An Interview with François Bourdoncle
In 2010, Dassault Systèmes acquired Exalead. I have written extensively about Exalead’s technology and I have interviewed François Bourdoncle on other occasions. After my video interview in December 2010, I wanted to follow up with him to get a sense of the direction the company is heading in 2011.
Exalead, a company I profile in my forthcoming Landscape of Enterprise Search report, which will be published by Pandia.com in the next few weeks, I focus on the firm’s search enabled applications. Search becomes part of the fabric of mission critical applications. Although other vendors offer “platforms” and have started talking about using search as the brick and mortar for information access, Exalead remains one of the leaders in this initiative.
I spoke with Mr. Bourdoncle via Skype on April 28, 2011. The full text of the interview appears below.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Our last interview was in December 2010. What is the benefit of this tie up with Dassault for your customers?
For our existing customers, the tie-up strengthened our company and further ensures its long term health. We also now have a larger vision for our road-map, which of course means a faster rate of innovation than before.
Exalead has embraced the cloud more fully than many of the other firms competing in the enterprise market. What were the technical challenges your team had to overcome to move the Exalead technology to this platform?
There were several challenges with supporting web-facing uses of our technology that were otherwise uncommon within the enterprise. First and foremost the user community was far less patient with slow or confusing UIs. So, as with other web-facing search engines, we had to be super easy-to-use, scale dramatically and provide good results from the first query. At the same time our TCO had be dramatically lower per query or per user, because most web business models are based upon the idea of collecting a small amount of revenue from each user in a very large audience.
There is a great deal of talk about a "hybrid" solution. Does Exalead offer its customers a way to blend on premises and cloud functions?
Really there are two elements to this: data sources and system hosting. Deployments that have a hybrid of enterprise and web data sources are commonplace amongst Exalead’s customers. Our customers like that we spent a lot of time perfecting our web crawlers and our semantic processing of web data. Where APIs are available to Web applications, say a CRM or sales force automation system, the configuration challenges are mostly the same as any other data source for Exalead. With regard to hosting, Exalead as you know can be hosted on-premise, on a third-party cloud or within Exalead’s own data centers.
Since 2008, the old notion of "enterprise search" has been reinvented. Exalead was the pioneer in search based applications, right? Why is the idea of an application more compelling than key word retrieval?
As you might agree, mission-critical applications are a lot more compelling to our customers than your average enterprise search engine that is used to index your intranet or your standalone SharePoint repository. Mission-critical applications are where the actual value is created in companies, and where investments are the most productive. That is precisely why we invented search-based applications or SBAs to use search technology as a way to empower mission-critical enterprise applications with search features and ease-of-use.
The reality is that "search" comes in two flavors: search technology and search engines. Most of the time, when someone says "search", he or she really means "search engine", which is an end-user application in its own way. But search engines are rarely mission critical applications. On the other hand, search technology is an enabling technology for a wide range of mission-critical applications: CRM (customer relationship management), ERP (enterprise resource planning), logistics, procurement, PLM, you name it.
I have been monitoring the trend for what is called a "mashup" or "data fusion." Does the Exalead technology permit this type of information and content processing approach?
Certainly. However, what I think is even more compelling is that the scope of search based applications is actually much larger than that of classical enterprise applications. Think of Web-enabled applications, such as e-reputation, for example. This is the kind of applications that were impossible to build before search technology was put at work to build full-fledged enterprise applications.
You are right to point out that mashup technologies and data fusions technologies, are key components of this new breed of hybrid applications. These applications are hybrid because they need to gather bits and pieces of data from many different sources, extract from this data the nuggets of information that make sense for the application at hand, and then present the "distilled" information if you wish in a way that makes sense for this application: a dashboard, a list of results, a geo-localized map of items, etc. Over time, I expect the palette of options for data visualization to grow dramatically, and "App Stores" for these components will emerge.
Is a "mashup" approach better than a key word search? When does a mashup make sense? When does some other approach make sense?
Well, keyword search is used most of the time to trigger a query than ends up being displayed to the user in one form or another. Note that, increasingly, keyword search is now entirely bypassed by some other interaction mechanism (point-and-click on a map for instance).
Mashups are one way to display search results, but it's not the only one. Dashboards are another. Normally, mashups make sense when the results of the query are multi-dimensional in essence, and various "views" need to be laid-out so that user can make sense of these results. For instance, imagine a trip-advisory application. Entering the name of a destination, e.g, the name of a city, will trigger a graph of linked data: hotels, restaurants, shows, tickets, menus, etc. And various "projections" of this multi-dimensional graph will be laid-out, so that the user can navigate in the graph, in a immersive kind of way. "Minority Report"-style if you wish.
Dassault Systèmes is well known as a company that has used a number of high profile search and content processing systems. I heard that Dassault Systèmes uses Microsoft technology, Fast Search & Transfer Technology, Autonomy technology, and open source technology. Will Exalead play a role in Dassault's own products and services and in the company's internal systems? What is the upside of using Exalead instead of a number of different vendors' systems?
There’s two ways in which Exalead will be connected to Dassault Systèmes' other products, embedded and federated. For example, Exalead will be embedded within Enovia, Dassault’s product life cycle management product. More importantly though, Exalead will be used as a bridging technology across enterprise information systems from Dassault Systèmes and other vendors. The bigger vision is that Exalead provides a universal information integration layer that spans any data source. Of course the up-side for Dassault with applying Exalead universally is that a superior technology replaces the other alternatives.
I wrote a column in KMWorld about sentiment analysis; that is, figuring out from a flow of content if the messages about a product, person, or company were positive or negative? What type of semantic functions does Exalead offer? Can Exalead perform this type of text processing? Can you give me an example?
Yes, we have a number of customers that use Exalead for semantic processing. Cloudview has a number of text processing modules that we classify as providing semantic processing. These are: entity matching, ontology matching, fuzzy matching, related terms extraction, categorization/clustering and event detection among others. Used in combination, these processors can extract arbitrary sentiment, meaning not just positive or negative, but also along other dimensions as well. For example, if we were analyzing sentiment about restaurants, perhaps we’d want to know if the ambiance was casual or upscale or the cuisine was homey or refined.
Google has said that mobile search is the future. I agree that mobile is growing in importance. What does Exalead offer to a customer who wants Exalead functions in a mobile application?
Mobile user interfaces are generally very different than those on PCs. Rather than providing control interfaces that require text entry, mobile applications usually provide buttons and other controls that are hard coded to specific functions, and sometimes those functions are complex. Because of our experience with search-based applications, we are used to providing control interfaces that abbreviate command sequences. In fact, I believe that search-based applications will ultimately be as prevalent on smartphones as on PCs. Because they are purpose-built applications, the search functions will be aligned with the application purpose, enabling the abbreviated control interface required for small form factor devices. An example is Urbanizer, an iPhone application for selecting restaurants based upon customer sentiment. The control features are slide bars and rolling selectors which then allow the users to choose alternative restaurant attributes as filters on a candidate restaurant list.
Since we last spoke, there has been quite a bit of change in the search and content processing sector. For example, Microsoft bought Fast Search. Convera went out of business as did Kartoo, Siderean, Delphes, and others. What has been the key to Exalead's success?
Well, our customers first and foremost. They were the ones that helped us recognize the need for search-based applications. We were lucky enough to engage with quite a number of visionary business and IT leaders that pushed strongly for better approaches to delivering information to their organizations and to their customers. I also think that our web heritage and our experiences with our web search engine have been instrumental with preparing us to delivery robust technology that really exceeds the capabilities of search developed purely for enterprises.
What are the major challenges facing Exalead in the next year? What is your team doing to address these challenges?
Personnel and focus. Now that we’re part of the Dassault Systèmes eco-system, our customer opportunities are increasing multifold. At the same time we’re faced with having to make choices in our areas of focus where choices didn’t exist before.
What are the major trends in search enabled applications?
There are three broad information technology trends that Exalead intends to address: the Cloud, Social and Mobile. In fact, we’re already addressing these. We have a small number of customers deploying their Exalead systems in the cloud already, but we expect those numbers to accelerate. Of course an adjunct trend is including software as a service applications like Salesforce.com as a data source. We have some very interesting social applications, for example, we now underpin the White Pages service for the French Yellow Pages, Pages Jaunes. Lastly, our customers are pushing us to deliver search based applications on mobile devices. That’s a natural evolution for our approach I believe.
Dassault is one of the world's leading engineering firms. How will the resources of that firm (money, staff, clients) impact Exalead's products and services?
Of course, I cannot pre-announce future product plans, I will say that Dassault Systèmes has a deep technology portfolio. For example, it is creating a prototype simulation of the human body. This is a non-trivial computer science challenge. One way Dassault describes its technology vision is “See-What-You-Mean”. Or SWYM.
The concept is for designers to collaborate world wide on new product concepts, using Dasault’s technology to design, simulate and manage new ideas from inception all the way through to the way they’re presented to potential customers. This is interesting in two ways. First, it means that for many companies, Dassault products now provide the foundation for their most valuable intellectual property.
Second, this integrated design, simulate, manage approach is applicable not just for product businesses but also service businesses as well. Exalead’s search and semantics technology play a critical role in streamlining the flow of information between producers and consumers.
Many search and content processing vendors are changing from enterprise search into vertical players. Examples include Coveo in customer support, Attensity and Lexalytics in sentiment analysis for ad and PR agencies, and IBM with its push into NLP for medical information? What is Exalead's view of this type of turning brute force search into something the technology may not support?
I think there’s a rather large group of search technology vendors that are seeking to survive and grow by going after specific markets, either industry-specific or function-specific or both.
By joining forces with Dassault Systèmes we believe that Exalead has a leg up in the markets that are DS strongholds, namely aerospace, automotive and other forms of manufacturing. Certainly, our aim to provide value by delivering purpose built Exalead search based applications targeted at those markets. As you may know, Dassault is also aggressively pursuing additional vertical markets as well and sees Exalead as a key enabler of that activity.
Where can a reader get additional information about Exalead?
Our Web site and our blog are good places to start.
Exalead’s position in search and content processing has been amplified, in my opinion, by three developments. First, Exalead offers a path forward for organizations looking for solutions to difficult problems in enterprise information access. Exalead’s system “works” and it enables an organization to engineer search into mission-critical operations, not handle search as a “new box” or a “separate component.”
Second, Dassault’s financial and technical resources add significant uplift to Exalead’s visibility and access to senior managers in global organizations. From aerospace to financial services, Dassault has sparked considerable magnetism for the Exalead approach.
Third, there has been no diminution of the high levels of dissatisfaction with traditional search and retrieval in the enterprise. Exalead’s approach delivers results which translates into improved access and better return on investment.
My recommendation is to give Exalead’s platform and technology a look when you are seeking an alternative to traditional enterprise applications, a solution to thorny information access problems, or in need of a flexible, next-generation search system. You can get additional information about Exalead at www.exalead.com.
Stephen E Arnold, May 3, 2011