Posted:June 21, 2009

SemTech 2009

SemTech 2009 is Now the Gold Standard

OK, I admit it. I’m a dweeb and a suck-up. I have just returned from the Semantic Technology Conference in San Jose (CA) and I could not be more impressed. For real semantic Web action, this was the place to be. And, I’m sure, it will continue to be so if its leadership stays intact for some time to come.

I know, it is really not my style to applaud others when I could be patting myself on the back. But, hey, this was such a remarkable meeting in so many ways that I feel I have to break from precedent.

In terms of dislcosure let me be clear: I hope I get invited back to speak again next year (only this time in a bigger forum. Hint. Hint.) But, even if not invited to speak, me and my company will be there with bells on for this simple reason: this is the semantic Web confab that matters.

Unlike others that have noted specific talks, etc., I will not do so. Not because there were not talks that warrant such visibility; indeed, there were a tremendous number. My biggest regret of the meeting is that I could only taste a portion of all of the talks because so much was going on. But, rather than singling out any specific talks, I’d like to comment more thematically.

The conference organizers reported that more than 500 paper suggestions were put forward for what ended up being about 150 speaking slots. This was in addition to many tutorials, keynotes and many rump meetups. My best guess is that there were on the order of 1200 in total attendance. It was a packed five days or so. San Jose and the facilities were excellent.

The Real Message

When tech shows reportedly are down on average 40% or so from prior years, it is pretty remarkable to have one exceed its prior attendance, which SemTech 2009 apparently did. There were real customers, real use cases and real interest at every turn and in every conversation. Many hard problems were brought forward; some without acceptable solutions yet.

The real theme I kept hearing was: data federation, data federation, data federation. The potential for semantic Web technologies via the RDF data model and OWL and ontologies for finally breaking down the barriers between data silos was hammered and probed. The timing, I think, could not have been better than to have received shortly before the conference the timely PricewaterhouseCoopers technology quarterly report on linked data in the enterprise that I reviewed a couple of weeks back.

I think we can safely say that the advances from linked data in the past couple of years have been huge enablers and eye-openers to these prospects. But I also had the sense that the discourse is now moving beyond linked data as practiced so far. Web identifiers and Web access, I think, have won the argument. It is now time to move on to real data, interoperability and efficient tools and build-out.

Making the Pragmatic Prominent

To be sure there were discussions of more consumer-oriented apps and search. But the major energy and action seemed to center on the enterprise.

The idea is how can RDF bring us leverage, not replace what already exists. After 30 years of frustration, how can we finally solve the data federation problem? How can we remove the historical brittleness of applications and report writers? How can we actually begin to extract business intelligence from the massive data assets we already have at hand?

Asking enterprises to junk what they have for promises and prayers will not cut it. The winning strategy, and the challenge I kept hearing was: How can we layer on semantic technologies and RDF to bridge our existing data stores? How can we leave our RDBMs in place while gaining the goodness of ontologies and semantics?

We clearly see all around us the power of open source and the withering of proprietary apps and approaches. But, much data and information will remain private and needs to have access and rights restrictions. What answers does semantic technologies offer in these areas?

Then, as suppliers in this brave new world of open source and low software rents, what is the winning business model? Tom Tague helped articulate the importance of revenue models and options in his keynote; it resonated with already ongoing discussions in the hallways.

I’ve been in this space for more years than I care to admit. My observation from prior years is that some new “big thing” is identified, given blessing and push by the industry analysts (always with a new acronym), and then hyped like hell. Maybe it is the current challenged economic climate, but it feels like those days are over. For good.

Hype will not open wallets anymore. Case studies and real warts will help bring confidence that something truly different is at hand with semantic technologies. Our central challenge as suppliers to this market is to respond to today’s pragmatic imperatives. We must demonstrate more with less and faster. We must emphasize leverage and re-use. We must respect the trillions in already sunk IT assets.

Why This Matters to You

I think this matters much for three different communities.

For enterprises, I think it means that it is time for pilots and engagements. Both the market and the suppliers can not move this space forward rapidly without meaningful engagement. We’re ready, and it seems like many of you are as well. Push it with your bosses; we’ll deliver.

For the linked data community, where do you go next? I, too, heard some of the criticisms about too much “ontology.” But such discussion risks wasting the gains already achieved. If we do not listen and respond to the market’s imperatives and voice, we will become irrelevant. Let’s accept linked data as a tremendously helpful step in an ongoing progression, but continue to mature.

For some of the more established semantic technology providers, we have to make it simpler and faster. Expensive ontology development, too, will become irrelevant if we are indeed going to replace conventional software development with data-driven apps. Fortunately, I saw much, much exciting in this space and really had my eyes opened to tremendous innovation.

Outside of the venue, I heard from some of my prior Silicon Valley colleagues that this was the most constrained VC situation they have seen in decades. Funds may exist, but capital calls are not being made. What little powder there is, is being kept dry to triage existing investments. It is a good thing capital requirements for new start-ups have declined so much in recent years, because VCs are unlikely to fund the gap. And, aside from some big, prominent initiatives like data.gov or health care digitization, most savvy observers would bet that US and EU funding will also begin drying up in the coming years.

All of this can sound like bad news, but I think it is an opportunity: As technologists and suppliers, we must be relentlessly revenue focused and deliver what the market is demanding: more with less faster while preserving existing investments.

Five Stars: The Craft of Conference Organizing

The organizers from Wilshire Conferences and their entire staff did an absolutely tremendous job. Tony Shaw, Eric Franzon, Steve Bastasini and Eric Hoffer (I know Eric, you were only pinch hitting), plus the many on-site staff, were uniformly professional and unobtrusive. Sally Khudairi on PR and the A/V and registration crew were also excellent.

I once had responsibility for an annual technical meeting that averaged more than 2000 attendees and 150 exhibitors and I appreciate how many moving parts there are behind the scenes. Things work when nothing gets noticed. My guess is few noticed any issues or problems at this conference.

The stated aim on the intro slide to each session was to educate, and the agenda certainly achieved that. A/V was professional; time was kept; coffee did not run out; wi-fi glitches were quickly solved.

Sure, like any business, there is some pay-to-play in such conferences. Big sponsors get more slots and visibility. This reality, however, was also well balanced with new voices and innovative presenters. My “to do” notes and contacts resulting from the conference will take quite some time to work through.

One of the things I really appreciated was how the time slots and composition of talks and activities were varied each day. I have not attended a meeting before that did such a good job of mixing the schedule up to keep things feeling fresh over so many intense days.

Much, thanks, folks, for a conference exceedingly well done.

Last Thoughts

If I had to note a quibble I guess it would be to start the conference with more challenges and innovations. While the tutorials are very helpful, the first opening talks, I hope, could not be quite so introductory in nature. I think things are maturing fast. But, I could be wrong. First-time attendees from the marketplace should probably guide how such events start ramping up the engine.

As I noted, I and Structured Dynamics will be back next year, and hopefully contribute in more ways as well. The venue for SemTech 2010 has changed to the Hilton in San Francisco on June 21 – 25.

So, start saving for your travel budget now. This is “must see” semantic Web. And I look forward to seeing you there in a year!