Chartio Gives Tools to a New Generation of Database Jockeys

Even though data is more important than ever—whole businesses are built around collecting it, analyzing it, and repackaging it—you don’t see a lot of CEOs boasting that their companies are “data driven” anymore. That would be like saying that your car is “road based” or that your refrigerator is “cold driven.” It’s so obvious that it goes without saying.

But what’s remarkable is that so many people whose jobs depend on managing and analyzing big data still have clunky or expensive tools for doing so. Take Dreamhost, a Brea, CA-based Web hosting company that’s home to more than a million domains. Co-founder Josh Jones says that to get basic data about business performance—for example, how quickly customer support requests were being resolved—“we would always make these one-off graphs of things…We are a pretty technical company so a lot of people knew how to do this a little bit, but [the graphs] were all disorganized in different places, and it wouldn’t be clear what each graph was of. People were reinventing the wheel.”

That’s the home-brew approach, which has obvious disadvantages. At the opposite extreme are complex business intelligence platforms from companies like IBM, Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and require full-time data analysts to manage.

Both types of tools are built around the idea that a business’s core databases are complex, fragile, and inaccessible, and that querying them is a challenge akin to divination. Hence the whole industry of “data warehousing,” the premise of which is that information from an operational database must be copied, cleaned, and catalogued before managers can even start asking questions about it.

Chartio demo dashboard

But there’s a startup in San Francisco called Chartio that hopes to throw this whole creaky model out the window. (Which might cause a bit of a traffic jam on the street below, given that their window overlooks a noisy eastbound on-ramp to the Bay Bridge.) Chartio founder and CEO Dave Fowler says getting actionable information from a database shouldn’t take a data warehouse or a priesthood of data scientists.

“Our vision is that there are only two interfaces that a database needs,” Fowler says (he’s second from left in the team photo above). “One is the application itself. If you are Facebook, then you see Facebook. The other is the administrative and analytics interface, where you can see how many signups you’re getting, how many sales you’re making, et cetera.”

At most Web-based companies, in other words, the public should see the public interface, employees should see the administrative interface, and that’s that. It’s a setup that will sound familiar to anyone who runs a social media or e-commerce site or publishes a blog. But until recently, getting a basic administrative dashboard really did mean either building it yourself, relying on the rudimentary tools available from sources like Google Analytics, or investing millions in an enterprise business intelligence suite like IBM’s Cognos or SAP’s Business Objects.

But those approaches don’t work anymore, Fowler argues. “Today it’s a different time. People are collecting exponentially more data, and even younger companies need to see this kind of data—companies that don’t have $10 million budgets for this.”

To suit the new times, Chartio, which emerged from the Y Combinator startup accelerator in the summer of 2010, has a different approach. For one thing, its tools are simple: even non-technical employees can use’s drag-and-drop interface to build charts and graphs, easily specifying which values they’d like to see on each axis. (Under the hood, Chartio translates those actions into SQL queries and runs them against the specified database.)

For another, it works on operational databases directly, with no data warehouse in between. “We skip the data warehousing part, because whenever you upload your database and try to munge the data together you lose the timeliness of it—it’s always three days old, and to us that means it’s dead,” Fowler says.

Chartio is also vendor-agnostic. Unlike Cognos, which works best on an IBM DB2 database, or Oracle’s business intelligence tools, which are obviously specialized to work on Oracle databases, Chartio can draw from any MySQL or PostgreSQL database. It can also connect to … Next Page »

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

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