Looker at the BBBT: A New Look at SQL Performance

The most recent BBBT presentation was by Looker. Lloyd Tabb, Founder & CTO, and Zach Taylor, Product Marketing Manager, showed up to display yet another young company’s interesting technology.

Looker’s technology is an application server that sits above relational databases to provide faster, more complex queries. They’ve developed their own language, LookML to help with that. That’s no surprise, as Lloyd is a self-described language guy.

It’s also no surprise that the demos, driven by both Lloyd and Zach, were very coding heavy. Part of the reason that very technical focus exists is, as Mr. Tabb stated, that Looker thinks there are two groups of users: Coders who build models and business managers who use the information. There is no room in that model for the business analyst, the person who understands who to communicate a complex business need to the coders and how to help the coders deliver something that is accessible to and understandable by the information consumer.

How the bifurcation was played out in the demonstration was through an almost exclusive focus on code, code and more code, with a brief display of some visualization technology. The former was very good while the later wasn’t bad but, to fit with their mainly technology focus, had complex visualizations without good enough legends – they were visualizations that would be understood by technical people but need to be better explained for the business audience they claim to address.

As an early stage company, that’s ok. The business intelligence (BI) market is still young and very fragmented. You can get different groups in large companies using different BI tools. While Looker talks about 300 customers, as with most companies of their size it could only be those small groups. If they’re going to grow past those groups, they need to focus a bit more in how to better bridge technology and business.

They also have a good start in attracting the larger market because they support both cloud and on-premises systems. The former market is growing while the later isn’t going away. Providing the ability for their server to run either place will address the needs of companies on either side of the divide.

RDMS ≠ SQL

One key to their system is they don’t move data. It stays resident on the source systems. Those could be operational systems, data warehouses, an ODS or whatever. What they must have is SQL. When asked about Hadoop and other schema-on-write systems, the Looker team stated they are an RDMS based application but they’ll work on anything with SQL access. I have no problem with the technology, but they need to be very clear about the split.

SQL came from the relational world, but as they pointed out in an aside, it isn’t limited to that. They should drop the RDMS message and focus on SQL. As Lloyd Tabb said, “SQL is the right abstraction.” What I don’t know if he understands, being focused on technology and having those biases, is it isn’t the right abstraction because of some technical advantage but because it’s the major player. McDonalds isn’t the best burger because it has the most stores. SQL might not be the best access method, but it’s the one business knows and so it’s the one the newer database companies and structures can’t ignore.

Last year, the BBBT heard from multiple companies including Actian and EXASOL, companies focused on providing SQL access to Hadoop. That’s as important as what Looker is doing. The company that manages to do both well with jump ahead of the pack.

Summary

Looker is a good, young company with some technical advantages that can greatly improve the performance of SQL queries to business databases and provides a basic BI front end to display the results. I’m not sure they have the resources to focus on both, and I think the former have the clearest advantage in the marketplace. Unless they have more funding and a strong management team that can begin to better understand the business side of the market, they will have problems addressing the visualization side of BI. They need to keep improving their engine, spread it to access more data sources, and partner with visualization companies to provide the front end.

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