Exclusive Interview: Abe Music, Digital Reasoning

February 16, 2011

Digital Reasoning, based in Franklin, Tennessee, is one of a handful of companies breaking a path through the content jungle. The firm’s approach processes a wide range of “big data”. The system’s proprietary methods make it easy to discern trends, identify high-value items of data, and see the relationships among people, places, and things otherwise lost in the “noise” of digital information.

In addition to a number of high-profile customers in the defense and intelligence communities, the company is attracting interest from healthcare and financial institutions. Also, professionals engaged in eDiscovery, and practitioners in competitive intelligence are expressing interest in the company’s approach to “big data”. The idea of “big data” is large volumes of structured and unstructured content such as Twitter messages, Web logs, reports, email messages, blog data and system generated numerical outputs is increasingly important. The problem is that the content arrives continuously and in ever increasing volume.

Digital Reasoning has created a system and an interface that converts a nearly impossible reading task into reports, displays, and graphics that eliminate the drudgery and the normal process of looking at only a part of a very large collection of content. Their flagship product, Synthesys® essentially converts “big data” into the underlying facts, connections and associations making it possible to understand large scale data by examining facts instead of reading first.

I spoke with senior software engineer, Abe Music about Digital Reasoning’s approach and the firm’s activities in the open source community. Like some other next-generation analytics companies, Digital Reasoning makes use of open source software in order to reduce development time and introduce a standards-based approach into the firm’s innovative technology.

The full text of my interview with Abe Music appears below.

When did you first start following open source software?

I originally began learning about open-source software while in college. At Western Kentucky University we had a very prominent Linux users group that advocated open-source software wherever possible. This continued throughout my college career in any project that would allow it and after, where in my first job out of school, Python was the language of choice.

How does Digital Reasoning create a contribution to Open Source community through github?

Currently, PyStratus is the only contribution through github although more contributions are underway.

What is github?

Good question. github is a Web-based hosting service for open source software projects that use a revision control system. github offers both commercial plans and free accounts for open source projects, and it is a key community resource for the open source developers.

What is PyStratus?

Here at Digital Reasoning, we were using a set of Python scripts from Cloudera’s Hadoop distribution to manage our Hadoop clusters in the cloud.

Soon after, we had the need to easily manage our Cassandra clusters as well. We decided to leverage the work Cloudera had already done by converting the Cloudera Distribution of Hadoop or CDH scripts into an all-in-one solution for managing Hadoop, Cassandra and hybrid Hadoop/Cassandra clusters.

For us, we did a complete refactoring of the CDH scripts into an easily extensible Python framework for managing our services in the cloud.

What’s “refactoring”?

“Refactoring” to me is the process of changing a computer program’s source code without modifying its external functional behavior. Here at Digital Reasoning, when we refactor were are improving some of the attributes of the software such as performance or resource consumption, etc.

Thank you. Why are some firms supporting open source software?

I personally don’t see any downside to open-source software, but, of course, I am quite biased.

I can see, from the business side, a reason to stay closed if you had developed your business around some intellectual property that you wanted to control.

But I believe that open-source software really fills a void in the tech community because it allows anyone to take the software and extend it to fit their individual requirements without having to reinvent the wheel.

I also think it is important to use open-source software as a reference to learn some new technology or algorithm.

Personally I think that working with open source software is a great way to learn and I would recommend anyone writing code to consider using open source as a way to add to their personal coding knowledge base.

What are the advantages of tapping into the open source software trend that seems to be building?

One of the major advantages I see from using open-source software is that it makes possible taking some outstanding work from a community of developers. With open source software, I can put software to work immediately without much effort.

As a developer leveraging that technology — and not developing it yourself — you get the added benefit of very minimal maintenance on that piece of your software. If there is a bug, the community taps the collective pool of expertise. When someone adds to a project, everyone can take advantage of that innovation. The advantages of this approach range from greater reliability or a more rapid pace for innovation.

And I would definitely recommend giving back to the community wherever possible.

When you want to use open source software, what is your process for testing and determining what you can do with a particular library or component?

That’s a very good question. This is my favorite part actually.

Because there are so many great open-source technologies out there I get to play with all of them when considering which component(s) to use. I don’t have a particular process that I use to evaluate the software. I have a clear idea of what I need out of the component before I begin the evaluation. If there are similar components I will try to match each of them up to one another and determine which one fits my requirements the best.

Is this work or play? You seem quite enthusiastic about what strikes me as very complicated technical work?

To be candid, I find exploring, learning, and building enjoyable. I can’t speak for the other technologists at Digital Reasoning, but I find this type of problem-solving and analytical work both fun and rewarding. Maybe “play” is not the right word, but I like the challenge of this type of engineering.

Quite a few companies are supporting open source, including IBM. in your view will more companies be developing with open source in mind?

Yes, I definitely believe that more and more companies will begin supporting the open-source community simply because of the vast amount of benefits they can gain.

As a strategic move to support open-source a company could easily reduce development costs by “outsourcing” development to a particular piece of community-supported technology rather than developing it themselves.

The use of open source means that an organization not only get access to a piece of software that is not completely developed by them, but they also get to interface with some potential candidates for employment, contribute to fostering new ideas, and work within a community that is very passionate about what they are contributing to.

What next for Digital Reasoning and open source?

Our commitment to open source is strong. We have a number of ideas about projects. Look for further announcements in the future.

How can a person get more information about Digital Reasoning?

Our Web site is www.digitalreasoning.com. I know that you have interviewed our founder, Tim Estes, on two separate occasions, and there is a great deal of detailed information in those interviews as well. We have also recently announced Synthesys® Platform as a beta program allowing API access to our “big data” analytics with your data where we take complete responsibility for managing the cloud resources. More information about his new program can be found at http://dev.digitalreasoning.com.

Beyond Search Comment

A number of companies have embraced open source software. In an era of big data, Digital Reasoning has identified open source technology that helps cope with the challenges of peta-scale flows of structured and unstructured content. The firm’s new version of its flagship Synthesys service delivers blistering performance and easy-to-understand outputs in near-real time. Open source software has influenced Digital Reasoning and Digital Reasoning’s contribution to the open source community helps make useful technical innovations available to other developers.

Our view is that Digital Reasoning is taking a solid engineering approach to service its customers.

Stephen E Arnold, January 12, 2011

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