Software Heavies Set Sights on BI Superpowerdom

This year, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP dropped all pretense and started talking candidly about their ambitions in the BI space.

For many folks, 2006 was a downer of a year. Jazz aficionados will forever lament the loss of the great Anita O’Day, the grittiest and smokiest of song sirens. O’Day passed in November of this year. A few months before, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron passed, too.

Not to trivialize the passings of either O’Day or Styron (this writer reveres them both), but 2006 was something of a downer for BI pure play vendors, too. It was a year, after all, in which the software heavies—IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., and SAP AG—dropped all (or most) pretense and started talking candidly about their ambitions in the BI space.

Redmond Rolls up Its Sleeves

Consider Microsoft, which, only months after it shipped a BI-laden refresh of its SQL Server RDBMS in December of 2005, promptly snapped up BI pure play vendor ProClarity Corp. Shortly after the ProClarity coup, Microsoft officials became significantly more forthcoming about their BI aspirations. "[In the past] if there was this hole that people perceived Microsoft [as] having, they'd say to us, 'Yeah, you don’t have this, therefore I need to go look at Business Objects or Cognos.' I don’t want them to have that conversation," Alex Payne, a senior product manager in the Office business applications group, told TDWI this May. (http://www.esj.com/business_intelligence/article.aspx?EditorialsID=8077)

Chris Caren, general manager of Office business applications with Microsoft’s Information Worker group, staked out similar ground. "When we talk to customers, we want them to think more and more about Microsoft BI, … [because] our overall goal in BI is not just to make it more pervasive through easier-to-use capabilities, but to have a complete product; we’re as complete as anyone else in the market," Caren told TDWI in June. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=8005)

Microsoft was especially active on the BI front this year. In addition to its acquisition of ProClarity, Redmond also announced an Office-centered performance management tool—PerformancePoint Server—which is due out next year. PerformancePoint will draw from Microsoft’s own in-house assets, as well as from ProClarity’s technology, Microsoft officials said.

"It will be a holistic performance management application, designed to cover the entire performance management cycle, [providing] tracking via scorecards, doing deep analysis through analytics, through planning, budgeting, forecasting, consolidation, setting strategy, and managing operations," Caren said. "[PerformancePoint Server] was part of the roadmap for … Business Scorecard Manager 2005, [and] the product assets we acquired through ProClarity show up in this server as well, as the analytic engine."

PerformancePoint is just the tip of the spear, of course. Microsoft’s upcoming 2007 Office System release will comprise Redmond’s most explicitly BI-oriented Office release to date. (http://www.tdwi.org/info.aspx?id=27046)

Oracle Comes Out Swinging

Ever aggressive, Oracle was the first in the Gang of Four to really come out swinging. In early March, Oracle announced its new Business Intelligence Suite, a revamped, enlarged, and Project Fusion-ized version of the erstwhile Oracle Business Intelligence offering. Oracle’s new BI suite came wrapped in an ambitious new vision—one that places Oracle-the-BI-power prominently in the forefront, no longer the collegial partner of best-of-breed BI players.

Far from dismissing best-of-breed BI, Oracle VP of BI marketing Paul Rodwick championed it: arguing, in the process, that Oracle’s own BI suite comprises a best-of-breed offering in its own right. "Business Intelligence Suite is [a] … comprehensive [offering], filled with best-of-breed components," Rodwick told TDWI in March. "[I]t’s hot-pluggable and open to all environments, whether those be various enterprise applications, or installed databases and data warehouses, or existing BI tools or security environment."

Surprisingly, Rodwick and other Oracle officials trod carefully around the partnering question. "One of the very important things we talked about was a clear market trend to be open to all of the different environments that exist in our customer base," Rodwick said. "What we see with BI is there’s a market need to be able to leverage all of the different legacy systems that are already in place so that companies can have an insight layer that crosses all of their different operational systems and provides immediate value."

For example, officials claimed, the Oracle 10g database itself isn’t an absolute requirement for the Oracle Business Intelligence Suite. "[T]he notion of being hot-pluggable is that customers can select the database functionality they wish [and] the end-user tools they wish," Rodwick asserted.

It was a very busy year for Oracle BI-wise. There was Oracle BI Suite, for one thing, but—just a couple of months later, in May—the database giant also shipped its long-awaited Oracle Warehouse Builder (OWB) to select customers, with OWB 10 going GA this summer. Then, just two months ago, Oracle snapped up ETL pure play vendor Sunopsis. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=8151)

Oracle’s Sunopsis gambit took many by surprise. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=8213) Some questioned why Oracle—which claimed to be fielding an enterprise-class ETL tool in OWB 10—would need to look elsewhere for ETL technology. Oracle officials, for the record, positioned the acquisition as a Project Fusion-friendly move. Rick Schultz, vice-president of Fusion Middleware with Oracle, said Sunopsis has real-time (or "right time") data access capabilities that will benefit the Project Fusion platform. "Sunopsis has broad support for a range of data products, including non Oracle [platforms]. So we plan to focus on integrating the Sunopsis products with our products in [the Fusion Middleware] area—Oracle BI Suite, Oracle Data Hub, and our SOA suite," Schultz told us. "[Sunopsis] … reinforce[s] the Oracle fusion middleware importance of providing hot-pluggable [access]."

Oracle always bears watching. It will almost certainly do something in the coming year to make things interesting.

SAP Gets Serious

SAP didn’t rest on its laurels in 2006, either. It announced its first foray into software-as-a-service (SaaS) CRM in February, for example; expanded its BI footprint by introducing additional vertical-specific analytic applications; shipped a new drag-and-drop application development environment (Visual Composer) designed to facilitate the development of composite applications; fleshed out its Duet SAP/Office integration effort with Microsoft; and helped encourage the emergence of an ecosystem of lightweight business analytic applications, dubbed xApps, that are designed by customers, partners, and other stakeholders. Add it all up, SAP officials say, and you’ve got a company that’s ready to take its rightful place as a tier-one BI vendor.

"There’s always been this kind of expectation that when the big guys [SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft] got their acts together, it was going to be very difficult for the standalone players," SAP senior vice-president and analytic GM Sanjay Poonen told TDWI this month. "Our investment in the analytics area, our recruiting of top talent, our commitment from the top down to analytics—we’ve been executing on our analytic vision, and the growth you see is a result of that."

SAP, too, expects to trod a much finer line with its BI partners, which include a host of BI pure plays—ETL powerhouse Informatica Corp., BI and performance management players Cognos Inc., Hyperion Solutions Corp., MicroStrategy Corp., and others. Relations between SAP and these vendors have thus far been amicable—a textbook case of what a zoologists call "mutualism"—but that could change. "At the end of the day, as we have strengthened our stack and grown up, we have naturally become a lot more competitive in these [BI] segments," Poonen conceded. "But we will continue to certify a number of partners that will coexist in our ecosystem and guarantee to customers that if they’re using a particular tool that you’ve made, it will work [with SAP]. A customer is guaranteed that those products will interoperate with us as a core platform."

But officials clearly seem to hope that many customers who are today using third-party BI tools in tandem with SAP applications will—as Abraham Lincoln famously put it—face up to the arithmetic. "In many of the other areas, what’s been happening in our customers’ sites is that they realize that the SAP offering has strengthened over time and they want deeper integration with their core vendor that they’re building a relationship with," Poonen concludes. "We want to be your vendor of choice for as many components of this stack as can provide you differentiated value."

IBM’s Infommersion

IBM played its trump card late this year, in October, when it announced IBM Information Server, a largely synthetic deliverable which includes not just ETL, data quality, and data profiling capabilities (thanks to IBM’s acquisition last year of the former Ascential Software Corp.), but also structured and unstructured content management (via Big Blue’s WebSphere Information Integrator tool, which incorporates assets from a passel of other acquisitions), document management (by way of IBM’s acquisition of the former FileNet Corp.), and, of course, service-enablement, thanks—once again—to Big Blue’s ubiquitous WebSphere-branded integration middleware stack.

IBM officials position Information Server as a kind of Philosopher’s Stone for data integration, capable of transmuting just about any kind of information (structured, semi-structured, or unstructured) into something that can be exposed as part of an SOA and consumed by other service-enabled applications.

This is a position that trods on the feet of many BI players—Informatica, SAS Institute Inc., and Business Objects SA foremost among them. And while IBM has been careful to position its information management ambitions as a middleware-centric play, Big Blue must also walk an increasingly fine line going forward, industry watchers say.