Cognos Updates OLAP PowerPlay

Hyperion and Microsoft aren’t the only OLAP vendors worth watching

The two most prominent names in OLAP may well be Hyperion Solutions Corp. and Microsoft Corp., but—as Cognos Inc. demonstrated this week—these companies aren’t the only game in town.

Yesterday, Cognos announced version 7.3 of PowerPlay, its venerable OLAP offering which analysts say is a surprisingly popular alternative to Hyperion, Microsoft, and others. Just how popular? Cognos claims that PowerPlay has generated more than $1 billion in revenue in the 12 years of its existence.

Officials say that PowerPlay 7.3 boasts several new enhancements, such as improved support for drag-and-drop Web-based analysis, security tweaks, and beefed-up integration with Cognos’ scorecarding and enterprise reporting tools.

Web reporting is the norm for most OLAP and enterprise-reporting clients, but many vendors have struggled to reduplicate the full feature sets of their standalone clients in Web-based incarnations.

PowerPlay 7.3 continues this trend, boasting improvements to the Web-based drag-and-drop capabilities that the company introduced in a previous version of that product. “[In the last release], we brought in this ability to do drag and drop right over the Web, but we’ve added capabilities to that, so you’ve got more sophistication,” claims Mark Morton, senior product marketing manager with Cognos. As a result, he indicates, customers “can do things like pivot, nest, and reorder” in the context of the PowerPlay Web client.

Adds Morton: “These are all types of capabilities that used to require a client, or a plug-in, or our full Windows release to get.”

PowerPlay enjoys an enviable reputation as an end-user OLAP reporting tool. Not surprisingly, then, the new version boasts several ease-of-use and functionality enhancements – such as support for custom subsets, along with more granular control over drill-through capabilities – which should appeal to a wide range of OLAP users.

For starters, users can define subsets of categories by rule and pick list, which lets them focus their analysis because they don’t have to view the entire dimension. The result, Morton says, is a massive productivity boost. “You can define rules, such as, ‘Let me see products that have ABC in their name, and by the way, I only want them from this part of the product hierarchy if I choose.'”

Cognos introduced context-sensitive drill-through in an earlier version of PowerPlay Transformer, but the new version of that product introduces better granular control over this feature.

“What’s been added in this release is the ability to govern when these drill-through capabilities are or are not presented to the end user, so you can control the rogue queries that some users might open up,” he explains, noting that because of the complexity associated with some drill-through queries, they can impose a taxing load on system resources. “[These kinds of queries] can literally bring the relational server to its knees, and this allows you to protect your scarce resources on the database side of things.”

Elsewhere, Cognos has improved PowerPlay’s integration with Microsoft Office—and particularly, Morton stresses, with the ubiquitous Excel client. “We’ve had an Excel plug-in for PowerPlay for quite some time now, but what we’ve added in this particular release is all through our solutions to support formatted Excel output,” he says, claiming PowerPlay 7.3 supports native Excel charting, formatting, and multiple worksheets in a workbook. Finally, Cognos says that PowerPlay 7.3 can share metadata with its ReportNet and Metrics Manager products. “With this release, we have a component in our Metrics Manager, called the Metrics Loader, and that’s something that allows us to have central metadata control for relational [ReportNet], OLAP and Metrics Manager,” Morton says.

Even though Hyperion, Oracle, and Microsoft (with its SQL Server Analysis Services) garner most of the OLAP press, Cognos is nevertheless a big player in the space. “[T]hey are a huge player in the OLAP market, and in the past PowerPlay has always been their flagship product,” says Cindi Howson, a principal with consultancy Analytic Solutions Know-How (ASK).

In fact, Cognos trails only Microsoft and Hyperion in the overall OLAP market, according to OLAP guru Nigel Pendse’s 2003 market share analysis. For the record, Pendse finds that Microsoft is firmly ensconced as the OLAP market leader, with 26.1 percent share, trailed by Hyperion with 21.9 percent and Cognos with 14.2 percent. Cognos has nearly twice the share of the next closest vendor, Business Objects (7.7 percent). While vendors such as Hyperion and Oracle Corp. have stressed the analytic chops of their respective solutions, Cognos has touted PowerPlay’s enviable popularity with end users, Howson says.

“As an OLAP platform, what PowerPlay may have lacked in analytic ability—compared to, say, Hyperion—they more than made up for in ease of use and a powerful user interface,” she confirms, noting that Cognos is subtly altering this strategy: “I think what's different in their strategy now is that they are trying to give people more of a choice in MOLAP storage [versus] ROLAP storage by partnering with IBM DB2 Cube Views, for example.”

PowerPlay 7.3 will ship in late August, Morton confirms.

About the Author

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