Q&A: ProClarity – Not Just a Reporting Tools Vendor

CEO isn’t worried about Microsoft’s ascendant credibility in the BI space

Boise, Idaho-based ProClarity Corp. is one of the most successful purveyors of business intelligence products designed to run on top of Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server 2000 database. In fact, shortly after Microsoft first delivered an OLAP component with SQL Server 7.0 in late 1998, ProClarity introduced a product designed to exploit it. As if that’s not enough, ProClarity has since offered add-on components for SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services and Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Services as well.

But ProClarity CEO Bob Lokken says that’s about to change. Sure, he grants, ProClarity is tightly tied to Microsoft’s SQL Server BI stack, but that’s an arrangement born more out of necessity than anything else. In fact, Lokken teases, ProClarity is prepping a product for release later this fall that will support a wide variety of data sources—including Web and legacy applications. Furthermore, Lokken says he’s not worried about Microsoft’s ascendant credibility in the BI space, and argues that many in the industry have gotten it all wrong: ProClarity isn’t just a reporting vendor.

There’s a perception that ProClarity has tightly coupled itself to Microsoft technologies, such as MS Analysis Services and SQL Server. Some analysts have argued that this means that you have little flexibility to work with other vendors. Is it still the case that you’re a mostly Microsoft play, and—given Microsoft’s own ambitions in the BI space—is this any cause for concern?

That perception and that diagnosis of ProClarity is 100 percent accurate if you’re looking in the rearview mirror. We were tightly connected to Microsoft, but that isn’t so much a vendor-to-vendor connection, it was more out of necessity. There is a standard way to interface with a relational database—SQL—and the industry knows how to develop application logic and talk to a database in a standard fashion. But there is no equivalent when you‘re interfacing with decision support systems or OLAP.

So all of the big database vendors started re-embedding multidimensional database logic into their database servers because it’s a vastly superior database technology when you’re talking about decision support. When it comes to organizing information into the way that humans want to consume it, OLAP is vastly superior to relational. We jumped on the Microsoft bandwagon because as far as we could tell, they were the only vendor who was actually going to get out there and set a standard that a company like ours could develop application logic on top of a standardized query language, a derivative of that is now the XML/A query language, which every multidimensional vendor with the exception of one is saying that they support or will support.

So you’re going to support database platforms other than Microsoft?

Yeah, we’ve worked very, very closely with Microsoft. They’re the leader in the analytic sphere right now, but we’re going to have new releases in September, early October, that allows users to marry real-time data with historical data and predictive data, regardless of its data source. It doesn’t have to just be OLAP, it can be relational data, it can be screen scrapes, it can be Web services data—they can go get the data from wherever they want.

I know you’ve introduced a product designed to complement Reporting Services, but is there a sense in which that offering kind of reduplicates what you’ve already offered on top of SQL Server for some time now?

This is a very clear differentiation, but in the industry in general, it’s very, very cloudy; it’s not a clear differentiation. What we do is not reporting, and we’ve never really done reporting. That doesn’t mean our users have never called it a reporting system. The reason people buy us is we facilitate analysis, and analysis is what happens after people get the report. It’s the digestion and assimilation of information. You can [use ProClarity to] publish and get it out to people, but we never deliver any content without having the ability to do a rich, root-cause analysis.

So what does your companion piece for Reporting Services bring to the table?

Our interface with Reporting Services is that sometimes an analyst in looking at information will discover an insight and want to publish an insight in a standardized reporting environment. We made a seamless off-ramp to an analysis tool, so that a person can push a button and create a report out of it. Once you use our stuff to publish an analytical report and people distribute that using Reporting Services, it carries a link with it that they can click; it then pulls up our stuff to go into our thin distribution capabilities to do ad hoc analysis. Our support for Reporting Services will continue to be strong because Microsoft made it a commodity; they put it in the box for free [with SQL Server].

As Microsoft continues to develop its own BI platform on top of SQL Server, do you feel that you have any cause for concern? How do you propose to deliver value to differentiate yourself from Microsoft’s to-this-point free BI add-ons?

One of the reasons we work really closely with Microsoft is that we’ve been the largest third-party tool on top of Microsoft’s analysis stuff since the first month it was introduced. We’ve always been the market leader on that. We use that to stay in close touch so we know what those guys are doing.

A lot of Microsoft’s BI push is coming from its Office productivity team.

The Office team is putting a massive amount of bandwidth on business intelligence. Right now, they approach the world from a personal productivity standpoint—but the smarter the Office suites get about business intelligence, the easier and more compelling it will be for us to provide the plumbing that makes that a shared, centrally managed, centrally controlled, collaborative process, rather than a personal productivity tool.

I’ll give you just one example—Microsoft Excel. The reason no organization wants to use Excel for business intelligence, although it’s always being used for business intelligence, is that there’s no centralized control, no auditing capabilities, no way to manage it. You just end up with an anarchy of spreadsheets. With the stuff we’re shipping in September, what we’re really doing is putting industrial strength plumbing behind that.

You’ve argued that the BI industry is showing a changing trend from an IT-driven, historical approach to data analysis to a more self-service model. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this?

One thing that’s been a persistent issue—when I’ve talked to customers about this, I’ve asked a rhetorical question about how long it’s been that we’ve had a backlog of requests for reports, from the decision-makers to the IT users down to the power users. It’s impossible as a decision-maker to predict ahead of time what information you’re going to need, because it’s impossible for decision-makers to predict ahead of time how the business is going to ebb and flow. In order to get the next level of interrogation on why is that number what it is, they’ve got to go ask somebody else. That may take two days, it might take two weeks. It’s just a very, very difficult, clumsy, and slow process.

This isn’t exactly a new idea, however. I think all the BI vendors I've spoken with over the past 18 months have had their own take on this idea. How does ProClarity purport to be different?

The primary way we approach this problem is by giving our users an open component kit, so they can integrate our business intelligence analytical capabilities into whatever business intelligence solution they want. If you want to integrate [ProClarity] into your company’s portal, it becomes a native part of the portal. You don’t have to go to a separate tool to do your analysis. If you want to integrate it into a CRM system, that’s what you do. You can build it out and make the guidance of that system as programmed and pre-determined and helpful to [users] as they want, or as wide open and ad-hoc free-form as they want.

So by having this toolkit and providing some integration with Office, and by having the toolkit that people can massage and customize, that’s how we approach this problem. We’re trying to be an enterprise reporting system whose primary purpose is enterprise information delivery—without necessarily having to call somebody in IT to get somebody to do it for them.

About the Author

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