Wild Profusion of BI Tools

IT organizations support almost half a dozen BI tools on average

If it sometimes seems as if you’re supporting half a dozen business intelligence (BI) tools to suit the requirements of your different end user constituencies, it’s because you probably are.

That’s one of the upshots of a recent report from research firm Meta Group, which in its annual assessment of BI tools and platforms found that IT organizations are currently using anywhere from three to five different BI tools.

Users and IT professionals echo Meta Group's findings. Many describe a number of different scenarios that have paved the way for the acquisition of disparate BI tools in their environments.

The classic scenario is that IT organizations end up supporting separate BI tools because different end user constituencies require them. That’s because the advent of the end-to-end BI purveyor is a relatively new phenomenon, and for most of the history of commercial BI tools in the enterprise, IT organizations have opted for discrete products from individual vendors.

The result, says Meta Group analyst David Folger, is that most IT organizations are currently supporting a heterogeneous mix of tools in at least four different categories: enterprise reporting, ad hoc query and analysis, OLAP servers, and analytic dashboards.

In many environments, however, BI software investments have evolved over time, appearing first in the form of custom tools, then later as packaged commercial applications. This is especially true at established companies, such as Unisys Corp., that have been around for a decade along.

Unisys today supports a mix of proprietary systems in addition to a commercial Xelus DRP system, among other packaged applications. As a result, says Unisys systems analyst Mark Hutnyk, it’s not uncommon for analysts and even some decision makers to use several different tools—with little or no commonality in interface design or functionality—to accomplish tasks.

In still other cases, however, BI tools came in on the cheap. A software engineer with a large telecommunications company and services provider says that his organization supports no less than three reporting tools—Seagate Info 7, Crystal Enterprise 8.5 (which succeeded Seagate Info 7) and Business Objects. These tools were implemented, he says, because different business units within his company purchased enterprise-reporting software at different times.

“We as a company do not have a corporate standard, so they went with what was inexpensive or what was available at the time.” Seagate could have been offering deep discounts on Info 7 in 1999 when one of his company’s business units was in the market for a reporting tool, this software engineer suggests, while Crystal Decisions Inc. might have been offering the best overall deal in 2002. Unfortunately, his organization discovered interoperability problems between both programs as a result of DLL compatibility issues.

Folger and other industry watchers expect that the situation will improve as end-to-end BI suites from Cognos, Business Objects, SAS Institute Inc., and other players continue to mature. “Over time, as the market consolidates, we expect end users will demand broad solutions from each vendor to cut down the number of BI vendors needed,” writes Meta Group’s Folger.

At the moment, prospects for consolidation are hampered by the fact that the reporting, analytic, OLAP and other components of most end-to-end BI offerings can’t always match the features or capabilities of discrete offerings from specialty vendors, including Ascential Software Corp., a specialty provider of extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL) tools or Crystal Decisions Inc., purveyor of Crystal Enterprise.

Folger says the BI market leaders—which Meta Group identifies as SAS, SAP America Inc., Business Objects, and Cognos—are all financially strong enough to maintain the high level of funding that they’ve traditionally devoted to their R&D efforts. The upshot, he speculates, is that “In four to five years it will be possible to reduce the number of vendors to one primary vendor, supplemented by one or two niche players.”

For his part, the software engineer mentioned earlier acknowledges that the idea of standardizing on an end-to-end BI suite is an enticing one, but speculates that—even if a single vendor offered all of the features and functions that his company required—it still wouldn’t be practical for all of his company’s activities. “We do hosting for customers, and if there is a reporting requirement for the applications [that we host], we don’t always get to specify what [tool] gets used.”

This software engineer says that in one case, he was required to support an obsolete version of a tool from Business Objects for an additional two years as a result of a customer’s requirement. “There is still something to be said for the ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality, especially among customers.”

About the Author

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