The 5-Minute Interview: Tom Zeppenfeldt, Founder of Graphileon

Catch this week’s 5-Minute Interview with Tom Zeppenfeldt, Director and Founder at GraphileonFor this week’s 5-Minute Interview, I chatted with Tom Zeppenfeldt, Director and Founder at Graphileon in the Netherlands. Tom and I chatted this past summer about what’s new at Graphileon.

Here’s what we covered:

Tell us a bit about yourself and about how you use Neo4j.

Tom Zeppenfeldt: I’m the Founder and Owner of Graphileon. We became a Neo4j solutions partner last April, but I already had a lot of experience working with Neo4j.

The project that we worked on before becoming a Neo4j partner was to create a platform for investigative journalists — the type of reporters who work on stories like the Panama Papers. And our main product at Graphileon is what we call the InterActor, which is a heavily enhanced user interface that communicates with Neo4j.

Can you share a bit more technical details about how that product works?

Tom: Of course. With the journalism project we’re working on, we ran into some limitations because we aren’t what I would call “hardcore ITers.” And we were looking for a user interface that people like us — who had been using Excel — could easily use. We needed a tool that would allow us to create and browse networks; create new nodes, tables and charts; and all different kinds of graph data.

Although we were working on the journalism project, we realized that if we made the tool generic, everyone who uses Neo4j could have this useful add-on. It’s always good to have some tool at your side that allows you to browse and do discovery and exploration in your Neo4j store in order to build prototype applications or applications that only have a short lifetime.

What made Neo4j stand out when you were exploring different technology solutions?

Tom: One of the main draws was Cypher; that was crucial. As I mentioned, we are not hardcore IT people, but Cypher — in terms of all the ASCII art-like pattern matching it allows you to do — was really easy to use. We’ve become more advanced and now consider ourselves power users of Neo4j.

The database is very easy to work with. You don’t have to go through a lot of technical studying to be able to create good data models or write your queries. But a user interface was still lacking.

Let’s say if you compare it to the standard user interface that comes with Neo4j — the Neo4j Browser — we have multiple panels. We can copy nodes from one panel to another, and we can also access different graph stores at the same time. We have shortcuts and even dynamic Cypher, which is very interesting.

For instance, imagine that you want to select a number of nodes that are linked in a node set. From that, you can automatically derive a kind of pattern and then send that to the database to give what we call isomorphs, or similar structures. This allows you to query and return all the places in your data where you have the same structure on the same path.

What have been some of the most surprising or interesting results you’ve seen using Neo4j?

Tom: The moment we started playing with dynamic Cypher was very interesting, especially once we found the correct division between software tiers such as the database and front-end tiers.

We started working with Cypher results as result maps that look and smell like a node, so it’s treated as a node by the database. That allowed us to make nice visualizations of aggregations of soft nodes, virtual nodes and virtual relationships. The fact that you can merge them into a result — even if you are combining your Cypher query data from different node types or nodes with different labels — makes it very easy to work with.

If you could take everything you know about Neo4j now and go back to the beginning, is there anything you would do differently?

Tom: Once we knew Cypher really well, we saw pitfalls in some of our models. My advice would be to try and limit the scope of your search with your Cypher statements as early as possible. In the first month or two, we struggled because we didn’t understand Cypher completely, which led to some mistakes. But if you can optimize those queries you can achieve huge improvements in performance.

For example, if you are doing traversals, opening a node to see what is inside is time consuming. Sometimes it’s better to use a node value instead of property because it allows you to use nodes instead of real values so you can search for ranges between those relationships.

As in any database, whether it’s a relational database, a document database or a graph database, you always have to consider the type of queries your want to perform. You can’t just make the model without knowing what kinds of questions you want to ask.

Anything else you’d like to add? Any closing thoughts?

Tom: It’s very interesting for us to see how quickly Neo4j develops. We started with version 1.0 and the difference between that version and what we have now is huge.

Since we build a lot of prototype applications, we are really pleased with the new functions every time they’re added. For instance, at a certain stage you added the keys functions and the properties functions, which makes developing a lot faster for us. Of course, we are also interested in what openCypher will bring because as more people start to use Cypher this will push further development of the language.

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