Cognos Courts SAP

Cognos unveiled an SAP-friendly refresh of its C8 BI suite and announced a new BI search tool. Not bad for a week’s work.

If business intelligence (BI) vendors are gentlemen callers, then German software giant SAP AG is the ERP equivalent of Amanda Wingfield.

The tragic heroine of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Wingfield once claimed to have entertained as many as 17 gentlemen callers in a single day. SAP hasn’t quite had that much attention from BI vendors, but the fact remains that a growing number of business intelligence players are cozying up.

Take Cognos Inc. The Ottawa-based BI giant this week unveiled an update to its Cognos 8 BI suite which improves that product’s interoperability with SAP’s NetWeaver platform. In this respect, Cognos joins a procession of SAP inamorata that (in the last three months alone) includes MicroStrategy Inc. and Applix Inc. Why are these vendors and a host of others—including Hyperion Solutions Corp., Informatica Corp., and Microsoft Corp., which have also outlined substantive SAP outreach efforts in the last 12 months—all but falling all over themselves to accommodate SAP? What gives?

Cognos, for its part, says it has a lot to do with the lay of the enterprise application-scape—an increasingly stark topography that, at this point, is dominated by an ERP duumvirate of SAP and Oracle Corp. The upshot, says Cognos director of product marketing Scott Lawrence, is that a substantial number of Cognos 8 shops also use SAP, as well as PeopleSoft HR and Siebel CRM software. For this reason, he argues, Cognos has made interoperability with SAP and other platforms a priority for quite some time now.

“SAP was always going to be a platform that we supported and an architecture that we supported, and when we launched ReportNet, SAP BW was the first application we supported; Enterprise Portal was the first application-specific portal we supported out of the box; [SAP] security was the first application-specific security model we supported out of the box,” he says, noting that SAP certifies ReportNet 1.0—the standalone version of that product which preceded the all-in-one Cognos 8 suite—for use with NetWeaver.

If Cognos has in fact had all of its SAP bases covered since ReportNet went live, what exactly do the new SAP-friendly refreshments in this week’s Cognos 8 update bring to the table? A great deal, Lawrence claims—primarily in the area of interoperability with native SAP and NetWeaver interfaces. For one thing, says Lawrence, the revamped Cognos 8 facilitates access to data stored in SAP’s Business Information Warehouse (BW), thanks to a revamped OLAP/BAPI interface, which is certified for NetWeaver.

“Instead of just querying and reporting on SAP BW data, [this] allows me to do the full breadth of Cognos 8 BI functionality on top of SAP BW data,” he says. “We introduced the new [OLAP] analysis component, we introduced more flexibility for dashboarding, and we’ve done all [of this] on top of that same architecture that was integrated with SAP before.”

Joint customers can deploy Cognos 8 on SAP’s Web Application Server and exploit SAP’s NetWeaver Portal facilities, too. In addition, Cognos officials say, the refresh delivers support for at least 80 additional functions, some of which aren’t native to NetWeaver.

“Functions that now work in the SAP BW world close the gap with respect to what people expect from relational experiences—string functions, concatenations, data functions, period-to-date or date ranges,” Lawrence continues. “The objective there was to enhance the self-serviceability so that users could actually build reports on their own.”

Cognos officials position the revamped Cognos 8 as a clearing house, an information hub for SAP-related reporting and analysis. Lawrence says a lot of Cognos customers (especially large, multinational shops) have multiple instances of geographically dispersed SAP—e.g., SAP BW InfoProviders, multiple instances of SAP BW, along with non-SAP BW data (such as mySAP (SAP R/3) data—and want a tool that can report against these data sources, without necessarily extracting information into a data warehouse or ODS.

“Most other solutions or other options [involve] merging [this dispersed SAP data] together into a single data warehouse, effectively extracting data out of the BW system, sticking it into a flat file, where they’ve broken the connections back to BW, broken the hierarchies, and so on,” Lawrence comments. “But we’re actually working on the systems, maintaining all of the integrity, all of the business rules. We also enhance the iViews that are available.”

Elsewhere, Cognos announced 60 canned “Report Packs” for mySAP FI/CO (R/3) and Siebel CRM transaction systems that enable users to combine historical data (i.e., data residing in the data warehouse) with current data (residing in mySAP-SAP R/3 or Siebel CRM), without additional coding. The company also released Cognos Data Adapter, an information access tool (based on technology licensed from EII player Composite Software) that promises “single-click” access to mySAP-SAP R/3 and Siebel CRM data.

The Extra-BPM Push

There’s another wrinkle here, too. Cognos and many of its competitors are pushing to expand the scope of traditional business performance management (BPM)—which has mostly focused on finance—to encompass operational systems and data, as well. To the extent that Cognos can enhance its ability to get at non-financial SAP data and interoperate more effectively with SAP as a whole, it can also make a more compelling case for its extra-BPM push.

Wayne Eckerson, research and services director for TDWI, says performance management (PM) is a technology that sells itself. More to the point, Eckerson argues, BI and PM are fast converging in the context of a completely new kind of tool, which he calls the “Performance Dashboard.”

These aren’t the same tools once championed by your erstwhile CEO, however. They’re next-generation dashboards—part of the Dashboards 2.0 wave—that help executives pursue alignment strategies, monitor strategy execution, and proactively refine or adjust strategy in response to market changes.

“Executives who create a strategy want to see every day how it's working,” says Eckerson. He notes that line-of-business “executives or department managers may want to see every hour how their plans are panning out. And based on what's happening, they want to model—that is, do what-if scenarios—to make adjustments or re-forecasts.” Eckerson says operational performance management “is real and needed, and many start-up dashboard vendors are doing this.”

Some vendors—such as Applix—are pursuing dedicated OPM strategies, but Eckerson doesn’t see a clear difference between BPM and its would-be operational offshoot. “I’ve always assumed that BPM would support whatever data freshness [was] required to monitor and adjust the strategy. BPM users at lower levels of the organization would typically want more real-time data. But what we're finding is that many CEOs also want more real-time views. So, BPM and OPM are really the same thing in my book—not mutually exclusive.”

Cognos’ Search Ploy

If vendor interest is any indication, enterprise search is a sizzling market segment. This May, Cognos plans to catapult itself into the search space with the release of its Go! search tool. Senior product marketing manager Paul Hulford says the new browser-based tool will be able to spider through Cognos 8 reports, analysis, metric information, and events in response to user queries. It will search the full content of reports; support features such as fuzzy logic and word stemming to help users fine-tune their searches; and can publish to XML so third-party applications can consume results.

“It’s a Cognos-built technology, [although] we’ve embedded a technology called Lucine which is used commonly in search engine solutions in the search engine space,” Hurlford explains. “If you type in the word laser in a keyword search, we would be able to look up the metadata and see that laser is actually a product line—it might be a laser pointer, it might be a laser printer—and we can provide users with the option of specifying if they want that word to mean a very specific thing. Users can actually remove ambiguity of words in a way that is not able to be achieved in a standard unstructured search environment.”

In some scenarios, Hulford says, Go! can help improve the responsiveness of Cognos’ bread-and-butter BI software. “We’ve built a pre-indexed solution, [so] in a BI context, you also have the benefit of shifting users off the main BI system when they’re just simply in an explorative mode. You’re not spending extra machine cycles running reports that aren’t necessary and [users aren’t] wasting their own time trying to find results.” Cognos Go! will drop into all Cognos 8 interfaces (in the form of a search bar), says Hulford, and can also be embedded into non-Cognos applications, thanks to its XML publishing support.