Counteroffensive: Actuate Unveils Analytics Offering

Product is designed for users who need analytics functionality but don't want a power-user tool.

Don’t look now, but it appears that at least one production-reporting powerhouse may be attempting to turn the tables on vendors such as Business Objects and Cognos with an analytics offering of its own.

Actuate Corp. this week unveiled Actuate Analytics, an end-user reporting tool that plugs into its Actuate 7 suite.

Actuate is careful to position Analytics as an offering for organizations that want to provide analytic reporting functionality to users who aren’t comfortable with ad hoc reporting tools or sophisticated multidimensional analysis. For power users who require sophisticated front-end analytic tools, Actuate’s offering is not, company officials acknowledge, intended to replace similar tools from MicroStrategy Inc., SAS Institute Inc. SPSS Inc., and others.

“This is for the small percentage of people who need to do multidimensional analysis and ad hoc reporting, but who maybe aren’t good candidates for MicroStrategy or SAS or some of the other tools out there,” says Mike Thoma, vice-president of product marketing with Actuate. “What we aren’t trying to do is go head to head with MicroStrategy and say, build a 3 TB cube and allow 50 analysts to do multidimensional analysis and ad hoc reporting on it.”

Actuate Analytics comprises several components, including Cube Viewer, an interface program lets users analyze cubes, define reports and save multidimensional cubes for offline analysis. In addition, Actuate Analytics features a wizard-driven designed tool—dubbed Cube Designer—that lets users define and create lightweight OLAP cubes.

There’s also an integration option for Actuate’s iServer report distribution and management platform, called—appropriately enough—Analytics Option for iServer. Users can tap integration with iServer to generate cubes, while iServer itself can be configured to cache and deliver cubes and cube reports to consumers of Actuate’s reporting applications. “It provides a bunch of shared services [among the components of the Actuate 7 suite], so they all share the same scheduling, user information, security information,” says Thoma.

Actuate’s first analytics offering also provides standard ease-of-use goodies, including single-click access—via hyperlinks stored in portals, Web-based reports, or Excel spreadsheets—to data cubes.

Because Actuate will be competing with entrenched players such as Cognos Inc. and Business Objects SA in many of the accounts that it plans to target with Analytics, company officials emphasize the product’s interoperability credentials. “We have an open, SOAP-based API that they can use to get access to information, and because 99 percent of the time these other guys are reporting against a data warehouse, we can report against the same data warehouse information and make it available to more people.”

Analysts say that Actuate’s move is inversely analogous to similar moves from Business Objects, Cognos, and Hyperion. What it all comes down to, says Keith Gile, a senior industry analyst with Forrester Research, is that the lines between once-discrete reporting practices are beginning to blur. “These lines are less clear today, and Actuate releasing Analytics, using their current infrastructure to accommodate more users, makes it even muddier,” he notes.

At the same time, Gile says, the same strategy that’s being employed by Cognos with its ReportNet offering—i.e., leveraging the pervasiveness of a market-leading tool (its end-to-end BI suite) to expand into another segment (production and end-user reporting)—could also serve Actuate in good stead.

“There are many users that could benefit from some type of analytics, but really don’t need a full-blown reporting tool,” he notes. “It seems like this is a good move on Actuate’s part to extend out into other areas without acquiring or investing hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire another OLAP tool.”

Gile suggests that most existing ad hoc query and multidimensional analysis tools are too sophisticated—or simply too pricey—for the kinds of lightweight analysis that some users require. “I think that there are many, many users within the organization that aren’t being satisfied by the very complex and sophisticated analytic reporting tools, particularly Cognos PowerPlay and Business Objects. These really aren’t intended for those light analysis purposes, and the licensing is commensurate with power user licensing, too.”

Although Actuate Analytics appears to make sense on paper, analysts caution that the real test will be how well it integrates with the rest of Actuate’s stack. At this point, says Wayne Eckerson, research director of The Data Warehousing Institute, integration isn’t quite complete. “All the product servers run on the same server platform, reuse security, and have a single install, but they are separate products with separate metadata,” he notes. Eckerson believes the forthcoming Actuate 8—which will incorporate technologies from Actuate’s acquisition of Nimble Technology Inc.—will facilitate shared metadata among all of the products in the stack. “The only integration today is by creating hyperlinks between reports in each product's designer."

There’s also the matter of Analytics’ positioning vis-à-vis Actuate’s existing e.Analysis tool. According to Eckerson, the two products target distinct markets, so there’s little overlap. “They reuse DataBeacon’s product in their e.Analysis product, which allows users to turn a report into a slice/dice OLAP cube,” he points out, noting that e.Analysis does not incorporate a cube designer, a la Analytics. “Actuate doesn't plan Analytics to replace e.Analysis. It will leave e.Analysis in place as an interactive report viewer. It targets e.Analytics for separate set of users who primarily want to use an OLAP environment to view and manipulate data.”

About the Author

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