All the BI World’s a Platform
While business intelligence vendors continue to tout the benefits of platforms, organizations should be as mindful of the minuses as the pluses.
It wasn’t all that long ago when business intelligence vendors primarily emphasized the strengths of their individual tools. These days, most of them are highlighting their integrated BI platforms. Examples of BI platforms include BusinessObjects XI, Cognos 8, Hyperion System 9, MicroStrategy 8, and SAS 9.
At a minimum, most BI platforms provide core services such as a common user interface across the underlying platform components, a shared metadata repository, a single sign-on, centralized administration, and a services oriented architecture. Data warehouse development and user communities clearly benefit from the increased productivity and reduced training needs that an integrated platform provides when compared to a collection of individual point products.
Two of these features, a common user interface and a services oriented architecture, can be very helpful as a vendor begins to assimilate recently acquired technology that is not yet fully integrated with its own products. This is especially important nowadays, what with the trend toward consolidation in the industry. In addition, a well-architected platform should allow a vendor’s newer offerings to interoperate with its older products.
The first phase of any BI platform often integrates the individual product user interfaces and provides interoperability among the individual metadata repositories, while latter phases more fully integrate the underlying software components and the metadata and object models. The phased approach has the advantage of providing an evolutionary migration path for the customer while also setting achievable milestones for the vendor’s development team. However, to be truly effective, the vendor should establish and publish a clear roadmap (and more importantly stick to it) of what capabilities will be available when. A credible roadmap is also a valuable marketing and sales tool as the promise of future capabilities can serve to dissuade customers from jumping to competitors that have already released those capabilities.
As most BI platforms consist of both core services and optional extra-cost features (in many cases those that reflect the same capabilities as the vendor’s formerly stand-alone tools), BI vendors have the opportunity to up-sell their installed base and increase the overall breadth and depth of their account penetration. While open, “best-of-breed” offerings were once the buzzword, BI platforms with integrated add-on modules are now the rage. Users don’t necessarily need the best possible solution for every particular situation, especially if this means dealing with multiple vendors to resolve a single system problem; a “good enough” offering in one part of the BI spectrum (e.g., query, reporting, OLAP, visualization, dashboards, data mining, etc.) that interoperates with the vendor’s stronger platform components, is likely to be more useful than several best-in-class offerings that each run standalone.
When evaluating BI platforms, organizations need to look at their current and expected needs and assume that their users will want to be able to do more of their own analyses tomorrow, without assistance from IT, than they are currently doing today. Organizations should make sure that their BI platforms integrate with their users’ desktop environments (e.g., Microsoft Office) as well as their operational enterprise applications. They should recognize that while most operational application vendors (and database vendors) are attempting to increase their presence in the BI market by incorporating additional analytical capabilities into each new product release, most organizations are likely to utilize software from multiple enterprise application vendors (at least until Oracle acquires them all).
Decision-makers should also recognize that acquiring one vendor’s BI platform doesn’t mean that all the other incumbents will necessarily disappear. Although the number of BI vendors in any given organization may diminish over time, it is likely that these organizations will still deploy tools and platforms from more than one BI vendor; therefore, interoperability among the installed/planned BI tools and platforms should be seriously considered. After all, Microsoft Excel is still the most ubiquitous BI tool in use today; it will not likely disappear no matter what other BI products are also deployed.
Michael A. Schiff is a principal consultant for MAS Strategies.