Syncsort CEO: Refashioning a 50-Year Old Market Player to Innovating Around Liberating Data & Dollars
By: John Gallant | 01/14/2016
When you think of leaders in big data and analytics, you’d be forgiven for not listing Syncsort among them. But this nearly 50-year-old company, which began selling software for the decidedly unglamorous job of optimizing mainframe sorting, has refashioned itself into a critical conduit by which core corporate data flows into Hadoop and other key big data platforms. Syncsort labels itself “a freedom fighter” liberating data and dollars – sometimes millions of dollars – from the stranglehold of big iron and traditional data warehouse/analytics systems. I spoke with Josh Rogers, who was named CEO this week, as well as outgoing CEO Lonne Jaffe, who remains as Senior Advisor to Syncsort’s board, on innovation, acquisitions, and overall strategy.
Challenges and Strategies for Changing Market Perceptions
Being an older company can mean battling perceptions of being slow to move on new product areas, especially in the current digital environment where everything is moving fast. Two years ago, Syncsort embarked on a new mission of “liberating budgets and data” by putting a focus around solving the increasingly new and difficult data challenges of their customers. What Syncsort sees their customers grappling with is not only how to “leverage the power of new tech like Hadoop to increase their ability to analyze data. That whole decision process is complex,” says Rogers. But that’s not all, once the decision is made, “they’re also having to think about how to make those new platforms usable by plugging them into existing systems.” One of the most important data sources and most difficult to move data out of is the mainframe, which is where Syncsort has put a huge concentration on helping customers not only access but achieve significant cost-savings in the process.
Contributing to Hadoop Leads to Capitalizing on Big Data Strategy
As a company that’s been operating for nearly five decades, there are advantages in having a base of customers that know and trust the product, but getting people to understand the revamped company can present challenges. One of their newer products, DMX-h, is a runtime engine that runs on top of Hadoop, which as Jaffe notes is “in many ways becoming the de facto operating system for data in the industry.” DMX-h moves existing workloads to run on top of their product, which would previously have run in a place that’s a lot more expensive and locked away, and because it runs on top of Hadoop, which uses commodity hardware and is relatively easy to manage, the cost savings for companies can be substantial. That money can then be allocated for more advanced analytics. However, what’s been challenging for the company is “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.” Jaffe notes that “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.” For Syncsort, being willing to do a significant amount of work with the open source community “was a big part of getting accepted in the community” and thus increasing their overall industry perception. Syncsort’s approach was to understand that new product launches don’t necessarily end when the product gets rolled out. It can include taking a strategic approach, which in this case means putting resources and efforts towards the community that works in and around that product.
Another area Rogers and Jaffe attribute their success to is around acquisitions and partnerships. Recently, the company acquired William Data Systems and Circle Computer Group, which had software that integrated and added to Syncsort’s own offerings. The company has made it a point to acquire “high-value businesses that are in near-adjacent spaces and that are aligned with that theme, acquiring companies that have technology and talent that would help with that storyline of liberating budgets and liberating data.” In press releases and public statements, Syncsort has talked about crucial partnerships that have bolstered their strategy. Along with partnering with Splunk, which is at the top of their list, they also partner with Cloudera, Hortonworks, MapR, which they say have “all been incredible in terms of supporting [Syncsort] and helping bring [them] to market and giving [them] the street cred” needed in the Hadoop ecosystem that they otherwise would have “lacked by virtue of being an older company.” Another partner that made a significant impact is Dell. They “made a huge bet on Syncsort as the flagship technology on their Hadoop appliance,” and Jaffe notes that “when big existing companies make those types of bets, it’s a signal to the market that this is powerful technology worth taking seriously.”
Changing peoples’ thinking and essentially getting them to replace previous notions of a company’s brand and products can be a difficult task, and being successful takes a lot of things going right with focused efforts. Jaffe sees his company as having made a remarkable transformation. “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.”
Charting the Path to Big Data and Opportunity in 2016
What’s up next for a company operating in the hugely important data space? Big iron to big data – meaning taking complexity out of the process of accessing data, while being cost-effective and ensuring security and compliance needs are met. Jaffe notes that “it’s broader than what we tackle today, and we want to be able to put a better definition around the set of challenges enterprises face in charting a path of big iron to big data.”