Business Intelligence

Looker Wins Backers and Cash on New-Gen BI Vision

Until March this year in stealth mode, Looker has been making more noise about its business intelligence platform in the last few months and will gain a lot more attention after raising $16m in funding this week.

Looker is an attempt to rewrite the tenets of BI for the Big Data generation. We all know that we have more data than ever to query because surveillance cameras, geo-location sensors and a million other sources are capturing information in real time. Technologies like Hadoop provide a way to contain all this data and make it ready for interrogation. Looker sees itself as providing the final piece of the jigsaw: a BI environment designed for this all-new world.

However, speaking by phone from the company’s HQ in Santa Cruz, California, Looker CEO Frank Bien said the reason VCs had been sniffing around it so much is because customers were spreading the gospel.

“We had a lot of interest and clearly companies that are built on passionate, happy customers can do well,” he said. “I’ve never experienced such a passionate customer base and VCs were calling into our customer base randomly.”

He adds that, while everybody was talking about Big Data, “nobody went out and rebuilt BI”, leaving “a really large gap” in the market for a new entrant. While companies like Tableau and QlikView have shown that BI can be applied to users rather than data analyst specialists, Looker is “not about dumbing down BI”, Bien said. Instead, the aim is to create a value chain or continuum between specialists and end users, from the CEO to the account manager, to get at fast, actionable information “without constantly going back to the scientists”.

Under the Looker model, analysts can spend a few hours modelling using the program’s proprietary SQL calls so end-users can pick it up further down the line and get value without extensive training or know-how.

The program can be deployed on premise or in the cloud, for example on Amazon Web Services using the Redshift data warehouse. About half of Looker’s 40-plus customers are deploying in the cloud and Bien has seen a “big uptick in Redshift … there’s a lot of value and it’s just so fast”. Payment is based on utility.

Looker will also often be deployed against a Greenplum/Pivotal, Vertica or similar back-end, with Looker providing the “last mile” BI capability, Bien said.

“Analysts want a programmatic approach to data and not something kludge-y in the same way that no modern web developer would use Dreamweaver; sometimes it’s faster to develop code snippets.”

Bien likens the Looker effect to “taking the blinkers off. We’re helping companies explore their data. It’s like teaching someone to fish rather than giving them food.”

Of course, the big goal is insights: eureka moments that change strategies, markets even. As an example, he refers to the people behind the Hotel Tonight app discovering that a large number of recommendations were coming from bartenders and other service staff recommending the site.

Bien lashes a “big over-emphasis on the predictive world. SAS Institute and SPSS have a lot of value but we’re operating in the 80%. Big Data has a giant infrastructure with no tools and people have been trying to build the most complex tools thinking maths will get us the answer. Folks have been waiting for a modern tool to explore and something that gives power to the analyst. BI is falling apart because it’s still a Windows world. These tools were developed 20 years ago for a world that’s not relevant today.”

I ask Bien for a company to compare Looker against. He rejects QlikView and instead cites Splunk, (interview here) another disruptor with a passionate following. A Splunk for the BI world? That’s not a bad aim.


Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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