Looker Spies Next Step In Data-Based Evolution
Every company evolves, and some evolve faster than others, which appears to be the case with Looker. At its JOIN 2018 conference here in San Francisco, Looker’s next step seems tantalizingly close, just around the corner.
Looker ostensibly falls into the business intelligence and visualization category, by virtue of how most customers use its flagship product. But company executives are adamant that it does much more than that. In fact, they say Looker is a data platform company, with its data modeling language, LookML as the foundation, and BI and visualization tools just happen to be the most prominent applications that sit on that data platform.
By virtue of being a platform, the work that customers do in LookML to build their first application can be re-used down the road for additional applications, explains Looker CEO Frank Bien. That’s unique in the industry, he says.
“So far, everybody who’s building these, you’re starting every time from scratch — the infrastructure, the plumbing. Everything underneath it, you’re bringing in all the different tools and you’re solving one problem,” he tells Datanami. “In our world, we’re about building a common rail, this common platform, and allowing organizations to build those experiences much more quickly.”
The thesis of Looker when it was founded in 2011 was to supply tools that allowed customers to build their own BI dashboards atop their databases, with LookML ensuring data definitions are consistent no matter the data source. Today Looker talks about creating a “data surface” that spans nearly four dozen databases, upon which new applications can spring forth.
That’s makes Looker’s data platform unique, says Looker founder and CTO Lloyd Tabb.
“That’s been our mission: Empower people through the smarter use of data,” Tabb says. “We put data interfaces in the hands of people who need the data, and then they can do investigations and understand what’s actually happening through Looker. And we have been building richer and richer experiences since the beginning.”
With this week’s introduction of Looker version 6, the company is taking the next step in delivering new data experiences to customers, including enhancements to the core product, new enterprise and security features, and two new pre-built applications.
On the collaboration front, Looker is bringing new features that should allow uses to be productive, such as support for folders, better ways to import work from others, and new permissioning options around model development.
Looker has always supported Git, says Daniel Mintz, Looker’s chief evangelist, but the new collaboration features take those capabilities up a notch.
“Software engineers have very powerful tools for building complex system with lots of people working on them, that allow multiple people to work on them at the same time, that allow you to keep track of a complex system, things like version control, things like the ability to import work that others have already done without copy and pasting,” he says. “So as they make improvement to their works it flows into their application.”
The company is also bolstering its encryption capabilities to protect data, providing more customization for embedded dashboards, and delivering localized versions in Germany, French, and Japanese. It also added support for the MongoDB database and is opening a sales office in Japan.
The company is “going up the stack” with Looker 6 and building shrink-wrapped data products, including Looker for Digital Marketing and Looker for Web Analytics, both of which are in public beta and due to go GA early next year.
While Looker has no intention to abandon its tools business, Tabb says its Looker’s “manifest destiny” to expand into applications.
“Applications are a natural extension of what we’ve already built as a platform,” he says. “You build something and then say, What are our possible futures? There are places we could go. But the place that’s obvious and great and there’s tremendous demand for is building data applications on top of our platform and we’re uniquely poised to do that better than anybody else.”
Building data-based applications — as opposed to database applications — is in Looker’s future, Tabb says. “On the Web, there are a lot data-based applications that you use you that you wouldn’t normally think of as data-based applications. Kayak. LinkedIn. Crunchbase.
“These are all data-based applications that are custom-built, and they’re data experiences,” Tabb continues. “The new Looker platform enables you to construct those kinds of experiences on top of the Looker platform, and that’s really exciting.”
These data-based applications look and function like modern Web applications, complete with modern navigation paradigms, graphics, and visualizations. “It wouldn’t feel like a normal database application,” Tabb says. “It would feel like a people explorer, for example.”
Where Looker goes with its data-based applications strategy is anybody’s guess. Tabb says it could deliver an ETL tool, although he immediately ruled that out. Other possibilities mentioned by Tabb include a log analytics tool, similar to Splunk, that unpacks and displays unstructured data.
“Basically for any industry, we could build customer interfaces. If you want a call center [application] we could build a call center application on top of Looker. Just pick any big SaaS data play and there we are.”
New Data Paradigm
Bien says there’s demand for a new class of application in the enterprises, and it’s Looker’s plan to either deliver the application or deliver the tools to let customers build their own.
“It revolves around how people’s work has changed,” Bien says. “People now come out of school and they’re joining these companies and their job function is to monitor and react. Say I’m buying ads. I have to monitor what’s happening in real time in all my digital advertising stuff and say, stop that ad word, do this thing, take that action. It’s not informing me how I performed over the last month. I’ve been able to do that forever. But it’s actually informing what I’m doing right now.”
Looker is positioning itself to be at the center of this new Web application ecosystem (“Don’t call them apps,” a company spokesman says. “Those are for phones”). It’s not surprising that Looker has been popular among tech startups and Web-native companies, whose data naturally is generated in and resides on the Internet. But as older blue chip forms move to the cloud and adopt Web-native applications like Salesforce.com and Marketo and store their data in cloud-based data warehouses like Amazon RedShift and SnowFlake and Google BigQuery, they’re finding Looker is a good fit.
“We’re in half of the Fortune 10 now,” Bien says. “It’s interesting to hear them talk because they’re the ones who are having these problems in spades. They’re shifting to the cloud, and as they’re shifting to the cloud, they’re trying to get efficiencies. They’re trying to do it a better way. Yet the tool chain on top hasn’t really changed. So what Looker is providing is a new tool chain to do these things that they have been hardcoding and building these big applications around and give them an application environment where they can do this more quickly.”
As companies move to the cloud, they’re not bringing their existing Cognos and BusinessObjects implementations with them. “Nobody is dragging those kinds of tools into the new environment,” Bien says. “They’re trying to get efficiencies and operate in a faster and more agile way and those culturally aren’t the tools to do that.”
‘Ripe for Disruption’
Business processes are changing in the modern Web world, but much of the work is still done manually, Bien says. One of Looker’s big customers is using the data platform to help automate a critical process that previously required customers to extract a piece of data from Tableau, pull data from a spreadsheet, put it into a dataflow, and come up with an answer.
“If you think about that, it’s ripe for disruption,” he says. “All of that is functionality is just monitoring other systems — what’s happening in shipping, what’s happening in the ERP, what’s happening in supply chain, sales, and merchandising. If we can simply put all that data together and put out it in front of these people so they can work through a process around it — that’s the new class of application.”
Looker’s approach appears to be resonating with people and companies. In the past year, the company has grown from about 1,000 customers to 1,600, representing 60% growth in customer count. The company has more than 600 employees and is actively seeking more office space in Santa Cruz, California, where it is headquartered. Looker’s is doing good enough that it’s now doing more good, launching its Looker for good campaign, and giving steep discounts on its tools (which reportedly costs from $3,000 to $5,000 for a 10-user pack per month) to teachers and non-profits.
Tabb, who was a product architect during the dot-com boom and has started several companies, says Looker is the culmination of his life’s work. He obviously appreciates discussions with customers who “get” what he has done, but he doesn’t seem bothered by those who don’t.
“I don’t think anything is holding us back,” he says. “Growth is crazy. But there are people who aren’t ready yet. There are early adopters, mid adopters, and late adopters. And the late adopters are attached to the way they look at the world and we have a different perspective on the world. If you like your tools and you’re attached to the way you do our job and it’s sufficient, then we’re not selling to you.”