Following my visit to ProcessWorld, the second stop on this year’s conference tour took me to Las Vegas and The Data Warehouse Institute’s (TDWI’s) annual learning event there.


TDWI has been holding a series of rather intense learning conferences on data warehousing and business intelligence for a dozen years. (DM Review is a media partner at TDWI events.) I have been to at least five TDWI conferences in the past, and have always found them to be specialized, somewhat dogmatic and extremely practical to data warehouse professionals. But a couple of things struck me about this particular show.


First, more than 1,100 attendees turned out for the event, the most since 1996 I was told, which reminded me of the growing functional importance and ongoing shortfall of data warehouse talent. This came despite the fact that several companies in certain industries surely must have pulled the travel plans of employees in a weak economic cycle.


Second, while TDWI tended to its usual learning curve, I saw new faces, sessions, ideas and new products reflecting the kind of evolutionary transition in BI we’ve been writing about here. While we tend to focus on the end user experiences of Information Management, it’s nice to see the market is still opportunistic when it comes to solving an unsolved problem.


Wayne Eckerson, TDWI’s soft-spoken, deeply versed research director, had clearly picked up on the mix of old and new. We agreed, despite the consolidation news of 2007, the business intelligence market is expanding and has a few tricks left up its sleeve.


“People talk about commoditization but we’re not there yet by any means,” Eckerson told me. “I think that’s kind of a smokescreen from some folks who aren’t competing as well as they should. I didn’t know a third of the vendors on the show floor because they’re new. They’re delivering cool things on the database side and in analytics. OLAP seems to be getting a new life along with in-memory processing and visualization. Web 2.0 is starting to infiltrate, we’re seeing better interfaces arise, search is starting to happen and will have an impact pretty soon in very creative ways of integrating search going forward.”


I think Eckerson is exactly right. At TDWI and elsewhere we’re seeing startups in analytics, network appliances, performance software and even noise-ridden areas like “operational BI” breaking through with new ideas and workable new products. Master data management has never been a topic before in so many executive suites as it is today. More importantly, vendors are bringing viable new products to market, good news for the end users of technology. As Eckerson summed up, “Companies have hit the wall, entrepreneurs have recognized this, they’re coming out with purpose-built systems and customers are buying them.”


Yes Virginia, innovation is alive and well, whatever the future of the big platform providers turns out to be. You just need to look for it. To this point, the global information management curve is also beginning to contract. I was very happy to talk to Alan Pelz-Sharpe of CMSWatch, who presented for the first time at TDWI his firm’s vendor-neutral focus on unstructured data.


“We didn’t get a huge turnout at our sessions but we did get an incredibly engaged audience,” said Pelz-Sharpe. “We came back saying, it’s not about the crossover of the structured and unstructured world, it’s about the reality of the people who are working in these sectors and how those worlds touch. I think we’ve been focused on the technology overlap and maybe there’s less of that than we thought. But in the day-to-day workings of a database administrator or IT manager, they don’t make those differences between structured and unstructured, they get asked to look at this project and that project and somehow pull them together.”


What this tells me is that all the talk about merging disciplines is getting constructive, and that while reporters and analysts (as usual) have gotten ahead of themselves, it’s silly that so many technologists fail to monitor the solutions businesses are actually trying to build. Attendees at conferences held by TDWI, Gartner or my own company benefit directly from the network effect of meeting peers and benchmarking their undertakings. If you haven’t lately, I suggest you get to one of these conferences for this reason alone.


I’ll be co-hosting our own MDM Summit with conference chair Aaron Zornes of the MDM Institute in San Francisco at the end of the month, and visiting Gartner’s BI Summit in Chicago right after that. I hope to see you there. Also, look for an interesting chat with Alan Pelz-Sharpe at later this month.

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