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Software // Information Management

BI: The New Database Differentiator

More than ever, companies dealing with major database vendors are buying not merely a database, but a BI-database framework. We examine the three major entrants in detail.

Business intelligence software has always had a strong dependence on databases. After all, it's the relational databases, data warehouses, data marts and hubs that are the basic information feeds for analytical services, from OLAP and data mining to predictive analysis and optimizing models. But now the BI and database roles are being reversed -- at least in terms of what drives purchases.

Today BI sells databases. Database vendors, clued in to that equation, are packaging more and more BI functionality in their database packages. BI features also help differentiate the major commercial vendors from the growing ranks of open source database providers. More than ever before, companies dealing with major database vendors are buying not merely a database, but a BI-database engine framework.

According to IDC, the top database vendors in market share for 2004 were Oracle at 41 percent, IBM at 31 percent and Microsoft at 13 percent. All three vendors package a significant amount of "free" BI software with their databases:

IBM DB2 8.2 Data Warehouse Edition

- Cube Views: basic OLAP engine with materialized views

- AlphaBlox: a series of JSP based BI components for creating Web portals

- Intelligent Miner Modeling, Visualization and Scoring: data mining

- Query Patroller: ensures that no BI query/process runs amok

- WebSphere Information Integrator: basic ETL capabilities

- Office Enterprise Connect for Excel: desktop client interface

- Data Warehouse Manager (ETL and scheduling): BI admin

Microsoft SQL Server BI

- Analysis Services: adds major OLAP & data mining upgrades in 2005 edition

- Reporting Services: market matching report design and delivery

- Integration Services: Windows-side DTS and ETL improved again for 2005

- BI Intelligence Studio: design and monitor environment

- Report Builder: client side OLAP and report drilldown building tool

Significantly, Microsoft also plans real-time reporting tools it's now beta testing under the code-name Maestro that look like an Office application and run on the Web. The company hopes to deliver the software in the year's second half.

Oracle Database & Business Intelligence Server 10:

- OLAP engine: built into the database server

- Data Mining engine: also built into the database server

- Discoverer: offers GUI for queries and analysis on relational database & OLAP data

- Reports Services: provides reporting services

- Spreadsheet add-in: Excel as a front end to the Oracle database's OLAP option

- BI Warehouse Builder: adds more ETL to warehouse management

- BI Beans: Java components for custom BI application development

There's really not a lot to differentiate the BI database packages among the major players, except perhaps in the client side developer tools. And even the BI-based capabilities that are being added to database engines -- materialized views, bitmap and other BI-oriented indexing, and special partitioning and clustering schemes, as examples -- are mostly features implemented by all three vendors. Perhaps one difference is that Oracle has now brought basic OLAP, data mining, and text search algorithms and processes right into the database engine, instead of on a stand-alone server. As things currently stand, the real story is all three vendors' bundling of top-flight BI software with their databases, and for "free." The word "free" is of course a bit of a misnomer, since each vendor ties the BI components to the purchase of their database (and to Windows 2003 Server in the case of Microsoft).

BI Bundling

Microsoft started the trend toward bundling BI capabilities with its database in a major way when it added free OLAP Services into SQL Server 7. With SQL Server 2000, Microsoft more than doubled the ante by providing new data mining features along with a more powerful DTS (data transformation services) engine. Now Microsoft is offering in both SQL Server 2000 and 2005 its newly updated Reporting Services, including a fairly sophisticated drag-and-drop reportwriter, plus notable enhancements to Analysis Services' data-mining capabilities and DTS' (now called Integration Services) ETL programmability.

Microsoft has been offering a fairly substantial and continually expanding BI framework "for free" with its database for several years. Some pundits in turn have argued that this has triggered a tit-for-tat run on BI freebies among its major competitors. That may be partially true. Consider that database vendors now report that 50 percent of their database sales are for BI and data warehousing applications, versus OLTP (online transaction processing) and operational databases. All three vendors face free open source database competition from the likes of MySQL, PostGreSQL, and others. This low-cost competition is creating more of a commodity price market. Thus, in order to prevent that same low pricing from migrating to upscale products, the database vendors now add enterprise features such as BI functionality to clearly differentiate their products.

The existing BI vendors such as Actuate, Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion, Informatica, MicroStrategy, SAS and others are not only seeing new entrants from among the likes of Siebel and SAP, but also bigger chunks of their basic product lines being given away for free by their erstwhile database partners. In response, the BI vendors are starting to move into tools for vertical markets or broader technologies that involve combinations of tools, new delivery modes and other innovations.

Hence the growth of portal-based performance measures and industry-based balanced scorecarding, real-time BI with business activity monitoring (BAM) and business process management. But even these sectors are being invaded by the database industry's Big Three. IBM has purchased Ascential, a major innovator in real time ETL and process monitoring, while Microsoft is at workon its Maestro real-time business activity monitoring package.

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