ETL Vendor Informatica Tackles BI

PowerAnalyzer catapults company into difficult BI market

Informatica Corp. this week unveiled version 4.0 of its PowerAnalyzer business intelligence (BI) product. Although PowerAnalyzer 4.0 is technically Informatica’s first pure-BI play, the company nevertheless claims that it is delivering on the promise of “BI for the masses.”

It’s an ambitious claim, to be sure. Informatica is by no means alone. Analysts say that the company’s move parallels the efforts of established BI players—Brio, Business Objects and Cognos, among them—to aggressively court new constituencies among existing customers, as well as to pursue potential customers in untapped markets, such as small-to-medium enterprise (SME) environments.

The upshot, say industry watchers, is that BI vendors are redoubling their efforts among business constituencies and in market spaces that have in the past proven a difficult setting in which to do BI.

It was a flat 2002 for most BI vendors, and if research firm Gartner Inc. is correct, it’ll be a level 2003 at best. A recent Gartner research bulletin projected that over the next two to three quarters especially, sales cycles will be longer and deals will be smaller. That’s not to say that it’s a market bereft of opportunity. A recent study from Forrester Research, for example, found that at the end of 2002, 44 percent of IT organizations indicated that they’d consider purchasing BI software in 2003.

The trick, some analysts speculate, is that vendors must demonstrate the compelling value of BI—especially as a tool for constituencies other than analysts or BI power users. “Everybody is trying to extend their base, obviously, but one way they’re doing this is by really focusing on making these [tools] easier to use,” explains Mike Schiff, an analyst with Current Analysis Inc. He says that a traditional knock against BI tools was that organizations needed a “BI priesthood” to effectively use them.

BI vendors have reacted in various ways to tightened enterprise purse strings. Business Objects, for example, is trying to reposition itself as a purveyor of end-to-end BI solutions. Ditto for Cognos, which recently unveiled a revamped version of its end-to-end BI platform, Cognos Series 7 Version 2. Informatica, on the other hand, is an upstart player that has just begun taking its first slow, tentative steps into BI, after years of enabling the analytic tools marketed by many of the one-time partners that are now its competitors.

Enter Informatica

For Informatica, PowerAnalyzer 4.0 is a huge release. The company has an enviable pedigree in the data warehousing space, to be sure, but relative to entrenched players such as Cognos, is a newcomer to BI.

That said, Informatica does have some leverage in BI—its expertise in extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) tools. Competitors such as Brio, Business Objects, Cognos, and MicroStrategy effectively acknowledge as much: At one time or another, all four vendors have licensed Informatica’s ETL tools to facilitate integration with a wide variety of data sources.

Informatica’s efforts in revamping PowerAnalyzer 4.0 for non-traditional users highlight some of the issues that vendors face when chasing after new BI constituencies. To combat several design and usability problems associated with its PowerAnalyzer 3.5 product, Informatica undertook to design a more intuitive user interface.

In this regard, says Adam Wilson, Informatica’s senior director of product development, his company sought to eliminate what he calls “endless adventures in drilling” as business users drill down into a tool to access knowledge. “We’ve done things to eliminate the number of clicks that you need [to get to the information]. From an efficiency standpoint, it’s easier to get into the piece of information that you want.”

To that end, Informatica tapped the expertise of Alan Cooper, a consultant who helped design the original Visual Basic user interface. These days, Cooper heads up a product design consultancy—Cooper Interactive—that specializes in product and user-interface design. Cooper and Informatica talked with customers and developed a set of features and functions that can be customized for different user personality profiles (called “personas” in Informatica-speak). IT organizations can use personas to clearly define roles and responsibilities for users, comments Sanjay Poonen, Informatica’s VP of worldwide marketing, as well as to give them access—via a dashboard-type display—to the information that is most appropriate to their jobs. “What a business user wants is a navigation path, a decision tree by which someone else in the organization has set up a path and they can follow it.”

One such user is Ted Ledman, Director, Information Management with TCF Bank, a financial institution headquartered in Minnesota with branches across the Midwest. TCF has implemented a combined Informatica solution based on PowerConnect, an ETL tool that facilitates access to VSAM data stored on an S/390 mainframe, and PowerAnalyzer 4.0. Although TCF Bank’s Informatica experience marks its first foray into BI, Ledman stresses, he brings prior experience with BI tools—and their attendant frustrations—from another job. In this respect, Ledman suggests, PowerAnalyzer 4.0 shows the BI tools story is “getting better and better.”

TCF Bank tapped PowerAnalyzer largely to support a custom cross-selling application used by its 1,600 lenders and loan officers. To that end, Ledman confirms, the company’s investment has been a success. He acknowledges, however, that his implementation wasn’t “quite as smooth as [he] thought it was going to be,” largely because many of his target users had never even operated a computer workstation before. As a result, he had to create some canned reports to encourage them to begin using the application. All things considered, Ledman says he and another colleague with previous BI experience have decided that their PowerAnalyzer deployment “was probably the easiest one that we’ve seen yet.”

Informatica’s emergence as a competitor in the BI landscape also highlights some of the risks that players assume when they attempt to expand into new markets. For example, although Informatica currently partners with Cognos and Brio for the use of its ETL tools, Current Analysis’ Schiff expects that both companies will probably opt to look for alternatives—just as Business Objects did when it acquired ETL specialist Acta Technology in July 2002. “The only neutral data integration player left of any scale is Ascential [Software Corp.]. Informatica is now competing directly with the BI players.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.