A staple gun or roll of masking tape might come in handy today when Amr Awadallah walks in through his company’s doors. The CTO and co-founder of Hadoop platform provider Cloudera mouthed off about the competition to the European press late last week inspiring tweets like “Elephant fight!” The elephant reference, for anyone who may not know, refers to the symbol used for Apache Open Source Hadoop.

Better to Keep Your Mouth Shut?

Talking smack is hardly unheard of in the tech industry but these instances, when they happen, rarely go down as a moment of pride on vendor playlists. While “if you can’t say something nice about somebody then you shouldn't say anything at all” may be too much to expect when there’s fierce competition, marketing your products and services based on their own merits versus the real or perceived deficiencies of a rival’s tends to be a smarter way of doing business.

And Cloudera usually appears to be pretty smart.

So when we saw that Awadallah had given Computer Business Review an entire article’s worth of material to disparage Hortonworks, its big data-munching competitor, we took notice. Especially because he wasn’t knocking the technology that Hortonworks produces or the talent of its team, but its business model which Awadallah claims is “undependable.”

He went as far as to say that even though Hortonworks was gaining customers and building revenues, it would "not survive as a long-term business."

This isn’t a sentiment that we’d heard about Hortonworks in the past, and we’ve written about them quite a bit, so we turned to analysts at Forrester, Gartner and Wikibon, among others, to see if their studies of the Hadoop marketplace led them to the same conclusion.

Not a single one of them said yes. What they did say, almost without exception, is that three primary, pure-play Hadoop vendors (Cloudera, Hortonworks and MapR) are all very well capitalized, that each Hadoop distro provider has its own unique strategy, and that execution and ability to deliver value may be the differentiators. “Time will tell” was the common sentiment.

Spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

Speaking of the vendors, “they all have lots of potential,” says Gartner Research Director, Nick Heudecker, whose area of focus is Hadoop and Big Data, among other things. He adds “there’s so much interest, and so much room, that it’s much too early to call anyone in or out.” Out of the 550 to 600 inquiries Heudecker has handled of late, “about half are about Hadoop,” he says. And when customers ask which vendor is ahead, there is no clear answer.

What vendors should be worrying about, says Heudecker, is how they can help their customers gain value from Hadoop and how they can tell a more rounded story around that. because, as of now, enterprises are still keenly interested in Enterprise Data Warehouses as well.

This is something that analyst Matt Aslett, 451 Research's research director for data platforms and analytics seems to agree on.

He told Amy-Jo Crowley, the author of the CBN article, that though competition between Cloudera and Hortonworks may be a good thing for customers and the ecosystem in general, it could have a downside too.

“Both companies are unfortunately prone to exaggerate the perceived flaws of the other's business strategy to a level that can only be described as spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt,” he was quoted as saying “This is to the detriment of both themselves and the potential success of Hadoop."

A Strategy for Success?  

Jeff Kelly, Wikibon’s lead Big Data analyst, says Cloudera could be feeling the heat because it was the sole Enterprise Hadoop distro provider for a few years and it didn’t have to concern itself with competition. But with both MapR and Hortonworks in the game, it does because the three vendors are pretty much “neck to neck” in the race to win the Enterprise.

While Cloudera may be doing some more advanced things with Hadoop’s early adopters, Kelly says that Hortonworks has been coming on strong when it comes to winning customers in the last six to 12 months. And the interest in Hortonworks Platform (HDP) seems to be at an all-time high -- it's reportedly seeing an estimated 500 download each day.

And even if Awadallah’s accusation that Hortonworks is winning customers at a loss rather that at a profit is true, Kelly doesn’t see this as a problem at this stage of the game.

“Hortonworks’ success will depend on their ability to get massive volume,” he says, reasoning that the price per unit doesn’t have to be nearly as high if they’re successful in that. Kelly sees the strategy as being similar to MongoDB’s which openly admits that it gives away more value that it gets. It seems that some vendors believe the key to success is crossing the chasm as quickly as possible.

He also points out that Hortonworks has a good number of large vendor partners and investors whose data and big data solutions involve HDP, Hortonworks Hadoop Distribution platform.

“These companies (Microsoft, Teradata, SAP, HP and others) all have a vested interest in making sure Hortonworks succeeds,” he says. This is especially true of Microsoft whose Hadoop distribution is based on Hortonworks platform and HP whose HAVEn platform leverages it as well. Not only that, but HP is also an investor in Hortonworks.

A Cutthroat Market

Mike Gaultier of Forrester pointed us to his company’s most recent Forrester Wave: Big Data Hadoop Solutions which ranks both Cloudera and Hortonworks among the leaders. (The others are Amazon Web Services, IBM, MapR Technologies, Pivotal Software and Teradata.)

“We saw lots of Leaders, but none dominate,” he wrote in the report. There was no mention of Hortonworks having a faulty business strategy.

The report did, however, characterize the Hadoop market as cutthroat, a sentiment that Gartner, Wikibon and most any market-watcher would agree with.

When we asked analysts why Awadallah would make such comments, “positioning” was the most common answer.

From where we sit this looks like an unfortunate play because the market is still young, enterprises are still looking to see how they can gain value from Hadoop, and Gartner is still getting more customer calls concerning data warehouses and the cloud than Hadoop.

Building continued interest and confidence in Hadoop and establishing ROI is what these vendors need to be doing right now: we’re still early in the market and a rising tide raises all boats.