Informatica PowerCenter Review

PowerCenter Express is not PowerCenter but it's good enough for small development

Informatica unveiled their newest product in the PowerCenter line, the PowerCenter Express, at Informatica World this year (find Smartbridge’s experience of the convention here).

The sales pitch is certainly catchy: Free PowerCenter! First I heard of it, I wasn’t sure what to think – is this a marketing gimmick? What’s the catch? But hey, at that price, it is easy enough to find out by one’s self, and that is precisely what I did. And color me pleasantly surprised.

The Limitations of PowerCenter Express

To their credit, Informatica is upfront with the limitations of the product. This is a good thing – no easier way to shoot yourself in the foot than sneak small print on your clients under a guise of a no-strings-attached free download.

As you could expect, PowerCenter Express is not PowerCenter – the free Express version can only process a quarter of a million rows per day – good enough for small development, but it is best considered a demo version. The paid version includes multi-user support, and removes the processing limitation, but is still limited to five users and no job parallelization.

If your company is already using PowerCenter, you are probably long past the point where you could realistically choose to downsize to Express. But if your company was too small for the behemoth that is PowerCenter, then Express may be exactly what you need.

I suspect that Informatica sees Express as a way to reach to clients that, until now, were too small to warrant their larger products – maybe a way to get them to dip their toe in the waters.

Do not think, however, that this is “PowerCenter lite”. Express is a product on its own right (the paid version, more so than the free). A small-to-medium company that finds itself in need of an ETL can do much worse than invest in Express. Even when I was building PowerCenter ETLs for a large bank, we seldom ran more than two or three medium jobs in parallel – the strain it puts on the source and target is just not worth the time savings – and the larger jobs usually ran on their own.

The lack of parallelization will hit only if you had a large number of small jobs; and even then, serializing them shouldn’t be more than a small inconvenience, although not having faced the actual issue, do take this prediction with a grain of salt.

Express Installation

Grabbing a copy and installing it was simplicity itself. I have always felt that PowerCenter’s greatest strength is its ease of use, beyond even its connectivity. I’m happy to see Informatica expand the ease of use to the installation.

A stand-alone install program is all it takes to be up and running. I was building my first test mapping less than an hour after deciding to download Express, and ran it successfully in less than two hours (it wasn’t a very interesting mapping, admittedly, but it was a reasonably complex join of flat file data against a local database, aggregated and sent to a remote location – the kind of “simple” ETL that has been known to cause me headaches when attempted in unvarnished SQL).

One word of caution: Express is not a toy. Even the free version has a fully functional PowerCenter server. When turned on, my laptop went into permanent spin, and my memory and CPU use climbed several notches. I found myself turning it off just to give my poor laptop a break. It worked for testing, but if you are going to use it to develop an actual ETL, consider installing the server portion on an actual server.

PowerCenter vs. PowerCenter Express

PowerCenter Express is by no means ‘lite’.

As a long time user of PowerCenter, this part is actually tricky to write. How many of the changes are “bad” and how many of them is just me being an old curmudgeon? It’s difficult to say. The good news: you needn’t worry. They did not strip PowerCenter down. Every transformation you can find in “classic” PowerCenter is in Express as well.

Express even includes a bunch of direct connections to social media to speed up your mapping development: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, you name it. And I loved that they finally dropped the “source” and “target” – an unnecessary distinction, when most external entities end up being both. Express automatically assumes that, and the whole is more compact for it.

I am less happy about the lack of Sessions. They are not gone completely – the workflow is still a sequence of objects that are associated to mappings – but without my usual central point for redefining sources and targets, I was left scrambling to find where to do so. I suspect this is more my muscle memory that led me to looking in all the wrong places, though. As always, F1 brought up the help, and once I had read the manual, it became easy again.

There are a few other nits I could pick – I am not entirely convinced I like the new graphics, the ribbon or the “all in one” approach – and I cannot even guess at what other differences I would eventually find, if given enough time, but these are minor.

Express is PowerCenter, and the old approaches to mapping design will still work. It is still visual, intuitive, and easy to use.

So Does Express Pass the Test?

If Express’ name wasn’t attached to Informatica PowerCenter, I’d considered it a basic ETL, with potential for growth and useful mostly for small deployments.

The equation changes, though, when you consider that if you do outgrow the capabilities of Express, you can easily upgrade to PowerCenter. It is an interesting approach, and I could almost say Informatica has managed to square the circle.

This first visit to the tool has proven successful enough that, were I to be required to use Express as the ETL tool, nary a complaint would escape my lips – and those of you that have met me know how rare an occasion that is.

Disclaimer: The company I work for is partners with several vendors including Informatica

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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