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Democratizing the use of massive data sets. Interview with Dave Thomas.

by Roberto V. Zicari on September 12, 2016

“Any important data driving a business decision needs to be sanity checked, just as it would if one was using a spreadsheet.”–Dave Thomas.

I have interviewed Dave Thomas,Chief Scientist at Kx Labs.


Q1. For many years business users have had their data locked up in databases and data warehouses. What is wrong with that?

Dave Thomas: It isn’t so much an issue of where the data resides, whether it is in files, databases, data warehouses or a modern data lake. The challenge is that modern businesses need access to the raw data, as well as the ability to rapidly aggregate and analyze their data.

Q2. Typical business intelligence (BI) tool users have never seen their actual data. Why?

Dave Thomas: For large corporations hardware and software both used to be prohibitively expensive, hence much of their data was aggregated prior to making it available to users. Even today when machines are very inexpensive most corporate IT infrastructures are impoverished relative to what one can buy on the street or in the Cloud.
Compounding the problem, IT charge-back mechanisms are biased to reduce IT spending rather than to maximize the value of data delivered to the business.
Traditional technologies are not sufficiently performant to allow processing of large volumes of data.
Many companies have inexpensive data lakes and have realized after the fact that using a commodity storage systems, such as HDFS, has severely constrained their performance and limited their utility. Hence more corporations are moving data away from HDFS into high-performance storage or memory.

Q3. What are the limitations of the existing BI and extract, transform and load (ETL) data tools?

Dave Thomas: Traditional BI tools assume that it is possible for DBAs and BI experts to a priori define the best way to structure and query the data. This reduces the whole power of BI to mere reporting. In an attempt to deal with huge BI backlogs, generic query and reporting tools have become popular to shift reporting to self-serve. However, they are often designed for sophisticated BI users rather than for normal business users. They are often not performant because they depend on the implementation of the underlying data stores.
For the most part, existing ETL tools are constrained by having to move the data to the ETL process and then on to the end user. Many ETL tools only work against one kind of data source. ETL can’t be written by normal users and due to the cost of an incorrect ETL run, such tools are not available to the data analyst. One of the major topics of discussion in Big Data shops is the complexity and performance of their Big Data pipeline. ETL, data blending, shouldn’t be a separate process or product. It should be something one can do with queries in a single efficient data language.

Q4. What are the typical technical challenges in finance, IoT and other time-series applications?

Dave Thomas:
1. Speed, as data volumes and variety are always increasing.
2. Ability to deal with both real-time events and historical events efficiently. Ideally in a single technology.
3. To handle time-series one needs to be able to deal with simultaneous arrival of events. Time with nanosecond precision is our solution. Other solutions are constrained by using milliseconds and event counters that are much less efficient.
4. High-performance operations on time, over days, months and years are essential for time-series. This is why time is a native type in Kx.
5. The essence of time-series is processing sliding time windows of data for both joins and aggregations.
6. In IOT, data is always dirty. Kx’s native support for missing data and out of band data due to failing sensors, allows one to deal with the realities of sensor data.

Q5. Kx offers analysts a language called q. Why not extend standard SQL?

Dave Thomas: I think there is a misunderstanding about q. Q is a full functional data language that both includes and extends SQL. Selects are easier than SQL because they provide implicit joins and group-bys. This makes queries roughly 50% of the code of SQL. Unlike many flavors of SQL, q lets one put a functional expression in any position in an SQL statement. One can easily extend the aggregation operations available to the end-user.

Q6. Can you show the difference between a query written in q and in standard SQL?

Dave Thomas: Here’s an example of retrieving parts from an orders table with a foreign key join to a parts table, summing by quantity and then sorting by color:

select sum qty by p.color from sp

select p.color, sum(sp.qty) from sp, p
where sp.p=p.p group by p.color order by color

Q7. How do queries execute inside the database?

Dave Thomas: Q is native to the database engine. Hence queries and analytics execute in the columns of the Kx database. There is no data shipping between the client and database server.

Q8. Shawn Rogers of Dell said: “A ‘citizen data scientist’ is an everyday, non-technical user that lacks the statistical and analytical prowess of a traditional data scientist, but is equally eager to leverage data in order to uncover insights, and importantly, do so at the speed of business.” What is your take on this?

Dave Thomas: High-performance data technologies, such as Kx, using modern large-memory hardware, can support data analysts versus data scientist queries. In the product Analyst for Kx, for example, users can work interactively on a sample of data using visual tools to import, clean, query, transform, analyze and visualize data with minimal, if any programming or even SQL. Given correct operations on one or more samples they then can be run against trillions of rows of data. Data analysts today can truly live in their data.

Q9. What are the risks of bringing the power of analytics to users who are non-expert programmers?

Dave Thomas: Clearly any important analysis needs to be validated and cross-checked. Hence any important data driving a business decision needs to be sanity checked, just as it would if one was using a spreadsheet.
In our experience users do make initial mistakes, but as they live in their data they quickly learn.
Visualization really helps, as does the provision of metadata about the data sources. Reducing the cycle time provides increased understanding, and allows one to make mistakes.
Runaway query performance has been a concern of DBAs, but for many years frameworks have been in place such as our smart query router that will ensure that ad hoc queries against massive datasets are throttled so they don’t run away. Fortunately, recent cost reductions in non-volatile memory make it possible to have high-performance query-only replicas of data that can be made available to different parts of the organization based on its needs.

Q10. How can non-expert programmers understand if the information expressed in visual analytics such as heat maps or in operational dashboard charts, is of good quality or not?

Dave Thomas: In our experience users spot visual anomalies much faster than inconsistencies in a spreadsheet.

Q11. What are the opportunities arising in “democratizing” the use of massive data sets?

Dave Thomas: We are finally living in a world where for many companies it is possible to run a real-time business where everyone can have fast, efficient access to the data they need. Rather than being held hostage to aggregations, spreadsheets and all sorts of variants of the truth, the organization can expediently see new opportunities to improve results in sales, marketing, production and other business operations.

Q12. How important is data query and data semantics?

Dave Thomas: Unfortunately we are not educated on how to express data semantics and data query.
Even computer scientists often study less about writing queries than how to execute them efficiently.
We need to educate students and employees on how to live in their data. It may well be that the future of programming for most will be writing queries. Given powerful data languages even compiler optimizations can be expressed by queries.
We need to invest much more in data governance and the use of standard terminology in order to share data within and across companies.

Dave Thomas, Kx Labs.
As Chief Scientist Dave envisions the future roadmap for Kx tools. Dave has had a long and storied career in computer software development and is perhaps best known as the founder and past CEO of Object Technology International, formerly OTI, now IBM OTI Labs, a pioneer in Agile Product Development. He was the principal visionary and architect for IBM VisualAge Smalltalk and Java tools and virtual machines including the popular open-source, multi-language IDE. As the cofounder of Bedarra Research Labs he led the creation of the Ivy visual analytics workbench. Dave is a renowned speaker, university lecturer and Chairman of the Australian developer YOW! conferences.


New Kx release includes encryption, enhanced compression and Tableau integration. JULY 4, 2016.

Resources for learning more about kdb+ and q benchmarking results.

Kdb+ and the Internet of Things/Big Data. InDetail Paper by Bloor Research Author: Philip Howard. JANUARY 28, 2015

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On Data Analytics and the Enterprise. Interview with Narendra Mulani. ODBMS Industry Watch, Published on 2016-05-24

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