Follow Datanami:
March 17, 2021

‘Distributed Stewardship’ Seen as Path to Data Democratization


Okera made its mark on the big data map by providing a universal access layer that gives administrators a single place to control what data users can access, no matter what tools or data sources they’re using. The company bolstered its data security story today with the introduction of distributed stewardship, which pushes the responsibility of defining high-level data access rules out to experts who know the data best.

There is a natural tension between centralized control and distributed access in the big data business. On the one hand, companies that remove barriers to data access and get the right data into the right set of hands can do very innovative things with data and gain a competitive advantage. This is the bright side of the “data democratization” process that so many companies talk about.

But on the other hand, regulations increasingly demand that companies place limits on data access in order to protect the integrity of that data, as well as to protect people’s privacy. Laws like GPDR, CCPA, and Virginia’s new Consumer Data Protection Act (CDPA) to impose fines and–perhaps worse–public humiliation of their brands when regulations are violated.

Sitting in the middle of that push-and-pull is Okera, which emerged three years ago to streamline that data access while simultaneously providing the necessary security controls. Simplifying the process of controlling who gets access to what data, no matter where it resides, is the number one goal of Okera, says Nick Halsey, who joined the company as its CEO about a year ago.

“If the policy towards the data changes, you want to be able to change it in one place and then have it be enforced consistently across all data source and applications, whether you’re using a BI tool on a relational database or a machine learning tool on object store, or you’re in the cloud or on prem,” Halsey tells Datanami. “None of that should matter. You should be able to…define the policy once and be able to have it then executed consistently across all the different use cases.”

Controlling who has access to what data is critical to avoid running afoul of data privacy laws (Den Rise/Shutterstock)

With today’s introduction of distributed stewardship, Okera is putting a plot twist on that storyline of centralized control. While chief data officers (CDOs) and other executives will still have blanket control for some types of data access requests–such as declaring that card numbers and Social Security numbers will never be in the clear–access to other types of data will be handled by the folks who are experts in that particular data domain.

For example, if you want to have HR data made available in the organization for people to do analytics upon it, you need to be able delegate management of the access and the privacy of that data to the HR team, Halsey says.

“Or if you’re going to let the clinical researchers in a pharmaceutical company do machine learning on the clinical trial data, you better let the oncology research team manage the cancer research data, because IT doesn’t really know what are the characteristics of that data,” he says.

It’s about trusting your various team leaders to define intelligent data access policies that match the nuance of a particular data set, while simultaneously verifying that they’re doing things correctly, Halsey says.

“It allows you to delegate control over sub-groups of data and subsets of the data out into the organization, and then centrally report on it and be able to monitor who’s doing what with the data,” he says. “You can distribute responsibility, but centralize governance.”

Halsey says this new capability–in addition to the previously delivered capabilities to deliver data access and to support any data platform at any scale–will give the Okera Dynamic Access Platform (ODAP) a leg up in the marketplace.

Okera CEO Nick Halsey joined the company in March 2020

“We think those three things make us quite difference from the competition, particularly in the needs of larger enterprises,” he says.

Okera is one of a handful of companies traversing the emerging market for data access and privacy control capabilities. It competes with other startups in the space, like Privacera and Immuta, to provide enterprises the capability to give data scientists, data analysts, and other data users access to data that will allow them to do innovative things, but without violating emerging data security and privacy laws.

“The main driver is business today need to give more users access to more data than they did a decade ago,” says Nong Li, the CTO and co-founder of Okera. “Historically, when we talk to folks, they might say, ‘You know, [the data] is already super locked-down for various reasons.’… [But] the old way was too much friction. We all know horror stories where data scientists are spending six months to get access to a data set to do their job. And that’s just not right.”

Finding the right mix of centralized oversight and governance to go along with distributed stewardship of data will be the key to successfully leveraging big data without getting entangled in growing regulatory nets, Li says.

“We do want centralized oversights, carinal from an auditing and reporting point of view, but also from a policy management point of view,” he says. “It should be possible, to say ‘I’m the CDO. Here are the rules that nobody should ever violate. Let’s start there,’ and then teams that have specific requirements or whatnot can refine from there. We find this to be really accelerating in terms of how enterprises are able to adopt their data platforms.”

Okera’s business has also been accelerating. Last week, the San Francisco company reported that it doubled its annually recuring revenue (ARR) and grew bookings by nearly 3x. The company does not disclose customer counts, but says it counts three of the largest financial services companies and one of the top two global retail brands within the Fortune 100 as customers.

The economic lockdowns due to COVID-19 caused shifts in computing that benefited data-centric security, as opposed to infrastructure-level security, Halsey says.

“The pandemic really turned out to be a driver because it forced enterprises to rethink the fundamental concept of security,” he says. “It accelerated these trends of the cloud and third party services…because there’s no more data center, there’s no network.  Everybody is working from home. There are no secure networks. So you have to think differently.”

One particular customer, a Fortune 50 retailers, is using ODAP to control user access to data within the confines of GDPR and CCPA, Okera says. The customer is processing over 10 trillion records per day in a cloud data warehouse that is pushing 50 petabytes in size. “Black Friday was quite busy,” Li says. “The current volumes are extremely high.”

As the COVID-19 lockdowns slowly come to an end, companies will re-examine their IT architectures and security, with multi-cloud and hybrid-cloud setups projected to grow. Another growth area is in the arena of data privacy regulations

While the proliferation of data privacy laws among states would be “a nightmare” for companies, it’s actually good business for Okera, because its software helps to insulate companies from needing to implement data controls for each data source.

“The regulatory burden is not going to get any smaller,” Halsey says. “It’s only going to get bigger.”

Related Items:

Okera Emerges from Stealth with Big Data Fabric

Okera Bolsters Access Control for Unstructured Data