How Alation Future-Proofs Your Organization

By Satyen Sangani

Published on June 26, 2023

Opened laptop with someone typing.

We started Alation over a decade ago to realize our vision of empowering a curious and rational world. Since then, we’ve worked with hundreds of enterprises to connect people with questions to colleagues (or data) with answers. Even with all of that progress, today’s social and technology landscape has made our vision as challenging to achieve as ever. As a result, we’ve had to evolve Alation to match the problem.

Today, leaders possess an overwhelming volume of data. This data comes from intentional investment in data infrastructure like data lakes and data warehouses. And, so much additional data is obtained from investments in integrations, AI, new cloud applications, and SaaS products – much of it siloed or of poor quality. In this mess, people struggle to find what they need and share it with others who need it, too. New data makes certain processes much more efficient. At the same time, it makes building a holistic picture of what’s going on much more difficult. A lack of analytical skills and executive buy-in to rationalize the mess only makes things harder. In sum, the data landscape is complex.

And yet, companies that can harness the power of data more effectively and efficiently than their competitors will win. That’s not just our impression; research has proven that companies with a data culture are 23x more likely to acquire customers and 19x more likely to be profitable; 90% of them meet or exceed revenue targets. Whether or not you believe these exact numbers, it’s pretty tough to argue that an organization is better off without data.

Those metrics are incredibly compelling, and standing still isn’t an option. However, leaders aspiring to be data-driven are confounded and often risk-averse when faced with this complexity. Ironically, success is hard to measure and end states are hard to define. (Hint: It’s because you’re never done.) So, almost every one of our new customers asks us the same questions — how do you get started and how do you measure success?

The data culture blueprint

Across the hundreds of customers we’ve worked with, we’ve identified a replicable and enduring blueprint any company can use to develop a data culture:

1. Start small — with one team and perhaps even one data source. Make it easy for that team to find data.

2. Govern and steward the most important data assets — whether they’re tables, dashboards, glossary terms, or policies.

3. Prune the data assets that are stale or no longer relevant.

4. Iterate with that same team and data.  

5. Document and advertise your success within the initial team and to other teams within your organization.

6. Rinse and repeat with other teams and, consequently, other data sources.

Sounds obvious. So, why is it so difficult for companies to get there?

Part of the challenge is in the modern approach to technology and data: 

SaaS tools make it easy to spin up new solutions instantly but have created a tangle of data silos. 

Cloud storage makes it cheap and easy to collect and store data for analysis, but as data volumes grow larger by the minute, it’s more difficult to find and use the right data. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) makes it easier to answer complex questions, but it’s increasingly difficult for users to understand the black box of AI, recognize built-in biases, or find the root of incorrect answers.

Enterprises have taken two distinct approaches to solving these problems: 

A centralized approach creates a top-down system of governance and methodologies to bring rigor to the data-driven enterprise, but it creates gaps and hurdles between data users and the data itself. 

A decentralized approach results in a proliferation of data tools that become difficult to govern, creating more data silos and fostering noncompliance.

Both options fail at their extreme. Both options prevent business users from accessing the data they need to make informed decisions.

It’s clear that modern enterprises need a third, blended option: 

A federated approach offers top-down governance controls while delegating access so users can self-serve. Better yet, it decouples data access from data storage to insulate data users from changes to data architectures and technologies as they inevitably shift. 

This is Alation’s Data Intelligence Platform

The value of a federated architecture

The critical capability behind federation is that when changes occur in your data management architecture (your data fabric),  how users interact with data (your data mesh) needs to remain unchanged. Put differently, your data intelligence platform has to enable you to create and enforce enterprise-level top-down data governance policies that empower data users across the business to self-serve.

What does this look like in practice? Here are just a few examples from our own customers.

The Very Group is one of the largest online retailers in the UK, with 2.2 million visits to their websites each day. When Steve Pimblett first became CDO in September 2020, he encountered a democratized data landscape. The problem? While there were some pockets of excellence, a siloed structure meant there was no central account accountability, platform, or principles — and no reuse. With Alation, Steve has created a federated, or what he calls a hub-and-spoke model, to centralize governance and centers of excellence while empowering individual spokes to operate independently but with clear expectations and frameworks. 

Avista, an energy company operating across 30,000 square miles in the Pacific Northwest, today uses Alation to federate data, too, but under a different name. Their “data octopus” decentralizes critical arms of data management, including lineage and curation. So “each tentacle of the octopus has the autonomy to focus on its own role,” writes Nolan Steiner, data science team lead, Avista. Today, they empower each arm to do “their work while synchronizing everyone through a centralized data catalog ‘brain’ to ensure we produce value from the overall data.”

Finally, motorsport company Polaris faced a growing avalanche of data and an overwhelmed team facing a growing cavalcade of questions about that data. They too have used Alation to federate their data landscape, with a central IT team that services the data requests, and embedded analytics teams in marketing, retail/finance, and logistics arms. With Alation, they’ve created a single cloud repository in Snowflake that’s governed, cataloged, and easy for newcomers to use (with less hand-holding!). 

What’s the common theme here? A federated approach to data governance enables people across a vast organization to discover the knowledge and context they need to be data-driven.

Launch a data culture: Join us!

When we first started Alation in 2012, we were fighting to create a tool and a software category.  We’ve been widely credited with pioneering the data catalog and being the leader of the data intelligence category. Today, we’re proud that there’s a vibrant ecosystem of vendors.  

Beyond the technology, you’d likely have noticed that, in each customer example, realizing a data culture is more than just buying technology. You have to change how people do their work, interact with each other, and define their own success. In our work delivering on data projects for more than 40% of the Fortune 100, we’ve developed a proven methodology for delivering on the vision of a data culture. 

The next stage of this market will come from customer success. This means the vendors that will help their customers achieve clear business outcomes, hard ROI, and widely leveraged technology. Given everything we’ve learned over the past decade, we know that a federated approach to data management and governance is the only way that customers will realize these outcomes at scale.

We’re able to measure these outcomes in terms of time-to-value with faster deployment, higher adoption rates so more users get more value, and behavioral intelligence. This way, you can continuously monitor and improve your self-service, data governance, and artificial intelligence initiatives en route to building a data culture.

Recently, Alation CEO Satyen Sagani spoke about the importance of trusted data and how Alation's Data Intelligence Platform helps organizations manage their data on Bloomberg Technology. Listen below to check out the insights.

Over 450 enterprise customers agree that this federated approach is the right one. That includes some of the world’s largest banks, and companies like Cisco, Nasdaq, Pfizer, Virgin Australia, and Salesforce. Why not join them? Sign up for one of our weekly demos to see how Alation can help you create, improve, and evolve your data culture.

  • The data culture blueprint
  • The value of a federated architecture
  • Launch a data culture: Join us!
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