What’s That? Business Intelligence Without the High TCO?

Some industry watchers feel the time might be right for SaaS BI—particularly in the SMB segment.

Just last week, Business Objects SA announced its first-ever hosted—aka software-as-a-service (SaaS)—reporting solution, Crystal Reports On Demand (or crystalreports.com). This week, Oco Inc. trumpeted its own spin on SaaS business intelligence (BI), touting the success of Oco Majik, its hosted analytics service. Oco isn’t alone, either; its competitors include Host Analytics Inc., another SaaS BI specialist. Could this be the beginning of a bona-fide BI trend?

SaaS isn’t a new model, of course. After the application service provider (ASP) Untergang of 2001, CRM-as-a-service pioneer salesforce.com found a way to make application hosting work. Thereafter, a host of other SaaS CRM players jumped into the fray—including the former Siebel Systems.

Notwithstanding the success of hosted CRM, SaaS BI has other, less encouraging antecedents. Six years ago, a Kirkland, Wash.-based start-up called digiMine Inc. announced a data warehousing and data mining hosting service. It was a tough sell. There were obvious logistical problems, for starters (e.g., digiMine required companies to either snail mail or upload their data—in any event, all data was hosted on-site), and digiMine probably didn’t help things by pricing its services at a premium. Like many other would-be application hosting player, DigiMine perished in the ASP crash of 2001.

SaaS is a very different animal from ASP, of course. For one thing, times have changed. The browser-based application experience has come a long way since the days of static HTML and kludgy Java applets. Application development methods such as asynchronous Java and XML (AJaX)—the magic behind Gmail and Google Maps, for example—have helped transform Web apps into highly interactive entities. For this reason and others, some industry watchers say the time might be right for SaaS BI—particularly in the SMB segment.

“I think SaaS is a valuable addition for SMB companies and departments in large companies that don't want or can't afford or don't have the expertise to install an analytic server,” said Wayne Eckerson, research and services director for TDWI, who commented specifically on crystalreports.com. “This takes the pain out of [installation]; simplifies and accelerates deployment.” There is an important caveat, Eckerson concedes: companies must first make peace with the idea that corporate data will be stored outside their own firewalls. “But Salesforce.com has broken through these fears, it seems,” noted Eckerson.

In the Crystal Reports On Demand model, Eckerson points out, organizations must still have a working knowledge of BI concepts and methods. “You still need to build reports on the desktop and run them against local data sources, so you still need a Crystal [or] data expert in-house.”

SaaS Analytics

Oco positions Majik as a managed SaaS solution. The company promises a rapid implementation time (six weeks in most cases), thanks in part to its Oco Connect integration software, which automatically maps enterprise data to Oco’s proprietary schema. In many cases, officials claim, Connect can populate Oco’s schema in as little as four days—whereas competitive approaches might take several months. What’s more, Majik (via Connect) can siphon data from other SaaS offerings—such as Siebel’s CRM On Demand.

Host Analytics, for its part, markets a hosted business performance management (BPM) service that provides budgeting, planning, forecasting, dashboarding and scorecarding, and—of course—ad hoc query and reporting features, among other BPM mainstays. It’s powered by Microsoft-based underpinnings, including SQL Server and Windows Server 2003.

Both companies can cite prominent customer success stories. Oco, for example, recently trumpeted its success with Casual Male Retail Group Inc., which it says tapped Majik to increase its visibility into online and catalog business data. Ditto for Asia-Pacific retail giant Lee and Fung, which tapped Majik to expose thousands of internal reports to approximately 800 different manufacturers.

Host Analytics, for its part, has been tapped by Milnot/Beech-Nut Corp. and The Proctor & Gamble Company (P&G), among others. P&G, in particular, is using the company’s Host Budget product to support more than 3,000 users. The global consumer powerhouse selected Host Analytics in part because of that company’s ability to get at its SAP R/3 data.

We’ll delve more into SaaS BI, and speak with Oco, Host Analytics and others, in a future article. Stay tuned.

About the Author

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