Best Practices for Buying BI Software

Experts on selecting BI software offer seasoned advice on choosing the right solution.

Ask Mark Albala for advice on shopping for BI software and he sighs.

"Get your infrastructure ready for the flood," he said. Albala, vice president at CS Solutions of New Jersey, means the flood of data fed by Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, Basel II, as well as the rising use of multimedia and all the other factors now facing enterprises.

All the experts I asked for advice about shopping for BI software agreed with Albala. However, the others looked less at the horizon and more at the task of shopping.

"He’s absolutely right," said Sid Adelman, consultant and co-author of Impossible Data Warehouse Situations (2002, Addison-Wesley) and other books. Don’t look at just what you need today. Be thinking five years ahead, and be sure any solution can scale up to at least three times your original volume in two areas: data volume and concurrent users. "You don’t want to switch out systems later on."

Any flooding will depend on the company, Adelman warns. It’ll drown in data "only if you’re running new applications, you have new requirements for data, or have new analysis. … It’s very company specific." It all depends on what you’re implementing. If you’re getting into unstructured data and text mining, now you’re making leaps and bounds.

Adelman tells clients to set certain rules of engagement with prospective vendors. First, there will be just one contact within your company. "If you have the vendor running up and down the aisles talking to people, you’re spending three quarters of your time countering what they said or explaining what they really meant."

Second, you’ll supply the agenda for their presentation. You’ll list what you want to hear about, including the questions you want answered. "This says to them, ‘Bring the right people’ so you don’t get some sales guy who can’t answer when you start peppering him with questions."

Let the vendor also know that you’ll take comprehensive notes of the presentation, which you’ll confirm with them and distribute to everyone concerned.

Third, when you ask whether the solution can do something or whether the vendor has something, you want to know whether it’s generally available now, not two releases from now. "That’s a yes-or-no question," said Adelman.

Talk to references. Ask the vendor for a list of users who run larger volumes than yours and have more concurrent users. For example, if you’re shopping for a database management system and you expect to have 50 terabytes of data and 100 concurrent users, approach the vendor with penetrating questions. What’s their actual volume? They may expect 50 terabytes but have only 2 terabytes so far.

Proving the Concept

Longtime BI consultant Joyce Norris-Montanari suggests running a proof of concept. Bring in vendors from your short list to do a demo. Pull a sample of data from multiple sources, integrate and cleansing and in to one or two target tables.

You can learn things about your data you never suspected. In the insurance field, where she often consults, habits of data management can "go back to the beginning of time." For example, fields have sometimes had multiple purposes over time.

She recalls one day in a client’s office when they noticed unused fields receiving data. The people involved told the business analyst who went to check, "Well, it was supposed to be secret. If we kept putting stuff in there and no one complained, we figured it’d be OK."

Habits big and small die hard. A vendor to mid-sized companies observes, "Changing the way an organization thinks and make decisions usually takes time." The CEO of DataSelf Corporation, Joni Girardi, told me, "It makes more sense to improve the process in baby steps."

If you’ve been working in Excel or Crystal only, try stepping up to the next level with basic analytics, with a data warehouse, and cube-based structures, Girardi suggests. "After that, dashboards and balanced scorecards may find a place, and so forth."

Girardi also advises considering small vendors (which his company is), especially for companies that aren’t so big themselves.

"The top-tier vendors are structured to sell projects in the six- to seven-figure range," he said. That usually doesn’t fit the mid-market scenario, while small vendors are more willing to fine-tune the solution for the mid-market."

If you’re worried about getting support should a small vendor fail or be folded into a bigger company, you can mitigate the risk by choosing a vendor that uses technology from top-tier vendors.

Support issues may be a fact of life throughout the industry. Adelman recalls a friend who was the largest customer of a vendor that a big company had acquired. Shortly after the takeover, all the developers who knew his software were fired or resigned. He was concerned about support and acknowledged his fears when invited to speak at the vendor’s New Orleans conference.

He told the audience he was so worried he had gone to a fortune teller. She read the cards and said, "Good news! You don’t have to worry." He said, "Great! You mean I’ll get good support?" She replied, "No, but you’ll get used to crummy support."

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