Product review: Denodo brings old-school polish to new-fangled mashups

Denodo Platform marries sophisticated tools for working with relational databases and smart tools for importing data from Web, e-mail, and other unstructured sources

In the collective imagination, the computers are busy merging into one grand, expansive database filled with minutiae about those pesky, emotive humans so that the machines will be ready for Sarah Connor. The database administrators and programmers know that the reality is more than a little bit creakier than this image -- even though they might use the image to pry some funding if they see a glint of malice in the eyes of the pointy-haired bosses.

Denodo is a Java-based collection of tools aimed at making it easier to start building SkyNet with just a click of a few buttons on some Web forms. The tendrils reach out over the Net, suck in the information in a wide range of formats, and then reformat it into an equally wide range of ways to store the data. Denodo's literature calls this a "mashup" because the term is trendy, but the tool was born long before the word, and it does much more than people usually associate with the term. The system will speak basic XML and Web services, but it will also reach into e-mail boxes and actually start to parse and attempt to understand the text inside them.

The main market for the product is the enterprise developer who needs to synthesize something slick from a collection of legacy systems that probably live under the control of data barons living on different sides of the battle lines in interdepartmental feuds that may go back centuries. Denodo can pull apart HTML and suss out information in e-mails, all without waiting for a recalcitrant team to find the resources to come to your assistance.

Mix and mash
There are already a number of interesting products on the market for creating these mashups. (See InfoWorld's reviews of WSO2 Mashup Server, JackBe Presto, Nexaweb Enterprise Web 2.0 Suite, Jitterbit, and Kapow RoboSuite.) Denodo emphasizes that it can do much more than just suck in Web services, mash them up, and spit them out as XML. It can also parse some data, take apart HTML, and even try to clean it up a bit along the way in what Denodo calls a "transformation and enrichment layer."

Denodo feels like a product that lives up to wearing the number 4.1 next to its name. It is a fully functional collection of data-moving tools that has built up over several generations. There are a number of smart extensions that someone had the bright idea to add to the platform over the years. At some time, there was a programmer who needed to mash up some mixture of data from a tab-delimited data file, mix in some calls to a JDBC server, and then store the result in a text-searchable database. All of these connectors and more are already implemented and ready to load in the Virtual DataPort (VDP) layer. The tool for taming the various data sources, the Virtual DataPort lets you page through a number of tables of data.

At the same time, the product does feel like it's grown a bit shaggy with all of these clever additions, leaving us with a nomenclature that seems a bit complex. Most data from traditional sources comes from the VDP, but many Web-based sources are scraped by the ITPilot collection for reaching out to Web sites and pulling them into the service. The data ends up in the Aracne indexing and search engine. All of the names for tendrils get a bit confusing, and it might make sense to produce a unified naming convention if it could be done in a way that wouldn't annoy the existing users looking to upgrade.

The ITPilot layer is elaborate and powerful, offering a pool of browsers that will suck in information on a schedule. The data comes in as HTML and leaves as entries in a local database. Much of the work is specified using a visual programming language filled with icons for tasks like looping through a set of <table> tags or extracting data and filling up a record. Even though this is a visual programming language, filling out the tasks for some of the icons is complicated enough that it requires a wizard.

Forms and function
I found the visual programming experience to be only a small step beyond using an old-fashioned text language. In fact, the visual programming language for scraping Web sites is just the first layer. Each icon is configured with a wizard.

This may be a personal feeling, but I find text easier to understand than the sea of icons with lines going between them. The wizards for configuring the icons are a big help, but they can only organize the fundamental complexity of the problem, not make it disappear. We still need to be able to tweak features such as the maximum number of times a browser will retry a connection, so we either fill out a form or just type in text.

These forms offer more labels that are usually helpful, but there's an incredible amount of clicking and paging that enters the mix. Steve Jobs is proud of the little remote control that comes with his machines because it only has six buttons, but the price of the simplicity is layers and layers of menus. The layers and layers of icons and menus have the same kind of success/failure. After a few hours, I wished there were some way to keep the handholding of the wizards while moving to a simple, text-based language that would produce more concentrated descriptions.

The best feature of the system is that many of the forms include "test" buttons. There are hundreds of them, and they let you test your entries to a form immediately without rebuilding the project and getting it running. This can be a big timesaver because many parts of the system don't need to be up and running before one part can be tested. I like being able to test my database URLs without waiting.

Simple and simpler
Denodo also includes a much wider collection of data filters than some of the other systems. You can work with semi-structured data from Web sites and other places, or even unstructured data such as pure text. The system includes the Lucene search engine, which offers a wide range of the standard text searching operations.

Your opinion of all of these layers and windows will probably depend upon how many mashups you've done. In theory, the idea of mixing together databases sounds simple. Instead of JOINing two tables in the same database, you just need to JOIN two other tables. It is rarely that simple, though, because the data often doesn't line up correctly. First names may be replaced with an initial. Dates may be in a different format.

I ended up thinking of Denodo as more of a collection of useful tools for a mashup engineer than a magic set of tools. Once you learn your way around the acronyms, you can link up the data sets fairly quickly, as the labels and wizards offer some shortcuts. But they're just a relatively thin veneer that makes it a bit easier to work with the complexity. The rows and columns filled with data are still out there, and they still need to be aligned correctly. These wizards and test buttons simplify the process, but they can't make it as simple as anyone would like.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Documentation (15.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Capability (30.0%)
Developer tools (30.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Denodo Platform 4.1 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.6
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