Q&A: Why Syncsort introduced the mainframe to Hadoop

In an interview with IDGE, Josh Rogers and Lonne Jaffe of Syncsort explain how they plan to transform big iron and traditional data warehouse/analytics

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Rogers: Circle is right in the vein of saving customers money. IMS is one of first databases ever invented and many large enterprises still run it. The licensing cost from IBM is expensive, the architecture is hierarchical, and there’s the skills gap risk -- people with the skills to run it are retiring. What Circle’s product does is allows you to move data from IMS to DB2Z -- a relational database running on the mainframe. You can eliminate the IMS database and stop paying the licensing fee, and now data is in relational format, a modern architecture where plenty of skills exist. The last piece is that now your data is more usable to be shipped off-platform for analytics. It’s a low-risk modernization for cost savings and to liberate data for analytics -- which is our overlying strategy.

It’s hard to overstate the talent we get with acquisitions -- there’s really talented folks in these companies, and we’re quickly able to repurpose some of that talent and apply it to our next-generation products to increase the pace of innovation for organic solutions Syncsort has and is developing. We continue to have a very active acquisition pipeline and see lots of interesting opportunities with highly differentiated technology that is near-adjacency to the existing business and value prop of saving money and making data more shareable for analytics.

IDGE: Lonne, what drove the acquisition of Syncsort by Clearlake Capital and how does that advance the strategy?

Jaffe: We were the first investment in its brand-new $1.4 billion fund, and it was looking to double down on both of the aspects of the strategy that I was talking about. It wanted to both invest in the organic products -- in particular DMX-h and Ironstream -- and, perhaps more important for them, to use the company as an anchor asset to deploy a lot of additional equity capital for the purposes of acquisitions.

As a financial sponsor you can buy companies yourself or if you do it through a powerful strategic partner like Syncsort you can get all sorts of cross energy and lift associated with the acquisition. That was the goal. A big part of it was the management team, I think, which had the idea that there are really interesting technology companies, and if you acquire them you could then include them in this overall strategy of liberating data and budgets. You want to be selective about what you acquire but it can be very, very powerful as a strategy to do that sort of acquisition play in addition to the organic growth.

IDGE: Here’s your fun fact. I started covering mainframe software in 1986 writing at Computerworld, so I know Syncsort, but I know a very different company. I think that there are a lot of people in the business that if they do know Syncsort they think of it as a very different company than what you’re describing. How are you going about changing that thinking and getting people to understand essentially the new Syncsort?

Jaffe: It’s definitely been a challenge. There are advantages of it as well because many of the customers have been running Syncsort for decades, and they know and trust the software and they know it's industrial scale and it's enterprise class. But culturally it’s been a challenge to get accepted into the open source ecosystem around Hadoop and to get perceived as an innovator in and around these fast-growing big data platforms.

One thing that’s really helped as we’ve been working with the open source community is being willing to do a tremendous amount of work in and around these products and improving them. The open source communities have been a meritocracy and people who make the most contributions that are good have the most influence on the project, so that was a big part of getting accepted in that community, especially around Hadoop. The acquisitions helped a lot. When people see that you are acquiring really interesting tech and bringing it to market and you do good marketing around it and you show up at all the right conferences and you have a strategy around it, people take notice and it changes the perception of the company from being one that still makes incredible sorting software to one that now has a whole portfolio of really interesting big data assets.

IDGE: In your press releases and in public statements there’s been talk about how crucial alliances and partnerships are. All tech companies have alliances and partnerships but what are a couple that are really critical to success with your strategy?

Jaffe: Splunk is at the very top of the list there. In their earnings call, Splunk mentioned a couple of partners. There was Amazon Web Services, Palo Alto Networks, and Syncsort. We were mentioned first. That partnership has been fantastic. We’re such natural allies in terms of being able to bring the mainframe data into Splunk, which is really important strategically for them but also helps to shut down the spend on some of the existing competitors that they have.

For us, it gives us this incredible juggernaut of a go-to-market around the Ironstream product. Then the Hadoop distributions have been absolutely critical to our success. We have a partnership with Cloudera, which is some of our larger Hadoop production deployments, Hortonworks, MapR. They’ve all been incredible in terms of supporting us and helping bring us to market and giving us the street cred that we need in the Hadoop ecosystem that we might otherwise have lacked by virtue of being an older company. Then some of our reseller partners like Dell, for example, made a huge bet on Syncsort as the flagship technology on their Hadoop appliance. When the big existing companies make those types of bets, it’s a signal to the market that this is powerful technology worth taking seriously.

Rogers: Cognizant has also been a great partner. They’ve developed multiple solutions around Syncsort’s products -- like Cognizant BigFrame to help with offloading batch workloads from the mainframe -- and represent an important augmentation of skills in the marketplace around our technologies. Our goal is not to build a large service organization -- we have enough services to help customers see success with Syncsort technology, but it’s important to have skills in the market to support large deployments and projects, too.

IDGE: What are you prioritizing and spending your time on in 2016?

Jaffe: Yes, I’m a big believer in prioritization. That includes often choosing what you’re not going to do. One of the first things I did when I joined the company was a divestiture of about a third of the business, which is this backup software business.

Going forward, the major focus areas are going to be to continue to find around things like Apache Spark and Kafka, which are part of the Hadoop and friends broader ecosystem; they’re not technically part of the Hadoop stack, but they are now being included by many of the distributions to think about real-time in-memory capabilities, engineered systems like what we were talking about with Dell Cloud. We launched our Amazon Web Services based product that runs in Elastic MapReduce, which is their Hadoop distribution.

I would say in order of importance it would be cloud, the work around in-memory, then real-time with Kafka, in-memory with Spark, and the engineered systems that we’re doing with Dell and some of their other ecosystem partners. These are systems that are designed for offload, so that includes our software and has Hadoop in it as well as hardware. They are basically a turnkey platform that you can move C workloads into.

Rogers: People are making massive investments in new big data technologies like Hadoop and Splunk, but their ability to gain value and insight is limited by their ability to get data assets into those environments. What we’re seeing in customers is mainframe data is the most important and most challenged because of the way it’s stored. The way you get access is complicated and different from distributed systems, and there’s a fair amount of technical work that needs to be done, but it needs to be cost-effective, can’t increase mainframe costs, and must absolutely protect the data and allow companies to comply with regulations. Today customers are using a broad set of technologies to accomplish this and these products are not particularly efficient nor is the environment necessarily easy to manage, and of course having to apply multiple products from a variety of vendors is quite expensive.

We refer to this space as “big iron to big data,” and in 2016 we’re going to be doing a lot of research with customers and analysts to define this problem. We certainly understand pieces of it well, but it’s broader than what we tackle today, and we want to be able to put a better definition around the set of challenges enterprise face in charting a path of big iron to big data. As we expand our solutions we will absolutely take advantage of new technologies like Spark and Kafka. They are critical, but they’re enablers. They are in no way prepared today to tackle the challenges of big iron to big data on their own. They’ll need extensions and additional management layers to attack the problem, and that’s where Syncsort believes there’s a huge opportunity to help existing and future customers.

IDGE: Were there other things that we didn’t touch on that you think are important to people’s understanding of the company and the strategy?

Jaffe: The cyber security focus is going to be increasingly important for the company. This is something I think people understand intuitively now, but the threat surface in the world is expanding, especially when you’re dealing with really large volumes of data stored on commodity hardware connected to the Internet. We’re squarely focused on it now with Ironstream, but going forward it’s going to be not only important for the technology industry as a whole but for Syncsort’s growth.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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