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Cindi Howson
Cindi Howson
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5 Big Themes in BI for 2011

Business intelligence will become more visual, mobile and social in 2011. But how should you balance central vs. departmental control, and does it make sense to upgrade?

There is nothing like a record snowfall (here in NJ, where I live) and a new year to reflect on the hot topics in BI for 2011. Here is my list of the five most important trends for the year ahead.

1. Advanced Visualization and Dashboards Go Mainstream

Last year, QlikTech went public, Tableau Software revamped its product, and IBM Cognos released its second-generation dashboard solution, dubbed "Business Insight." Advanced visualization and discovery tools continue to garner significant interest because of their ease of use, visual appeal, and ability to speed the time to insight amid vast amounts of data.

The challenge for companies is in understanding when technologies overlap and the degree to which they are converging. Should you look for these capabilities from your BI platform vendor or from a specialty vendor?

For dashboards, the answer depends on your BI platform. Vendors such as Oracle and MicroStrategy have the most robust, appealing, and integrated dashboard solutions (feel free to disagree with me here, but as always, my conclusions are from hands-on testing of hundreds of criteria). This is not to say that other vendors haven't made strides in their latest releases, but these two vendors are furthest along.

If, however, you are looking for an advanced visualization product with dashboard capabilities, the better products remain with specialty vendors. A few of the leading BI platform vendors have some exciting products in development in this area.

Beyond these tools, businesses will continue to struggle to decide who owns them and who should develop related content: business or IT? First attempts at developing dashboards tend to look like glitzy pin ball machines, but as people gain experience and expertise, these tools become the most useful component of BI.

2. Mobile BI Gets Recharged

Mobile BI didn't even make my top trends last year, so one could say its appearance this year is quite a leap. In the cool BI class I teach at TDWI events, this innovation rarely gets top nod from attendees. However, few could have foreseen the wild adoption of Apple's iPad. The wider screen real estate and sheer beauty that this tablet brings to BI is reason to take stock of your mobile BI strategy.

What devices will you support, and what is your vendor's strategy? Vendor capabilities here remind me of my living room on New Year's Eve morning: unclear, fragmented, and all over the place. Support for devices, content, consumer ability, and native-versus-browser support vary widely.

MicroStrategy's mobile BI solution is the broadest and most robust, including support for iPhone/iPad as well as Blackberrys. QlikTech and Actuate also are further ahead than some of the larger platform vendors. Niche vendor RoamBI, which supports content from multiple BI vendors, is worth investigating.

Companies that fail to consider mobile BI's potential and limitations will be forced into reactionary mode; when you scramble to pull together a strategy, you risk security breaches, mixed devices, and inconsistent support.

3. Facebook Gives BI More Than a Facelift

Facebook hit 500 million users mid 2010, a community now larger than the population of the U.S. and Canada combined. It's changing the way a generation interacts, lobbies, advertises, complains, and thinks. It's impossible for this trend not to impact BI. Social networking brings new data sources for analysis. It also brings new demands for how users respond to insights from data, and that is never in isolation.

To date, a report may be viewed as part of a task or decision-making process. Any discussion around the report is typically offline. Key decisions from the insight are made verbally or shared via e-mail or in documents, sometimes held in a document management system.

Envision a Facebook influence on BI: decision-makers bring together the right people virtually; users themselves control the flow and content instead of a central IT group who secures the data and subsequent analyses. Tasks, comments, opinions, and even new sets of data and analyses are brought together seamlessly.

Sounds too futuristic? Some vendors have already offered annotations to BI content, such as Information Builders Performance Management Framework and Dundas Dashboards. Moving far beyond just a portal technology, consider the new BI-integrated collaboration capabilities built into Microsoft SharePoint 2010.

Beyond SharePoint, Outlook 2007 has collaboration features that SAS has been quick to leverage. Demonstrating further social networking's influence, last year SAP launched StreamWork (but without BI content), Oracle BI Enterprise Edition 11g included support for Web Center (someone should rename this product!), and IBM Cognos 10 shipped with Lotus Connection. So the BI heavy weights are making inroads, but niche vendor Lyzasoft seems to have gotten the "user-directed" aspect most right.

So we've seen some innovation here, but the convergence of social networking with BI is still very young.

4. Economic Recovery Stretches BI Teams

The economy shows signs of recovering. Companies that weren't using BI to work smarter are no longer with us. BI budgets are once again expanding. The challenge is to continue to spend wisely, but also, to keep up with insatiable user demand. Central BI can't handle it all.

Bringing BI to the masses also means balancing what to handle centrally and enterprise-wide, and when to let users do their own thing. It's not always a matter of departmental BI being a throw-away or stand-alone application. Sometimes it's a matter of intelligently separating responsibilities. SAP BusinessObjects 4.0 has an interesting approach to metadata development that supports such an approach. eThority also seems to nicely blend enterprise class with departmental control.

If a shrinking economy helped spur open source adoption, what will a recovering economy do? I would argue that open source BI is not growing primarily because it's free; it's growing because it's open, allowing for easier embedability. Such aspects are more important to ISVs and others who build industry-focused applications, which in itself is a sizable market.

For open source to compete more squarely with commercial BI, the products must continue to improve; some are strong in one or two core areas, but not across the BI spectrum. Beyond the U.S. market, open source BI is also attractive to governments and foreign companies that don't want such critical assets to be powered entirely by U.S.-based software makers.

5. Will New Releases Bring Upgrade Fever or Flu?

Major new software releases mean powerful new capabilities, as long as the upgrade process is seamless. Painful migrations can leave IT resources strained with testing, bug resolution, and redesign.

The top-four BI vendors (IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP) all had major new product releases in 2010. Customers who have been burned with painful migrations in the past will not rush to adopt the latest versions. In some cases, 2011 will be a time to assess the cost of upgrading versus the cost of switching preferred vendors.

It has been interesting to see how both IBM Cognos and SAP BusinessObjects have a "co-existence" strategy in their latest releases: leave old content as is, running on the new platform. That approach is fine as a transition strategy; but the proof point will be in how easy and quick it can be to shut down previous versions and move reports and metadata layers into the upgraded software.

In-Memory and More

So what about all the other things I wrote about last year: in-memory, cloud, BI for SMBs, culture, and predictive analytics?

All these areas continue to be critical, and I continue to be both impressed and overwhelmed by the degree of innovation and success from smaller vendors in the BI space. My five picks above are the things that I think will garner the most attention, generate the most activity, and cause the most disruption in 2011.

If I added a sixth item, it would be continued growth of in-memory analytics. In-memory proved to be one of the biggest BI technology themes in 2010 (think Microsoft's PowerPivot and SAP's HANA). It will be a capability that many companies will implement this year, whether as part of visual discovery and dashboards (item 1), insatiable user demand (item 4), or instantaneous response time that mobile requires (item 2). It seems, though, that while in-memory is a cornerstone to some vendors' BI strategy, others are more reticent. Will vendors like Oracle continue to have a wait- and-see approach, or will they advocate greater focus on other technologies for fast, big data BI such as appliances, indexing, various caching, and columnar databases?

As I look at last year's take on the year ahead, my BI predictions seemed fairly accurate. And with the Packers winning not one but two of their playoff games so far, perhaps my accuracy is finally carrying over to football! I hope it's a good omen for next weekend!

Happy New Year!

Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard, an independent analyst firm that advises companies on BI tool strategies and offers in-depth business intelligence product reviews.

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