Netezza Boosts Data Warehouse Capacity

Netezza (NYSE: NZ) sells high-performance data warehousing appliances to companies such as Neiman Marcus, Amazon, and TJX that need to analyze terabytes of customer data quickly to detect fraud or help with marketing decisions. Thanks to new compression techniques being rolled out next month as part of the latest software upgrade for Netezza’s appliances, they’ll be able to sift through that data more quickly, and store more of it.

“These are big companies with datasets that are growing 20 to 50 percent annually,” says Phil Francisco, vice president of product management and marketing at Framingham, MA-based Netezza, which went public last summer in one of the Boston area’s biggest technology IPOs. “The ability to make that data actionable in a low-latency way [i.e., faster] has become a fundamental competitive lever in their businesses.”

Data warehouses are like staging areas for the raw information sitting in the transaction databases large companies manage to compile data on sales, customers, suppliers, and employees. The business intelligence software used to make sense of all this data can’t query the transaction systems directly, since they store data in many different formats. Data warehouse appliances extract the information and store it in a uniform way.

The new “Compress Engine” feature of Netezza’s servers, unveiled yesterday, will double the speed at which that stored data can be extracted from the devices’ disk drives, while at the same time allowing companies to store four or more times as much data on each machine. And all of that will be achieved through a simple software upgrade—one bonus of Netezza’s hardware-intensive approach to data warehousing, in which each storage server is actually a powerful computer containing special chips assigned to speed query-answering by filtering out irrelevant data as it streams off of hard drives.

Netezza calls those custom chips “FAST Engines.” FAST Stands for FPGA Accelerated Streaming Technology; FPGA, in turn, stands for Field Programmable Gate Array, connoting the fact that the chips aren’t designed for any specific application but can be reprogrammed on the fly to carry out any logical function. With the software upgrade, Netezza is assigning a portion of each FAST Engine just to handle data decompression, which is normally a CPU-intensive task that slows down everything else. “We’re able to do decompression at the same rate that we read the disks—so if your data is compressed at a 2-to-1 ratio and the read rate of your disk drive is 60 megabits per second, effectively we’re hitting a scan rate of 120 megabits per second,” explains Francisco.

In the end, that means companies can get answers to crucial business questions faster. (Netezza has a fairly informative blog post about the whole thing.) The new technology will be an optional feature available to Netezza customers for an extra fee as part of the 4.5 release of the Netezza Performance Server software.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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