What Is Business Intelligence? Vendors Voice Their Views

It shouldn't surprise anyone that software vendors overwhelmingly have self-serving takes on the state of BI today.

Our understanding of business intelligence (BI) doesn’t originate in a vacuum. If anything, it evolves over time—the product of a selection process that pits ambitious vendors against skeptical customers, interpreted in part by BI industry seers, who attempt to provide guidance, where possible.

We’ve already heard from prominent industry watchers on the state of BI today. In this installment, we’ll check in with BI software vendors to see just what they make of the marketplace. In a follow-up piece, we’ll speak with BI professionals to hear what they think about the state of all things BI.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that software vendors overwhelmingly have self-serving takes on the state of BI today. Enterprise applications vendors, for example, position BI as a natural complement to the operational data that’s already sitting in their ERP systems. Since the data’s already there, they argue, why not use Oracle Business Intelligence or SAP NetWeaver (more commonly known as Business Information Warehouse (BW)) to get at it? “With all respect to them [pure play BI vendors], we feel that for many of our customers, [NetWeaver] is the only [business intelligence] solution they will need,” said Lothar Schubert, director of SAP NetWeaver solution marketing, in an interview last year.

Last October, SAP announced a BI-oriented refresh of its NetWeaver platform—NetWeaver 2004S, complete with a more usable Business Explorer (BEX) front-end tool, an SAP-branded operational reporting front-end, and an analytic accelerator appliance. SAP also disclosed plans to ship a line of pre-built analytic applications sometime this year. “They are going to be branded applications, and I believe they’re supposed to hit the street [i.e., general availability] sometime in the second quarter,” said Schubert.

Is SAP concerned its analytic push could alienate some of its BI partners? Not necessarily, Schubert stressed. “There will always be an opportunity for [BI partners] to add value to [the capabilities] we provide [in NetWeaver]. These [analytic applications] are for specific verticals, for customers in specific verticals. I do not think it is a threat [to SAP’s BI partners].”

Oracle, too, is amassing ever more BI momentum. On top of the multi-billion dollar acquisition of PeopleSoft Inc. (itself a peripheral BI player), Oracle also snapped up Siebel Systems Inc.—a proven analytics competitor—in-memory database specialist TimesTen, and retail analytics specialists Retek and ProfitLogic. Coupled with the pervasiveness of its relational database—which integrates OLAP and ETL capabilities—and its available reporting and business intelligence application software, Oracle is a BI force to be reckoned with.

All the World’s a Platform…?

BI platform players, on the other hand, have embraced extra-BI practices—such as performance management, budgeting, and planning—to augment their bread-and-butter BI stacks. This isn’t surprising, either: to the extent that bread-and-butter BI technologies such as reporting, OLAP, and ETL have become commoditized, BI pure plays see these emerging markets as ways to differentiate themselves, add value, and—of course—generate new revenues.

“The promise of business intelligence is fulfilled when all users access all of their data, at the right time, using an interface that best meets their needs, to understand what is happening, why, and determine what actions they should take to help the organization succeed,” says Leah MacMillan, vice-president of product marketing with Cognos. So far so good. But MacMillan—and, for that matter, most of her competitive peers—say the BI solutions of today need to address a lot more than plain old reporting and analysis.

“For customers, it’s all about better performance. Business Intelligence needs to support performance management and be able to deliver coordinated, consistent information,” she comments. “You need a BI solution that lets you know where you are in your strategy, what brought you here, and how best to set your sights for future performance. Coupled with integrated planning capabilities, you can then determine budgets, plan targets, and manage both effectively.”

There’s a surprising degree of consensus among the BI suite vendors on precisely this point. Take Howard Dresner, Hyperion’s chief of strategy, who touts a vision of “information democracy”—keyed to the melding of BI, performance management, and planning tools, of course. “The new breed of CIO is not relying on BI for tools and technology alone; the new CIO is leveraging BI to get aligned with the business. However it takes more than just BI to do this. It takes Business Performance Management, which is ‘BI with a purpose,’” he says. “Companies need to shift the sole focus away from tools and technology and focus on aligning the technology with the business and with the business processes. BPM is the new battle cry for IT. BPM allows the new business-minded CIO to bridge gaps and allows the company to act with one mind and speak with one voice.”

Business Objects didn’t embrace performance management and planning as readily as its BI platform competitors. Last summer, however, the BI giant—which notched more than $1 billion in revenue for the year—purchased performance management specialist SRC Software. Even now, however, Business Objects officials aren’t quite as gung-ho on performance management as their platform competitors.

“[B]usiness intelligence also means simplicity—providing more insight in more user-friendly ways,” says Donald MacCormick, vice-president of product marketing, who says that Business Objects has always prioritized simplicity and ease of use in its BI software development. “[W]e continue to push the boundaries of simplicity in business intelligence solutions. For example, Business Objects recently delivered Intelligent Question, an intuitive BI solution designed to work the way people think.”

But MacCormick can’t resist a next-gen plug, either. “Business intelligence also means delivering relevant data the way customers want it. Customers need to consume information in various forms, whether it’s a management dashboard that tracks performance against key metrics, visual analytics that transform simple Excel spreadsheets into dynamic presentations, or operational reports that offer real-time snapshots,” he says.

Best of Breed Vendors Staying the Course

If vendors such as Business Objects, Cognos, and Hyperion stress platform breadth at the expense of tool-specific depth, best-of-breed vendors continue to stress the depth of their respective solutions. In an ever-fluxing BI marketplace, they’re staying the best-of-breed course—in this case, stressing the applicability of their best-of-breed tools for next-gen requirements, such as performance management, budgeting, and planning. Call it a best-of-breed platform play.

“BI is moving out of the province of IT and ‘specialists’ and into the C-suite and line of business managers,” says Dave Menninger, vice-president of worldwide product management with OLAP specialist Applix Inc. Such non-traditional consumers have very different requirements—such as a need for planning or performance management capabilities, Menninger says. “Agile businesses understand the value of analysis and its corresponding insight across the organization - i.e., enabling a line-of-business manager to see plans versus actuals and to evaluate different scenarios based on up-to-date information.”

Menninger also flags an industry shift in favor of right-time (or near-real-time) information access, which is consistent with TDWI research.

It also dovetails nicely with Applix’ core strength: the company’s TM1 is, after all, an in-memory OLAP engine. That helps cut down on loading time and can supercharge analysis. “Regardless of the industry, customers using BI on a real-time, cross-organizational basis can make decisions today, based on information about today's sales and therefore quickly take advantage of opportunities and react to challenges,” he concludes.

Information Builders Inc. (IBI) is one of the most venerable BI players on the block. It also markets a de facto BI platform, in the form of its WebFOCUS reporting suite and iWay Software integration adapters. (iWay is an IBI spin-off that markets almost 300 data and application integration adapters.) Not surprisingly, then, IBI officials cast BI as a combination of super-charged reporting, analysis, and pervasive integration.

“Today’s BI customer wants a solution that can scale to accommodate an expanding user base and data deluge as the enterprise continues on its corporate growth path,” says IBI CEO Gerry Cohen. “As the BI evolution continues in 2006, the further extension of BI to the frontline worker and operational data, as well as geographical BI initiatives linking GIS mapping and BI analytics will take center stage. To drive corporate performance to the next level, enterprises will look to vendors to unlock the potential of BI by fulfilling the promise of data integration.”

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