WebFOCUS 7 Kicks Up Enterprise Business Intelligence

WebFOCUS 7 incorporates adapters into more than 200 different structured and unstructured data sources

When a company with more than 10,000 customers releases its first major product update in two years, that’s news. When that company is Information Builders Inc.—which develops integration software that’s used by Sun Microsystems Inc., BEA Systems Inc., and others—that’s big news. And when that company’s first major product update in two years—WebFOCUS 7—also incorporates more than 200 data integration adapters, that’s really big news.

To that end, Information Builders claims that WebFOCUS 7 can integrate and expose just about any structured or unstructured data source that’s in use in any given organization. That’s because the new release formally incorporates data integration wrapper technology developed by Information Builders’ iWay Software subsidiary. Sun, BEA, and others license and resell iWay’s wrappers to help facilitate integration with heterogeneous data sources.

“iWay was initially looked at as a solution for application problems, but is now really posing itself for business intelligence customers, and probably the hottest thing is to make the data warehouse a real-time data store,” says Michael Corcoran, vice-president and chief communications officer with Information Builders. “Most BI vendors speak to about less than 10 relational databases; we now get to 85 structured database formats, and another 120 transaction, document exchanges, and message queues.”

All told, Corcoran says, iWay can reach into 285 different data formats. “They’re database interfaces, application interfaces, specific application modules, [and] specific business-process modules,” he indicates. “We have five interfaces into SAP, obviously, BW, but we’re one of the few vendors who can read native R/3 tables and read them well. In addition we can read BAPI and other formats.”

Information Builders says WebFOCUS 7 ships with three different data integration engines—a traditional batch-based ETL engine for “transforming boatloads of data;” a real-time transaction engine, which Corcoran says is “very, very hot right now for trickle-feeding the data warehouse;” and a Web services engine, complete with a graphical tool that lets developers draw mappings to Web services and business service engines.

Data integration is just one piece of the puzzle, albeit an important one in the context of IBM Corp.’s blockbuster acquisition of Ascential. In addition, officials say, the new WebFOCUS has been revamped with ease of use, scalability, and other end-user-friendly amenities in mind.

“We’ve been priding ourselves since we came out with WebFOCUS with being the most scalable of the products on the market. Our expectation with the current product is to deliver anywhere from four to 20 times the number of concurrent users who are running queries on a given platform,” Corcoran says.

To that end, Information Builders bills WebFOCUS 7 as an “autonomic” environment, capable of dynamically allocating or de-allocating system capacity to handle changing query workloads.

“We’ve always had load-balancing and failover capability, but now what we have, in a multi-server configuration, … when we get new queries, we’re going to determine where these queries will run best in a server configuration, and we’re actually going to manage the server in terms of bringing up dormant servers and putting these servers to sleep,” says Corcoran.

Also in WebFOCUS 7, Information Builders has tweaked that product’s famous self-service reporting interface. Corcoran says WebFOCUS now offers a more intuitive client-side experience for users. “We’ve parameterized every [function], the ability to change the data filters, the ability for them to change everything about that report on the fly. They can change how the report is sorted, they can add and remove columns off the report, [and] they can make calculations on the fly. The whole paradigm says that in the time it takes you to work with one of these pretty report tools and create your own report, you can create 50 reports [in WebFOCUS 7].”

Elsewhere, other patented WebFOCUS features—such as the Report Painter and Form Painter components—have been outfitted with wizard-driven interfaces. “We’ve now built it into the form of a wizard, and that wizard will walk you [from] start to finish, and help you point-and-click to build a report. It’s a real, real big time saver for rolling out these [reports],” Corcoran says.

Similarly, WebFOCUS 7 boasts a new SQL Wizard that can take existing SQL that customers have written to support specific databases, applications, services, or procedures and automatically wrapper it. And unlike many such wizards, Corcoran insists, the new SQL Wizard pretty much works as advertised with just about any conceivable SQL code: “It’s a true wizard interface. You point it to the SQL, application, or the stored procedure on the database, point it to where it’s located, it asks you just a couple of questions, you pull it in and it shows it to you, and it asks you, okay, what do you want to do with this, build a report, etc.”

Kicking It Up a Notch

Like SAS Institute Inc., Information Builders is a long-time player in the BI space—for nearly three decades. And, like SAS, Information Builders remains a privately held company in an otherwise swirling maelstrom of publicly held BI competitors.

For a long time, SAS and Information Builders had something else in common: both were, to a large degree, stealth marketing success stories. SAS has grown its expertise in data mining and predictive analytics into a $2 billion per year BI practice, while Information Builders—itself no slouch in the BI expertise department—claims to be a $300 million company with a customer base in excess of 10,000 organizations.

Over the last 18 months, SAS has become more aggressive with its marketing, touting an SAS 9 release that—officials claimed—was the company's most significant foray yet into full-blown BI.

With WebFOCUS 7, Information Builders seems to be following a similar trajectory. “We’re the industry’s best kept secret,” agrees Corcoran. “We are a privately held company that’s never going to be the marketing machine that a Cognos is, or a Business Objects is. But almost everyone who works with us becomes a customer for life.”

In this respect, analysts say, the revamped release should help the company disseminate its message beyond the WebFOCUS faithful—especially now that Information Builders has embraced—in its marketing, anyway—the move toward operational BI. “WebFocus 7 is an evolutionary release that represents a strategic shift for Information Builders,” says Eric Rogge, a vice-president and research director with consultancy Ventana Research. Rogge cites WebFOCUS 7’s tighter integration with, and bundling of, the iWay adapters, along with the incorporation of metadata management tools from iWay in place of WebFOCUS’ own metadata management tools.

Then there’s the industry-wide trend toward operational BI, which Rogge says WebFOCUS has long been architected to take advantage of. “This release represents IBI’s interest in capitalizing on the current industry wave toward operational BI, a market segment that IBI has been quietly serving for years. Ventana Research believes WebFocus 7 has demonstrated capability for large-scale operational BI deployments,” he writes.

About the Author

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