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Flying High With BI

With business intelligence suites finally getting in sync with broad user needs, the software is poised to enter the mainstream and elevate operational decision-making.

Commercial aviation had to suffer through early hazards before it could become what it is today: a routine way to travel. The history of business intelligence (BI) software offers a similar story, including its share of "necessary" failures. Executive information systems (EIS) promised much but catered only to the few, presenting senior executives with stale, expensively acquired data. When IT gave users ad hoc data access, they were inundated with so much information that they couldn't take action. And when BI tools became the rage, organizations discovered that multiple toolsets could produce multiple sets of numbers.

For years, vendors and their customers have sought ways to make BI accessible to all. The once-revolutionary "BI for the masses" phrase has become a cliché. Yet, if there was ever a time when BI seemed poised to gain mainstream acceptance, it's now. In a July 2005 survey by The Data Warehouse Institute (TDWI), 594 respondents said they expect the number of BI tool users within their organizations will increase to 60% of total employees within three years — a projected annual growth rate of 21%. Respondents from information-intensive industries such as financial services and telecommunications expect even higher growth rates.

This article explores some of the key technology trends that have brought BI from the terminal to the runway. We'll also consider what you should look for in technology to ensure a safe and comfortable journey even for first-time fliers.

The Web: Expanding BI's Reach

Technology advances that respond to business and organizational trends are what will encourage higher and faster BI adoption. The Internet, of course, is broadening BI's reach and is significantly speeding implementation. Web-based BI means that every user with a browser has access to data at the push of a button. Ten years ago, a savvy software installer might get four users installed in a day. Today, thousands of Web-based users can be brought online within hours; the biggest bottleneck is the speed with which IT can grant data access.

BI vendors have raced to Web-enable their tools. Cognos ReportNet was the first to embrace the Web not only for information delivery but also as a full authoring environment.

Browser-based BI tools do pose some challenges, including usability and browser compatibility. The BI industry has by no means settled on the best approach. Microsoft and Business Objects, for example, continue to provide desktop tools for BI professional developers and position their Web-based authoring for business users. Customers who haven't designated a standard browser or who have slow intranets won't enjoy browser-based BI tools. Expect this to change: According to the TDWI survey, 55% of users access BI via the Web today. Survey respondents expect this figure to increase to 70% over the next three years.

Spreadsheets: Can't Beat 'Em

Over the years, BI vendors and users alike have tried to ignore, fight and disable spreadsheets, but most are finally acknowledging that it's best to manage BI-spreadsheet integration. The dominant product, Microsoft Excel, provides a familiar interface and an environment in which to sort, filter and chart data. On the downside, spreadsheets have become mini data marts offering multiple versions of the truth. To combat this problem, some companies have even disabled the ability to export data to Excel! The trend today, however, is to support the use of spreadsheets.

Hyperion has long been an Excel integration leader; the vendor initially provided a spreadsheet add-in as the sole interface to a consistent set of data from its OLAP server, Essbase. The Brio BI relational reporting product line, which Hyperion acquired in 2003, lagged behind in spreadsheet integration, offering only a data export from Hyperion Intelligence to Excel. With Project "Avalanche," Hyperion intends to bring the same tight Excel integration that Essbase had to its relational reporting tools. Hyperion's SmartView add-in (released in December) currently accesses content from Hyperion Planning, Hyperion Financial Management and Analyzer. With the new Avalanche add-in, Excel users will be able to open a spreadsheet, access analysis and refresh data links to any Hyperion content, whether managed by multidimensional (Essbase) or relational OLAP engines.

Nearly all BI vendors have made attempts over the years to address the needs of Excel users. Success was mixed, but recent innovations hold more promise. Information Builders' Web Focus lets users choose the display format at report runtime. Actuate's e.Spreadsheet Designer lets developers build spreadsheet-style reports from scratch. The latest add-ins from other BI vendors (MicroStrategy, Hyperion, Business Objects and Cognos) reuse reports users created within their main BI interfaces. Thus, many of the same formats, calculations and visualizations produced within Web-based BI tools will appear in Excel spreadsheets where users can enhance them. Reports are refreshed live within the spreadsheet, a vast improvement over a one-time, raw export. Business Objects and MicroStrategy have taken Office integration further by allowing live refreshes from PowerPoint as well. Using Microsoft's emerging Smart Client technology will address remaining difficulties with add-ins that have required manual, local installation.

Suite Inspiration and Lower Costs

BI convergence has been a dominant theme this year. While niche players remain viable, the big BI players market increasingly broad suites that address the needs of a diverse range of users. These suites run the gamut from data integration, query and reporting and OLAP to performance management dashboards and analytic applications. Customers who early on bought multiple products from one vendor may have enjoyed volume discounts, but rarely did they enjoy a lower cost of ownership. There have been exceptions (MicroStrategy has long had an integrated product line), but with most BI vendors, multiple products have meant multiple security, metadata and server environments.

In 2005, we've seen the following convergence efforts:

  • Business Objects XI brought fuller integration of the Crystal Decisions products the company acquired in 2003.
  • Cognos announced that it will bring OLAP and reporting into a common Web architecture with the release of Cognos 8 this fall.
  • Hyperion's Project Avalanche, due later this year, will pull its entire product line onto one platform.
  • Microsoft's SQL Server 2005, due in November, will provide tighter integration between the vendor's Analysis and Reporting Services.

Convergence sounds great in theory, but it poses significant organizational challenges. Foremost is that business sponsors who fund most BI deployments care little about how the technology works under the covers. The cost savings may not be immediately obvious. IT must explain that integration and consolidation are critical to delivering more functionality to more users faster and with fewer resources.

The "fewer resources" part won't sit well in some organizations. If job security is tied to the formerly separate BI applications and tools, IT and business managers will face resistance to standardization and consolidation. Reducing the overhead of multiple BI tools and support teams could produce sizeable cost savings — at the expense of the very BI experts who understand the promise of consolidation best. Organizations must consider how to overcome turf battles, perhaps by changing incentives and job priorities to encourage valued BI experts to facilitate consolidation.

Heading into the fall, the BI industry is anticipating another force that will put pressure on licensing fees: Microsoft's SQL Server 2005 release with BI enhancements. Right now, a 1,000-user deployment of a full BI suite typically lists in the $450,000 to $700,000 range. Microsoft Analysis and Reporting Services lists for about $80,000 for 1,000 users.

Granted, no two vendors offer the same functionality in their packages, and differences in platform, application and database support are important to product selection. Still, pricing pressure is already apparent. Business Objects now offers a Crystal Reports server for midsize business customers at a much lower price than its full BI suite. SAS, a latecomer to the BI suite market, comes at about half the price of suites from other BI vendors. MicroStrategy appears to be the only vendor resisting this trend; however, it can command higher fees in the niche sector of the market where the scalability of its relational OLAP architecture is a decisive advantage.

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