Business Objects Touts End-to-End BI

Enterprise 6 suite may be company’s most important release to date

With a bevy of enhanced features, a new data warehouse component, and tighter integration among its stand-alone tools, the new Enterprise 6 suite is probably Business Objects Inc.’s most important release to date.

That’s because Business Objects, like competitors Cognos Inc. and SAS Institute Inc., has increasingly sought to reposition its tool stack as an end-to-end platform for business intelligence (BI). These vendors, and others, are betting there’s a market among IT organizations that want to standardize on a single BI platform with a consistent user interface, API, and SDK.

They might be right. After all, most IT organizations today exploit a mix of reporting, analytic, and data integration tools to serve the needs of business users. A recent report from research firm Meta Group Inc., for example, indicated that organizations typically support three to five different BI tools.

In this respect, Enterprise 6 describes an integrated software stack, including analytic, BI, and data integration components. It consolidates a variety of different tools that Business Objects also sells separately, such as WebIntelligence 6 (a Web-based query, reporting, and analysis tool) and Business Object’s InfoView BI portal. It also bundles the company’s analytic applications along with Data Integrator 6, an ETL tool first released earlier this year that is based on technology Business Objects acquired when it picked up ETL specialist Acta Technology in August 2002.

Company representatives are quick to stress that Enterprise 6 isn’t a simple “umbrella” re-branding of its standalone tools. Instead, asserts Lance Walter, director of BI platform product marketing with Business Objects, Enterprise 6 features enhanced versions of some standalone products, such as WebIntelligence 6. “We’ve got a brand new version of the WebIntelligence product. It’s all about thin client query reporting and analysis, and we’ve done a lot in terms of the sophistication of calculation and reporting.”

New WebIntelligence 6 features include support for user-defined calculations within a report, independent and synchronized drilling on multiple tables within a report, and page-by-page report generation and display.

In addition, points out Darren Cunningham, group product marketing manager for data integration with Business Objects, Data Integrator 6 boasts improved integration with the rest of the Business Objects stack, along with enhancements, such as support for real-time data movement, native support for Web services, and improved interoperability with legacy or proprietary data sources, all features that make it more suitable for use as a best-of-breed ETL tool. “We have a two-front focus [with Data Integrator 6] on maintaining best-of-breed, but insuring that we integrate very tightly with the rest of the [Business Objects] product line.”

The Enterprise 6 story is also flushed out with a new Business Objects Warehouse that heavily leverages the capabilities of Data Integrator 6. In this respect, suggests Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing consultancy MAS Strategies, Business Objects is considerably more ambitious with its ETL technology than was Acta. “While Acta was satisfied with offering a series of somewhat independent data marts, Business Objects is taking this more seriously and targeting the enterprise,” he speculates. The upshot, he indicates, is that the new Business Objects Warehouse is a fairly robust offering.

Also enhanced is the Business Objects Application Foundation—an analytic development platform to which enterprise developers or ISVs can write applications—featuring new templates, including one that supports Pareto Analysis (a method of sorting bar charts by descending values).

Other stand-alone Business Objects products, including Auditor, Broadcast Agent, BusinessQuery, Dashboard Manager, and OLAP Access, have also been collected within the Enterprise 6 suite.

A Timely Offering

Enterprise 6 is Business Objects’ first major product release since the company shipped its Business Objects 5.0 decision support system in July 1999. It also comes more than a year after Cognos introduced its first end-to-end BI suite, Cognos Series 7. Because the market for integrated BI suites is still developing however—SAS, for example, isn’t expected to ship its SAS 9.1 suite until later this year—Enterprise 6 arrives at a propitious time.

Wayne Eckerson, Research Director at The Data Warehousing Institute, is most impressed with the revamped WebIntelligence 6’s reporting and authoring capabilities. “The new Web authoring capabilities are a good step, kind of the last frontier for Web delivery of BI capabilities,” Eckerson suggests, noting that until recently few firms had offered a robust Web thin client.

Right now, most Business Objects users—75 percent, Eckerson estimates—still use the standalone client to build their reports. Going forward, he suggests, most users will instead use a Java applet to write the reports on the Web. While this isn’t really a “pure” thin client environment, Eckerson points out, it does offer better performance and ease of use. There is at least one drawback associated with Business Object’s current Web thin-client capabilities, he notes. “You can’t currently use the Web to edit a [Business Object] report written in the full client product. [Business Objects] says they’ll come out with something in [the] second half [of this year] to convert full client reports to editable Web reports.”

Enterprise 6 also features enhanced support for users who want to exploit Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheet tool as a reporting front-end, but in this respect, Eckerson says, Business Objects comes up short compared with some competitive offerings. Reports must still be downloaded and viewed in Excel, and users cannot make changes to data that propagate back to data sources. Business Object’s Walter says that for most users this isn’t an issue, but TDWI’s Eckerson points out that for systems analysts and other power users, “the goal … is to use Excel as a front end.”

Shifting Gears on Data Mining

In the past, Business Objects has marketed a data mining tool, Business Miner. The latter product is not a part of Enterprise 6, however, and company representatives indicate that it will be discontinued as a standalone product.

“We’ve actually sort of moved away from Business Miner in general. Data mining for the masses doesn’t really make sense, so instead, what we’ve done is try to deeply embed the data mining engine into our application foundation and then make sure that the applications we build leverage that,” confirms Walter.

Customers Like It

At least one long-time Business Objects customer, computing and services giant Unisys Corp., has deployed Enterprise 6 since it was available last September in pre-beta form. Thierry Leleu, Business Intelligence Program Manager with Unisys, says that his company has been a Business Objects shop since 1998. Unisys originally selected Business Objects because of the strength of its Web reporting capability, Thierry confirms.

One of the things that most excites him about Enterprise 6 is its more robust Web thin client reporting capabilities. “It has much more flexibility on the reports. In the previous version, we got Web [report viewing] capabilities, but our users were complaining that downloading and printing, and the ability to play with a report on the fly, [were] not so good,” he comments. “Now, with the new release, [all the users] agree that we can do that.”

Thierry says that Unisys has already tested the migration of the top 50 reports over to Enterprise 6. He expects that upgrading his company’s systems to the new BI platform shouldn’t be that difficult, but says that Unisys also plans to exploit the opportunity to more efficiently restructure its Business Objects infrastructure. “I don’t think that it is a big deal to migrate, it is still working with the old format. But we want to take the opportunity to restructure, because obviously, we started in 1998 and built and built and built from there. We want to take the opportunity to do that in a much more structured way.”

Thierry says some potential issues are the new UI and some of the new functionality introduced with Enterprise 6. During Unisys’ experiences (from pre-beta testing through the released-to-manufacturing candidate), Thierry conducted usability workshops to get employees up to speed on some of the changes. “We are a little bit concerned about the training. It’s more complex for the end user, so you have to update them.”

About the Author

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