Oracle’s BI Metamorphosis

Company’s end-to-end BI strategy heavily emphasizes its 9i database

Most folks agree that Oracle Corp. is a force to be reckoned with in the business intelligence (BI) space. After all, Oracle provides a stable of BI tools, and, thanks to its vaunted Oracle 9i database, also has a very strong data warehousing story.

The debate, it seems, is over just what kind of a BI player Oracle is shaping up to be. Like most other vendors in this space, the database giant has positioned itself as a purveyor of end-to-end BI solutions, and to a person, company representatives, insist that Oracle is already there—and many industry watchers agree. Still, some dissenters question the veracity of this claim, even as at least one prominent analyst suggests that Oracle’s BI solution too heavily emphasizes its 9i relational database management system (RDBMS) to be a viable solution for non-Oracle environments.

For starters, there are industry watchers such as Richard Winter, president of database consultancy Winter Corp., which touts the integrated ETL and OLAP capabilities of Oracle’s 9i RDBMS. With Oracle 9i, Winter wrote in a recent whitepaper, “Data does not have to be moved out of the engine and into a separate server in order to be sliced or analyzed.”

Winter also points out that as a result of its support for Java OLAP API and so-called “BI Beans”—the latter a component-based development environment for OLAP application development—the 9i database engine is a good platform on which to base the development of analytical applications.

Then there’s Oracle’s suite of BI tools, which includes Oracle 9i Reports, a tool that lets developers create reports from many different data sources; Oracle 9iAS Discoverer, an ad-hoc query, reporting, analysis, and Web publishing tool; Oracle Warehouse Builder, an ETL tool; and Oracle 9iAS Portal, which boasts a wizard-driven environment for creating portals. Add to all of this the fact that Oracle is by far the RDBMS of choice among customers who are doing data warehousing: 53 percent of customers that have deployed production data warehouses report that they’re using Oracle, according to a recent survey from Forrester Research subsidiary Giga Information Group Inc.

Not surprisingly, John Entenmann, Oracle’s VP of BI products, claims that his company’s traditional strengths in relational database management and data warehousing help to give it a leg up on the competition. “Our [9i] database has got a rich collection of features for ETL, a rich collection of features for analytics, and it also has direct support for BI structures.”

In addition, Entenmann stresses, Oracle’s strengths as a purveyor of packaged applications—i.e., financial, human resources, supply chain management and so on—convey additional advantages. “Our Oracle applications produce [canned] daily business intelligence, and our tools and our database provide a set of pre-built applications for BI.”

Oracle’s biggest value-add, he claims, is as a one-stop shop for an IT organization's entire database and BI needs. “With multi-vendor solutions, you have to go out there and buy multiple tools, and that’s bad enough. But once you get those up and running, you have to administer multiple tools.”

According to Kevin Strange, VP and research director with market research firm Gartner Inc., Oracle’s desire to be all things to all people could pose a problem for some customers, at least insofar as the database giant tries to push its BI toolset and its J2EE application server as a bundle for prospective customers. “Some of [Oracle’s] strategies have been difficult at best. When you look at the fat that they’re bundling with the [addition of the] application server, it just looks like a way to get the application server into organizations.”

Strange also suggests that Oracle’s Warehouse Builder ETL tool has traditionally been “technologically weak,” and has only recently become competitive over “the last couple of releases.”

For his part, Oracle’s Entenmann acknowledges that Oracle pushes its BI tools as part of a bundle with its J2EE application server, but stresses that customers are free to purchase only those tools that they want. “You get it all, [but] you’re not required to use the application sever. You can use whatever subsets [of the BI tools] you want, and you only pay for what you use.” Entenmann points out that Oracle’s BI tools will run with J2EE application servers from other vendors, including BEA Systems Inc. “We have cases where [a customer is] using the entire BI stack, but they’re using BEA as their application server.”

Oracle charges a higher price for the use of its individual BI tools relative to their cost as part of a bundle, however.

Mike Schiff, an analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., sees a bigger problem with Oracle’s BI solution: It requires the Oracle database. Schiff says that Oracle has a well-deserved reputation as the “Cadillac of databases,” but says that for customers that aren’t already running on 9i, Oracle’s BI portfolio could simply be too expensive a proposition. “If you’re a DB2 shop, you’re probably not going to like the idea of buying the Oracle database just so that you can use Oracle’s [BI] tools.”

Maybe so, grants Entenmann, but customers don’t necessarily have to move their data off of their existing RDBMSes and standardize on 9i: “We have solutions in place in which we’re using our BI and our Oracle database as a middle tier, so in most BI cases, it’s pretty common that you’re pulling the data from multiple data sources. So you don’t need to become a homogeneous Oracle shop.”

Besides, he suggests, if the data warehousing study from Giga Information Group is to be believed, more than half of organizations that have implemented data warehouses already have Oracle in-house.

About the Author

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