoop Streaming API. To work with big data, python is good language to know anyway (lots of companies are looking with people with linux/python background), so learn python while you are at it ( If you know python you will also be able to use Pig to interact with your data. What language you will will be determined by the solution architecture and design. If the company you want to work with has designed a solution with custom coded java map reduce jobs, then you would need to know java. Other places may implement Hadoop Streaming API and use python, so it may be possible to get a job there if you know python.

#5) Having a certification in Hadoop won’t guarantee you a job. Most companies are looking for experienced Hadoop hires, which is hard to do unless they are poaching employees from other Big Data statups or tech firms (Yahoo, Google, etc.). When I interviewed technical job applicants, I was surprised (perhaps I shouldn’t have been) how poorly they interview. So please, please practice your behavioral interviewing skills (“tell me about yourself”, “walk me through your resume”, “tell me about a time you had to solve a difficult problem”, “why do you want this job”, etc.). If someone has 50 certifications and can’t answer these simple questions, I will not consider them for the role. I have heard that some hiring managers consider too many certifications as a cover up for lack of skill (superstar developers don’t bother getting certified / don’t need to be certified). For the rest of us, it can help, but it doesn’t guarantee success. The Cloudera Developer course is a good overview, but for it to be meaningful, you really do need a project to work on. Working on a pet project and being able to share code samples would help set you up for success when interviewing.

As for my own personal experience, I did not get a job working directly with Hadoop following the certification course, but I also was not only considering Hadoop developer roles.  I am now leading a BI implementation project where I interviewed and hired a team of developers and analysts. We are using Pentaho and Vertica (for analytic database) and I have been evangelizing Hadoop and other technologies at my company. I find it humorous when executives say the company needs to do more “big data” or “more Hadoop” without really knowing what it means. The certification course definitely helped me speak more authoritatively about this technology at my company and when networking with others.

Whether or not to take the certification course depends on your individual circumstance. If you are dead-set on getting a job as a Hadoop developer then it may be worth it to you, but make sure to follow up with a personal project to continue learning and practicing. Many people focus on Hadoop, and seem to forget the business applications of using a technology like Hadoop (data science, improved ETL, data processing). Brushing up on those skills and domain knowledge would make you a much more interesting job candidate over all.  Good luck everyone!

Upcoming conference on node.js

Just signed up for, on April 23rd 2012. Looking forward to learning more about this event-driven framework and how to apply to business challenges.

Schedule of events includes

  • Introduction to the event-driven I/O framework that is changing that way we think about developing web applications.
  • Fully loaded Node! Lloyd Hilaiel will explain how to do a bunch of computation with Node.js, use all available CPUs, fail gracefully, and stay responsive.
  • Charlie Robbins will take us through real-world deployments in business-critical systems and why some of the world’s leading companies are choosing Node.
  • James Halliday and Daniel Shaw will show how to use Node.js to enable the real-time streaming web. Guaranteed to generate ideas for next-generation web applications.

Reflections on Innovation and recent opinion piece in NY Times

People often ask me about what metrics I would use to evaluate an organization’s level of “innovation”. Depending on how well I know that person, I sometimes flippantly respond with a question (or two; the first one being the more important one):

  • Has the organization recently created an “Innovation Center” or team? This is usually a big red flag that there is no innovation culture that permeates the organization, so the company creates a “innovation” organization and hires “innovation associates” to help the company “ideate” and “innovate”. The end result is more process, less innovation.
  • What percent of your individual contributors’ day is spent in meetings? When people who should be doing things, researching things, designing things, building things are instead stuck in pointless meetings (you know which ones I mean) then the organization has an execution problem that will come back to haunt them later. Their time would probably be better spent on solving problems and implementing solutions.

On a related note, I thought the following quote from a recent New York Times opinion piece on Innovation and Bell Labs was particularly apropos:

By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being.

I would add “Regrettably, building ‘innovation centers’ passes for innovation today.” The author describes Bell Labs’ founders’ philosophy of innovation:

His fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing.

I tend to agree with this approach. You need (empowered) cross-functional teams working cohesively to develop new solutions, given organizational resources (time and budget to do proof of concepts, testing, and take risks) to get an innovative culture going. “Innovation centers” are often a symptom of siloed organizations. When employees bemoan going to another “innovation session,” that is usually a sign that the latest “corporate initiative” to promote innovation is not working. Sometimes the best thing to do is to admit you have a siloed organization and take steps to reshape. This takes true leadership (at the most senior levels) and effective change management. It is easier said than done.

Cloudera Hadoop Developer Training- Is it Worth it?

Is Cloudera Developer Training for Apache Hadoop worth it?

I just finished the Cloudera Developer Training for Apache Hadoop course, and passed the Cloudera Certified Developer for Apache Hadoop exam. I am feeling good about passing the certification exam on the first try, but have some mixed feelings, primarily around: is it worth the course fee (upwards of $2,700 at the time of the writing)? In particular, what is the value to job seekers or professionals wanting to augment their skill set and polish their resumes? Is it worth it to Java developers to take this course? Don’t get me wrong, the instructor (Mark Fei) was excellent! He was very knowledgeable and engaging. The course itself covers a lot of material in a digestible way. The question in my mind is, will you appreciate all the knowledge in taking the Developer course, or would picking up a book on Hive (or Pig) be more than enough for what you need to do?
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