Alvion Technologies provides a web-enabled platform that allows compilers, resellers and managers of marketing lists to easily deliver their product to end-users in support of targeted marketing efforts. Individual customers submit their data and then Alvion runs customer-specific data transformation and uploads the data to production servers, for access by end-users who are the customers of the data owners. If you need, for example, to find consumers within a 35-mile radius of your business that meet a certain profile, you can go online and find lists within Alvion, put in the criteria you are looking for, and those names will be provided to you, via electronic delivery, be it email or download.
There are two business models the company supports. One is the compiler data owner who wants to put names on the market for end-users or other resellers and brokers to obtain through Alvion's web-enabled interface. Alvion provides its outsourcing services to some of the largest marketing data list owners in the world, including companies such as Experian, Equifax, and Dunn & Bradstreet. Then there are the pure resellers and list brokers and managers who make a business of acquiring lists for marketers, and use Alvion's technology to contact owners of data that are within the Alvion network. Ultimately, in either case, speed in answering queries is critical, in order for the sale to be made.
Alvion began as a spin-off from AccuData America in 1999, and was just acquired by Axciom Corp., a global interactive marketing services company, in September 2008. "We were purchased because our technological platform can add something to Acxiom. Our technological platform is centered around Sybase to a large degree," explained Gary Schmidt, former president and part owner of Alvion.
While it is a niche business, Alvion has significant data stores - 15 terabytes that describe 200 million individuals by 2,000 different attributes. "Any and all of those attributes could be queried at any time," said Schmidt, who is now a team leader at Acxiom involved in integrating Alvion and Acxiom capabilities.
An early adopter of Sybase IQ, Alvion tapped the technology in the early 2000s to create its system that gives end-users the ability to execute ad hoc queries for specific combinations of attributes in real time. Sybase IQ is a highly optimized analytics server designed to deliver fast results for mission-critical business intelligence, data warehouse and reporting solutions on standard hardware and operating systems. The technology has evolved with Alvion's business since then, said Schmidt, and Alvion is now also looking at other Sybase technologies to address additional business requirements.
Previously, Alvion had "a more traditional database implementation-a straight SQL implementation. Those databases just are not engineered for high-speed querying and analytics," said Schmidt, who noted Sybase IQ was selected prior to his joining the company.
Initially, the need was simple. Alvion was looking for a way to put in a question and get an answer in order to respond to a potential buyer's needs and close the sale-all in minutes if possible. That is when the company started looking for a technology to build or buy that could accelerate answers to those questions across large databases with hundreds and hundreds of marketing attributes.
"We are an Intel platform, although we also use a little bit of Sun Solaris equipment, so part of our challenge was that we needed technology that could span both worlds," Schmidt added.
There were several important requirements in making a selection. Speed, in the ability to get a quick answer from the database; flexibility because there were many databases with many attributes that all had to be kept separate, and third, fast time to market because the Alvion team did not want to spend a lot of time programming.
It turned out to be easier to implement than expected. There were some learning curves and tuning curves, some scripts and loading files that had to be changed, but it was just a few months before the Sybase IQ implementation was perfected enough to be out in the marketplace, Schmidt said. As a result, a query that used to take "30 minutes or so" could not run in seconds, Schmidt said.
"The column-based structure of Sybase IQ basically makes every column its own database so you can spread the workload around," said Schmidt. "If you want income and I want age, you and I don't compete for the same record in the same data."
Speed factors into everything. Alvion runs a loading script to pick which fields, elements and attributes need to be indexed in order to get to the speed, explained Schmidt. "I only download the data that I need." Data storage is decreased because the company is only storing the indexes that are needed, and Sybase also has compression algorithms as well that reduce the storage demand.
There are reasons the company has stayed with Sybase IQ, said Schmidt. "There are other products that try to do this but I haven't run into any that do it nearly as well-and as transparently to the database environment," said Schmidt. "It has actually gotten faster as the years have gone on-and their support is excellent. Everybody asks about their support and I say it is great-I don't have to call them."
Early on, in terms of hardware, the company had a combination of Intel and a Sun Solaris "because we wanted high speed processors that were stable as well to handle all of this web demand. Now that Intel has grown up a bit over the years for this type of work, we can get to an all Intel installation. That has helped out a bunch," said Schmidt.
Now, the company is also looking at other Sybase products that work well with Sybase IQ-for encryption, for example. "The interesting part is that Sybase provides columnar encryption. I can encrypt only the information I care about such as credit card numbers." Also intriguing are products that involve more formal analytics, said Schmidt.
If you have the problem of how to manage ad hoc access to large stores of data, then this type of architecture is about the only way to go. Some people throw hardware at it, but ultimately you have to add it all up," Schmidt said. "It comes down to total cost of ownership because licenses and boxes are not cheap. Bottom line, it is a better deal than going down the path of specialized equipment."