Thursday, June 03, 2010

Centrifuge Systems Offers Powerful, Flexible Link Analysis

Summary: Centrifuge Systems offers powerful, server-based link analysis and data visualization. It lets non-technical users load their own data, allowing them to work with minimal external support.

Centrifuge Systems offers data visualization software with a specialty in link analysis (that is, finding relationships among entities such as members of a social network). It isn’t the only vendor in the field – a quick search brought up this list of link analysis systems, which itself is not complete. Centrifuge tells me they are unique in offering link analysis that doesn’t require client software (only a browser with Adobe Flash) and works without a predefined data model. I can't personally confirm this, but was intrigued enough by Centrifuge that its uniqueness is not a prime concern.

Like other link analysis systems, Centrifuge has been used primarily for criminal and intelligence investigations. However, it is currently looking for additional applications such as marketing analysis to understand relationships between customers, locations and products. Since it does conventional data visualization in addition to the link analysis, Centrifugre is at least a potential replacement for visualization tools like Tableau and TIBCO Spotfire.

I had a briefing from Centrifuge a few months ago and recently downloaded their free trial system to play with it a bit. Not surprisingly, it was harder to use by myself than when a salesman was showing it to me. But the basic interface made sense and I can see that with a bit of practice, this would be a pretty effective system for a business analyst even if they lacked deep technical skills.

Setting up a project involves uploading data to the server, connecting to it, and then dragging data elements into position as dimensions and measures. Links between data elements are also defined by dragging fields into place. Users can refine their views by creating filters, derived values and bundles to combine selected items. Results can then be displayed from multiple perspectives including tables, link maps, charts (bar, line, pie, etc.), geographic and bubble maps, timeline, geospatial and drill-down charts.

The dragging itself wasn't as smooth as a typical desktop application, but it was perfectly serviceable and pretty impressive for working within a browser. Charts rendered almost instantly using the small sample data set. A larger volume might slow things down, but the heavy lifting is done on the server, so the system should scale well if the server is adequate. Centrifuge says its largest installations involve thousands of users and many millions of database rows.

The most important feature of Centrifuge is probably its ability to upload and link pretty much any type of data. External connections use JDBC drivers, which support sources including spreadsheets, XML and live feeds as well as conventional databases. The latest release lets analysts add new data sources by themselves, letting them work quickly with minimal technical support.

The system also lets users extract a subset of data and analyze it independently, reducing the load on the server. They can share their work by publishing it to a server as a PDF or live asset available to others. Newly published assets can be listed in an RSS feed.

Centrifuge was founded in 2007 and has multiple government clients, plus a few in private industry. Pricing starts at $4,000 for a single user perpetual license plus 18% annual maintenance.

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