Vertica CEO Chris Lynch Talks HP Acquisition, Fires Back at Netezza, IBM in “Big Data” Battle

3/28/11Follow @gthuang

Big data, schmig data. I know, you’re sick of it. Too bad.

Let’s get right to the trash talk, shall we? A few weeks ago, Netezza CEO Jim Baum (who’s now part of IBM) was telling me about the competitive landscape in “big data” analytics—the software and machinery that businesses are using these days to analyze increasingly huge amounts of data on customers, sales, logistics, and so forth.

While touting Netezza’s products, Baum dished on the shortcomings of other players in the sector like EMC/Greenplum, Oracle, and especially Hewlett-Packard, which acquired Billerica, MA-based Vertica in the data analytics arena last month. Baum pointed out some of HP’s recent struggles in data warehousing and business intelligence. He said the company has suffered “a tremendous brain drain” and that its “talent pool is gone.” He concluded that “HP has completely missed the boat” on big data analytics.

Vertica, whose acquisition by Palo Alto, CA-based HP (NYSE: HPQ) officially closed last week, would beg to differ. Chris Lynch, Vertica’s chief executive, started out by giving me a quip of his own about Netezza. “Their tag line is ‘The power to question everything,’” Lynch says. “So the first question is: why do they need proprietary hardware? The second question is: why are they using a database engine that’s based on technology from 1982?”

Netezza would probably dispute those assertions, but let’s hear Lynch out. In comparison to Vertica’s software-only “next generation architecture,” Lynch says, Netezza’s technology is “like taking an AMC Pacer and putting a turbocharger in it.” He also says Netezza faces “challenges architecturally” and, in its integration with IBM, will have to navigate the “politics of five competing databases” at Big Blue.

Lynch (see left) also defended his own house, pointing out (in response to Baum’s remark about HP’s talent) that Vertica hasn’t lost a single engineer during his year-long tenure or as a result of the acquisition. In that regard, he says, HP’s talent pool is quite strong, thank you very much. What’s more, Vertica is currently hiring top talent across sales, engineering, and product management, he says, and is looking to more than double the size of its Boston-area headquarters to more than 200 workers sometime later this year.

It also sounds like HP is letting Vertica run pretty autonomously, as its own division. The plan is for HP to take Vertica’s software, optimize it for its servers and hardware systems, and sell the “appliances” integrated with the Vertica technology (and/or the software alone) to business customers. “We are their bet,” Lynch says. “The company’s galvanized around it. We’re being left alone to market the solution. We won’t get encumbered by the politics of a big company.”

Lynch has been around the block, so he knows what he’s talking about. He started his career in sales at DEC in the late 1980s (more on that later), and progressed up the chain to executive positions with Arrowpoint Communications, which was bought by Cisco Systems in 2000, and Acopia Networks, which F5 Networks acquired in 2007. Lynch joined Vertica in April of last year after serving as senior vice president at F5 for two years.

Vertica, for its part, has developed advanced database software that my colleague Wade first wrote about in 2007. By storing data in columns rather than traditional rows (part of a relatively recent trend in next-gen databases), the company makes databases much faster for certain types of searches and queries. That’s key for big customers like Groupon, Twitter, Zynga, AOL, Verizon, Comcast, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. The software runs on any standard server hardware (Dell, HP, or other), which gives customers more flexibility compared with competing proprietary hardware-software systems, Lynch says.

“We’re the only people who can deliver analytics everywhere, because we’re software only,” Lynch says. “We are a 40-megabyte software load—you can embed anywhere.” That means Vertica’s software can run in everything from networking and storage systems to mobile applications, which Lynch says is probably going to be Vertica’s biggest market. (There are other software-only database products around, of course, but Vertica is optimized for certain kinds of large-scale business applications like clickstream analysis, online ad serving, real-time trading, telecom customer delivery, and fraud detection.)

“If you believe analytics is everywhere and is the foundation of monetization of social media, telecommunications, or any consumer endeavor, then having the breadth to deliver your software in any form is going to be a huge advantage,” he says.

So, given the firm’s promising trajectory, why sell to HP now? (We don’t know the exact terms yet, but it sounds like it was a good deal for Vertica’s investors.) According to Lynch, it was time. Vertica started in 2005, so it’s been around for a while. To do a legitimate IPO, he says, would have taken another 18 months. What’s more, the consolidation that’s been going on in big data analytics in the past year—with EMC buying Greenplum and IBM buying Netezza—probably sped up the deal.

And, of course, HP gives Vertica a much bigger means of distribution and access to more big customers. Now it will be up to HP to execute in the market, Lynch says. “Our ambitions are to build a billion-dollar business,” he says of Vertica.

It certainly won’t be easy. The biggest short-term challenge he sees is “how to grow without watering down the gene pool.” But if his team is able to clear that hurdle, he wants to take a lesson from DEC (Digital), the company of his youth, and apply it to his new parent.

“Digital was a very innovative, compassionate, productive company,” Lynch says. “But it got caught up in its success—what got it to $14 billion [revenue] wouldn’t get it to $140 billion. They started breathing their own exhaust, they didn’t embrace the PC. Companies tend to do that. It’s tough, when you’re successful, to make changes. And I extend that to HP. Buying Vertica is a bold change.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.elasticube.com The ElastiCube Chronicles

    The exchange of lashes between Vertica and Netezza continue:

    http://tinyurl.com/NetezzaVertica

    The comments section is particularly interesting.