2003 InfoWorld Innovator: Foster D. Hinshaw

Netezza CTO used aerodynamics to invent a large-scale database appliance that handles data in a whole new way

Foster D. Hinshaw knew there had to be a better way. His clients with large database systems were in trouble, and the situation was getting worse. Some of the biggest organizations, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, were finding that BI (business intelligence) wasn't so useful if it couldn't handle all of their data.

Hinshaw's better way eventually led to a whole new way of handling data that uses the specialized database appliances built by Netezza, the company he helped create in 2000.

"I realized it was a data-flow problem. You had to change the way the data flowed," he says. So Hinshaw gave it some thought. "One of the things I do very well is visualize data flow," he says.

The more Hinshaw thought about the data flow in a typical BI system, the more he compared it to the way air flows. You can have smooth airflow, called laminar flow, and you can have turbulence. "There are a lot of places where software becomes turbulent," Hinshaw explains. "But to do BI, you need smooth data flow."

So how is it that Hinshaw is using aerodynamics to design databases? His varied background ranges from designing electric cars to designing real-time operating systems and computing hardware. That experience has led him to realize that the only way to faster and more effective database operation is through design changes.

To get the smooth laminar data flow he wanted, Hinshaw understood that the data entering the flow had to be restricted to just the data he needed, not all of the information in the database. This meant that most of the initial database work had to be done at the source, so he started by designing intelligent storage devices that would extract only the data needed and send it to the computer's CPU in a steady stream of information, in what Hinshaw calls predigested results.

But that's only part of the work. Once it arrives at the CPU, it's broken down into pieces, called snippets, and is processed in what Hinshaw calls an asymmetric massively parallel processing unit. This CPU is designed so that information can move quickly.

"It doesn't matter how many CPUs you have, but rather the performance of the fabric and the backplane," Hinshaw says.

Put it all together, and the results are impressive. The company's performance tests show that the Netezza Performance Server 8000 is producing results in seconds that comparable SQL platforms take days to produce. Apparently, there was a better way.

"What’s unique about this is that there have been prior efforts to do some of this, but we’ve done the best of both worlds," Hinshaw says.

(For profiles of the other nine 2003 InfoWorld Innovators, see Honoring the Innovators.)