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Cut loose with semantics and NLP

This article appears in the issue April 2011 [Volume 20, Issue 4]

In May 2005, Progress Software, a diversified software and services vendor, purchased EasyAsk. At the time, EasyAsk was making sales in U.S. government and commercial organizations, and its system offered a cost-effective, scalable alternative to other e-commerce vendors’ offerings.

Between 2005 and 2010, EasyAsk fell off my radar screen. Progress Software turned its attention to what I characterize as infrastructure software. EasyAsk’s technology could ingest structured and unstructured content, but Progress Software narrowed the company’s scope of action, stopped sending me information about EasyAsk’s natural language processing (NLP) and semantic technology, and focused on plumbing—that is, its business application platform, complex event processing (CEP) and services-oriented architectur infrastructure. I thought EasyAsk was history.

I was wrong. I learned a few months ago that EasyAsk is very much alive, and it is growing rapidly. The new owner is a successful software entrepreneur, Craig Bassin, who orchestrated the spin out of EasyAsk from Progress Software. When I met with Bassin, I asked him for a one-sentence description of the “new” EasyAsk. He replied, “I’d describe it as follows: You ask EasyAsk questions the exact same way you’d ask it of your VP of sales or CFO.”

Under Bassin’s stewardship, the company is now expanding beyond the e-commerce sector that interested Progress Software, and applying its NLP and semantic technology to enterprise information access opportunities. The firm offers technology that helps people find information faster and easier by enabling them to ask questions in plain English, converting the query into SQL and retrieving an accurate answer. The technology is used in two products: EasyAsk eCommerce Edition, an e-commerce search and merchandising solution that is said to drive the best buyer conversion rates in the industry, and EasyAsk Business Edition, which offers what I find the easiest, most intuitive manner to search and explore corporate data.

Asked if his system scales, Bassin said, “Our advanced indexing technology supports extremely large, scalable product indexes. Our indexes can scale in multiple dimensions, including number of products or SKUs and the number of attributes used to drive user searches, giving EasyAsk the ability to index extremely large datasets. We support indexes of twice the capacity of typical in-memory, high-speed, searchable indexes, providing a significant performance boost in searches across large datasets. EasyAsk also scales easily with Web load balancers and industry-standard clustering technology. Load balancers can balance HTTP and SOAP requests across multiple EasyAsk servers to scale front-end search load. Clusters can be used to scale EasyAsk instances to drive larger volumes of search data and results. And, we support 64-bit operating systems, allowing us to load high-speed searchable indexes completely into large memory address spaces for extremely fast access. EasyAsk’s natural language technology provides an extremely high degree of search quality without the need for expensive search tuning, providing excellent out-of-the-box performance.”

EasyAsk strikes me as a company positioning itself in the business intelligence sector, not what I call commodity enterprise search. The business intelligence system allows authorized users to get immediate access to data so they can make informed decisions improving their ability to increase sales, service customers and execute operational processes. Those casual users don’t typically have the skills or training to write ad hoc reports. And, they can’t wait a few weeks for IT or a data analyst to get them a custom report.

When I tested the system, I was able to obtain a report with a natural language query. I asked, “Which customers bought products last year but not this year?” I also entered the query, “What were the top five products by revenue?” I did not have to fumble through point-and-click menus that form part of the user experience offered by many business intelligence vendors. Nor did I have to involve a programmer who conducted a “reference interview” and then went away for a day to code the query. I just typed into a search box.

In the enterprise, EasyAsk ssigned an agreement with NetSuite, a vendor of a cloud-based business software suite. With that deal, EasyAsk became the search option for such companies as KANA, Six Apart and Virgin Money.

Bassin said, “EasyAsk Business Edition for NetSuite was announced in September 2010, and is a product we are very excited about. We have been teaming with NetSuite since April 2010 to integrate and deliver both the eCommerce Edition and Business Edition products on the NetSuite platform. And EasyAsk Business Edition for NetSuite understands the NetSuite data model and all the related NetSuite business terminology out of the box. So any NetSuite user can ask questions about their specific business or operational function to speed their execution.

“EasyAsk Business Edition is designed to provide answers to questions for senior management as well as C level executives. If a board member asked the CEO about service issues at some of the top customers, the CEO could simply ask EasyAsk, ‘Show me all open service cases for my top 10 customers by revenue.’ ”

EasyAsk has a difficult challenge. The enterprise content access market is crowded. There are established vendors like IBM Cognos/SPSS, SAS and MicroStrategy with large customer bases, as well as dozens of newcomers. Those range from the promising Digital Reasoning Synthesys Version 3.0 product, supported by the U.S defense community, to Megaputer, a company with roots that entwine with Moscow State University.

Bassin said, “The SaaS BI companies are just taking the entire BI and analytic development process and turning it into a SaaS model. Users still need to define extract processes, build a data mart, perform analysis and create reports. SaaS BI offerings are really geared toward lowering the cost of traditional business analysis rather than addressing the need for everyday users to search and analyze their data ... Other products provide users with only a navigational approach to finding what they want. EasyAsk’s powerful natural language engine drives both a direct style of asking for exactly what you want, as well as a navigational approach, providing greater versatility and ease of use.”

EasyAsk’s technology is one good example of next-generation content processing finding its way into the enterprise via on-premise installations or from the cloud. If EasyAsk can build on its recent sales successes, the company will provide a viable alternative to information access solutions that lack NLP and semantic functions and cost more than EasyAsk’s system.  


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