Analytical Solutions Forum Brings Together Industry Leaders

With the formation of a new non-profit organization, industry leaders will now have a means for establishing benchmarks and for better integrating their products with those of other vendors in the highly competitive business of information technology.

The Analytical Solutions Forum (ASF), based in Cambridge, Mass., was founded in September to bring together technology business leaders for the purpose of educating consumers about decision support technology, providing performance benchmarks and sponsoring industry research.

The organization's founding members say their goal is to standardize performance criteria and interoperability requirements among analytical software applications in a way that benefits the end user. If ASF's proposed initiatives are successful, members say, it will be easier for customers to utilize, integrate and comparison-shop for products, even if they are obtained from different vendors.

To achieve these goals, ASF members are divided among three work groups, or special interest groups (SIGs), which are open to any member and are assigned short-term goals specific to their group. The first of these groups, the Benchmark SIG, has been delegated to create solution-oriented analytical benchmarks in response to real-world problems. Thomsen said the expansion and growing complexity of e-business applications has created a need for consumers to be able to measure various products against each other - a need that is not sufficiently addressed by vendors acting on their own.

"We've reached a point where we've started developing and implementing all these complex applications, but it's really hard to go kick the tires of some of these things because there's no way to put them next to each other," Thomsen said.

Members of the Conformance SIG, the second work group, will undertake the task of establishing levels of conformance relative to existing APIs. The third workgroup, the DSS Interoperability SIG, was set up for the purpose of identifying where each tool-type or functional category should connect with other tool-types in the DSS space, what the interface to that connection should look like, and what metadata needs to be exchanged. Although they have different immediate goals, the work of all three SIGs are inseparable in the long term, according to Thomsen. For instance, he said, the Interoperability group will have to lay the groundwork before analysts can reasonably discuss API conformance issues or make any comparisons in terms of performance.

According to Thomsen, ASF is modeled on the OLAP Council. The group's founders have adopted similar goals to those of the OLAP Council, but on a broader scale.

"They are certainly not competing organizations by any means, but ASF is also a lot more than just the OLAP Council under a different name - the focus is really decision support," said Erik Thomsen, chairman of ASF and chief scientist at DSS Laboratories (Cambridge) who is also a former OLAP Council chairman. "(OLAP Council) accomplished its mission, but today the mission is much bigger. No business today outside of a hot dog stand is without some electronic component."

ASF's membership is comprised of widely recognized leaders in analytical software including, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems. In the next 12 to 18 months, the organization hopes to expand its membership to include the full spectrum of DSS technology vendors as well as end-users and solution providers. Thomsen said despite the competition between them, member companies have displayed a willingness to cooperate with each other in the ASF.

"We're in a win-win situation where the industry is growing very rapidly, to the point where people can put down their competitiveness long enough to gain from an organization like this," he said. "If we were in a declining industry, people might be less willing to do that."

Thomsen attributes such cooperation to an awareness on the companies' part that such an exchange is not only beneficial to the industry as a whole; it can also be beneficial to their individual business development, because it leads to better innovation.

"The act of discussing can help people better draw the distinction between what you know that everybody else knows and what you know that is part of your unique value-add," Thomsen said. "You're going to end up focusing on what makes you unique rather than focusing on what everybody else already knows."