How to choose the right stream processing tools for every team

by Mike Rosam
| Mar 15, 2022

What we learned from (and want to add to) Gartner’s “Market Guide for Event Stream Processing”

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To solve the right problems, you want the best possible tools. If your business ingests and processes data that is always flowing in, you’re probably looking for an event-stream processing solution.

Event-stream processing — also called data stream processing, time series data processing, in-memory processing and real-time data processing — describes a large group of emerging technologies. It’s easy to get lost in the new (and sometimes conflicting) terminology, features and functions, which leaves many people wondering how to make the correct tooling choice for their team.

I’m diving into a recent report by Gartner, the “Market Guide for Event Stream Processing” by W. Roy Schulte, Pieter den Hamer and colleagues, to provide three questions business leaders should ask when modernizing their data and analytics platforms.

 

How are companies using event-stream processing?

Gartner reports that about two-thirds of companies currently use event-stream processing (ESP) for real-time stream analytics. They’re processing the data they have to drive dashboards for business intelligence, and to make decisions, trigger actions and automation, or provide greater product capabilities. More use cases exist across sectors, including finance, mobility and ecommerce.

The other one-third of companies use it for data engineering purposes, called stream data integration, such as ingesting and storing data for future use or analysis.

We think both of these categories of use cases are important for organizations. Whether using data immediately or processing it to make it more useful in later analysis, event-stream processing helps to calm the chaos of ever-increasing data

 

What are the options to adopt event-stream processing technology?

Gartner puts event-stream processing solutions into four categories, noting that more than half of ESP platform products are open source or open core.

Four categories of event-stream processing solutions

  • Community-supported open source
  • Vendor-supported open core
  • Proprietary ESP platforms
  • Stream data integration platforms

The most accessible event-stream processing solutions are open source projects such as Apache Flink, Apache Spark Streaming and Apache Kafka Streams. But these aren’t products that can be used off the shelf. The DIY component inherent in using any open source project puts a lot of pressure on the adopting organization to integrate, package and test it. In short, you’ll need teams of sophisticated people capable of implementing open source components.

On the other end of the spectrum is buying a proprietary streaming platform from a vendor. These are typically heavy-duty industrial platforms — Gartner lists Hitachi Streaming Data Platform, IBM Streams, Microsoft Azure Stream Analytics and StreamInsight, as well as products by Oracle, SAP, SAS, Software AG and TIBCO.

The problem with these all-in-one solutions is that you can’t access them without a massive enterprise commitment. You can’t kick the tires. They’re built so that only a few specialized people can use them — leaving out most of a team. And legacy systems are unlikely to deliver a good developer experience, which can impact productivity and retention.

Between the proprietary solutions and the community open source projects are vendor-supported, open-core products. Examples include Amazon Kinesis, Axual’s KSML, Cloudera DataFlow, Confluent ksqlDB, and offerings from EsperTech, Google, Lenses.io, Lightbend and VMware.

These options focus largely on the same persona: software engineers. While software engineers work comfortably in Java, Scala and SQL, these languages exclude other personas in your business, including the people who could most benefit from (and benefit your business by) having access to streaming data.

Data scientists, mechanical engineers and product designers typically work in Python, the most widely used code language in the world. Still, they can’t access streaming data except through IT or data engineers with these options.

We think there’s a market gap between the big-industry-oriented proprietary ESP platforms, the DIY-heavy open source projects, and the software-oriented, vendor-supported open core options. And that’s why we built Quix.

 

How difficult is it to adopt event-stream processing technology?

The decision to upgrade your capabilities for ingesting and analyzing data with stream processing might come down to a question of what engineering resources you have and how much you’re willing to expend.

Event-stream processing relies on a minimum of three innovative technologies: container technology like Kubernetes, a message broker like Kafka and stream processing capability provided by the likes of Spark or Flink. Unlike databases, which have been around for decades and are now highly commoditized, stream processing is new enough that it requires a great deal of orchestration services to make these three complex technologies play nicely together. This is where a lot of companies get stuck.

At first, lured in by the price tag, companies think it’s realistic to approach stream processing as a DIY project. They can often solve part of their problems with the hyperscalers, such as AWS, GCP or Azure for cloud infrastructure. But this approach can still trip up inexperienced or small teams.

Orchestration and observability are essential, but they’re not readily available in the market in an a la carte fashion. These capabilities might be embedded in an industrial application, but proprietary ESP platforms come with dependencies and generally prevent you from choosing your infrastructure and configurations.

This is where Quix sees the market gap. By providing an easy-to-install, easy-to-use tool for workflow, orchestration and observability, Quix makes it possible to get the benefits of vendor packaging without vendor lock-in. With Quix, companies can choose their infrastructure and install composable microservices at will.

 

What are the business requirements for event stream processing?

Now, let’s talk about the drivers that fuel the rapid adoption of event-stream processing and what you should consider before adopting it.

 

Event stream processing reduces latency

Do you need real-time access? What does real time mean to you? Some definitions of real time are near-instantaneous, quantified in microseconds or milliseconds. Other “business real-time” definitions, such as Gartner’s, put the window at up to 15 minutes of latency.

For products built on a near-instant need for real-time responses and results — such as IoT devices, ML-driven automation for fault detection and self-healing, or digital interactions with customers — millisecond latency can make the difference in conversions and revenue. You can read for yourself how reducing latency impacted revenue for Booking.com and other brands.

 

Processing logic requires better workflow transparency

Following the logic associated with a sequence of complex data transformations can be difficult. This is where workflows can accelerate your team’s productivity in a big way. With tools to visually represent your data pipeline, data teams can follow the logic and change or debug it.

While team members without DevOps skills might want to deploy microservices and chain them together in a data pipeline, they typically don’t have the skill set to accomplish this alone. Your options are to replace them or give them better tooling to work in a cloud environment to build the data topologies (multi-stage processing pipelines) they need.

Quix’s stream processing workflow — develop, test and deploy — encapsulates DevOps in a product user experience that delivers software engineering best practices to empower your whole data team.

 

Traditional database solutions fail to scale

The ever-increasing volume and velocity of data flowing into organizations from digital and connected products has pushed many traditional batch- and database-centric methods of ingesting and analytics past their breaking point.

 

“To make the right decision on event-stream processing, business leaders must consider how much data they need to ingest and process now — and how well the solution can scale in the future.”

 

The old data architecture pattern of (ingest) → (store) → (clean) → (analyze) → (act) must be replaced by (process while ingesting) → (act automatically) → (store what’s needed). But even some streaming technologies like Apache Spark can’t handle massive scale. In our test, Spark couldn’t scale beyond 133,000 messages per second.

To make the right decision on event-stream processing, business leaders must consider how much data they need to ingest and process now — and how well the solution can scale in the future.

 

What types of data benefit from event-stream processing?

As we’ve introduced Quix to the market, we’ve occasionally heard business leaders say, “Oh, I don’t have time-series data.” But any dataset that records events as they happen with a time stamp is a candidate for event-stream processing.

Event-stream processing benefits any product that uses data-in-motion, a term that refers to data that enters a dataset as it’s created to expand the set continuously. (The opposite is data-at-rest architecture, which only functions with a closed dataset.)

Event-stream processing focuses on data-in-motion with event-driven design. It’s intended to handle a chain of events that happen after an action occurs. This gets tricky when hundreds (or thousands) of event streams are coming in, and each needs to be separately managed in its own business context. An example of this is a large bank that must track and even predict customer interactions while always keeping each customer’s data and activity separated from other customers.

 

“Businesses that master event-stream processing to immediately analyze what’s happening with their customers and the market and to automate actions that deliver exceptional customer experiences will emerge with a massive competitive advantage.”

 

Event streams aren’t consistent. They aren’t tidy. They can come out of order or with faults and changes. And they’re constantly pinging across various devices, clouds, caches and compute resources. Managing these data streams and ensuring actions trigger the right reaction is an essential business function.

Businesses that master event-stream processing to immediately analyze what’s happening with their customers and the market and to automate actions that deliver exceptional customer experiences will emerge with a massive competitive advantage.

 

What if my business isn’t ready for a major digital or data architecture transformation?

While leading systems integrators and consultancies are currently implementing event-stream processing for customers on contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, massive projects like those aren’t always a good fit for startups, scaleups or enterprises attached to certain legacy systems.

What’s more, it’s entirely possible that only a small portion of a large company’s data and engineering team requires event-stream processing for its work.

Adopting open source projects will require a huge investment in DIY components while adopting a proprietary enterprise platform requires a massive contract and monetary investment. But the middle ground between these, an open-core platform provided by a vendor, can deliver the benefits of managed and packaged services without huge costs or vendor lock-in.

Quix doubles down on this market space by providing an online integrated development environment (IDE) that enables companies to spin up separate R&D sandboxes for individuals or teams without endangering production workloads — and without a massive investment.

This no-risk experimentation can drive innovation because the cost of trying new things is just a few hundred dollars rather than a few million. It also enables companies to experiment using event-stream processing without retooling their entire organization around a project.

Businesses might also be hesitant to jump into event-stream processing due to their underlying infrastructure and the contracts and systems that effectively cement them in place. But by separating the business logic and code from the infrastructure layer (which Quix does with its workflow tooling), teams can move forward with event streaming and run on any current or future infrastructure technology. It’s another benefit to business agility.

 

What’s next in event-stream processing?

While the Gartner market report endeavors to cover the existing landscape (which, as we’ve seen, has quite a lot of open market opportunities), we’re always thinking about the next thing. We’re focused on where our customers are today and where they’re going in the future.

A big topic missing from the discussion is streaming data products. These are digital products and devices built on top of the new capabilities created by streaming data. It includes IoT and connected devices, from cars to scooters to consumer wearables. These generate an enormous volume of raw, time-series and telemetry data.

While hundreds of companies are innovating to create new Things in IoT, they all report difficulties enabling these Things with streaming data. Working with streaming data should be as simple as an engineer using a database to build an application. It should be business as usual.

Domain-driven design — the breakup of monoliths into microservices — and event-driven design will also come to the forefront as we see more companies rearchitect around event-stream processing.

We believe breaking data pipelines down into smaller, functional modules (many attached to microservices) will ultimately yield cleaner, more reusable and composable code.

Lastly, while I’ve mentioned the democratization of data above, I can’t emphasize enough how critical it will be for companies to open greater data access for their teams. Quix chose to focus our platform on Python users because it’s the most-used and best-loved language and has become the preferred language of data scientists, physicists, chemists and engineers of all kinds. Yet, despite its popularity, vendors largely ignore Python. Indeed, there’s only one mention of Python in Gartner’s entire 17-page report.

If you’re considering using stream processing in your business, talk to a technical expert about your use case. Or join The Stream community, where you’ll find allies working on all kinds of event-processing projects.

Try Quix for yourself for free (no credit card, no time limit).

by Mike Rosam

Mike Rosam is cofounder and CEO at Quix, where he works at the intersection of business and technology to pioneer the world's first streaming data development platform. He was previously Head of Innovation at McLaren Applied, where he led the data analytics product line. Mike has a degree in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA from Imperial College London.

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