Enterprise Application Showdown: Feuding Paradigms of 2006

SaaS and other new-fangled application deployment paradigms came to the fore in 2006, even as the fat client BI suite of old came into its own.

What kind of year was 2006? It was an annum of transition, certainly. New application deployment paradigms came to the fore—software-as-a-service (SaaS) and composite applications foremost among them. Both innovations have the potential to wholly transform software development and delivery—although both will likely take some time to shake out, too. Both will bear watching in 2007.

On the opposite side of the proverbial fence—as the culmination of traditional trends in software development—we have the all-in-one BI suite, which, following a late-2005 push from the BI powers-that-be, seems finally to have come into its own. The BI suites of today are better integrated and more consistent—especially on the metadata and security fronts—than their predecessors. But are they the last of a dying breed?

Call it an enterprise application showdown.

The SaaS-ification of Enterprise BI?

Overall, 2006 was a year in which many big BI vendors got SaaS religion. Oracle, for one, expanded its own line of SaaS offerings, while SAP AG, Business Objects SA, and Informatica Corp. announced completely new SaaS services.

These vendors joined a passel of SaaS-oriented BI startups: companies such as Host Analytics, Ketera, Oco, and others, all of which are pushing SaaS BI offerings. No one knows quite how SaaS will impact more conventional software development and delivery models, but regardless, it’s a disruptive phenomenon. Will it be wholly transformative? Many big BI vendors—particularly those that have substantive stakes in lucrative on-premises offerings—say no.

Such vendors tend to simultaneously embrace and pigeonhole SaaS as a less sophisticated—i.e., less heavy-duty—complement to their own on-premises solutions. “[We’ve] synthesized on- and off-premises with our [Saas] product. We’re not going to give you the PowerCenter interface; you’ll get a Web-based interface,” Ivan Chong, vice-president of business development with Informatica, told TDWI earlier this month. “We are targeting a class of user that is adopting SaaS. They may be smaller companies that don’t have the dedicated resources to do data warehousing or heavy-duty data integration. They need to get their job done, to get data in and out of salesforce.com. They need to do it fairly quickly. That user needs a basic UI, to get the job done that’s sustaining SaaS.”

The point, Chong emphasized, is that SaaS offerings tend to appeal to different kinds of users. “A lot of users that buy into salesforce.com or NetSuite, they drift away from the hardcore IT development and they have more of a business background. They’re more familiar with [Web-based or portal] interfaces,” he comments. “[SaaS] does improve the usability, [but] it’s not going to have the flexibility of a general purpose environment that you would have with on-premises PowerCenter or on-premises [Informatica] Data Quality.”

The Composite App

Composite applications are a different matter. These are apps that are composed of multiple, independent, plug-and-play services. A composite application can describe a combination of service-enabled legacy applications, Web services, standards-compliant interfaces (such as LDAP and SQL) that are exposed to internal or external consumers, or external services (such as Salesforce.com’s hosted CRM services) that are designed to be consumed by a subscriber’s internal systems.

By definition, a composite application typically involves the interaction of at least two services. One classic example is a loan approval process, which typically spawns several epi-processes (e.g., query to external credit bureau and location and retrieval of existing financial records, among others). In the composite model, organizations can identify specific business processes that support the loan approval process, service-enable the information systems that support these services, and choreograph the interaction of these services as part of a composite application.

Not all BI players have clambered aboard the composite application bandwagon, of course. There are, after all, substantial bulwarks to passage. One prerequisite is a service-enabled architecture (SOA), which an increasing number of players have introduced to underpin their BI solutions. There’s also the garden-variety portal, which provides one common means of organizing and exposing composite applications—although next-gen dashboards (powered by a number of technologies, including Adobe Flash) provide still another.

Another amenity (if not an outright requirement) is a robust visual design tool which lets users—and (increasingly) non-technical users, such as business analysts—design applications of their own. This is a potential deal-breaker for many would-be proponents of composite apps: consider the case of SAP, which, four years after it first started executing on its ambitious NetWeaver SOA vision, finally delivered a composite application development tool, called Visual Composer, this year. In the interim, users had made do with SAP’s fat client Business Explorer (BEx) tool. This isn’t to take potshots at SAP, either: Visual Composer is arguably the fruit of that company’s redoubled focus on analytics, which commenced about two years ago. In any event, it serves to drive home the point that long is the road—and arduous the development process—which culminates (hopefully) in composite application feasibility.

“The whole idea of [model-driven development] is that you can build an analytic composite application and a transactional application on the same screen," SAP senior VP and GM Sanjay Poonen told TDWI this month. “There’s nothing that’s out today among the BI tools that comes close, and the other part … is that SAP [has been] making enormous investments in an enterprise SOA infrastructure [with NetWeaver], and these were well ahead of anybody else.”

SAP has pursued NetWeaver as a means to recast its decidedly fat mySAP ERP stack as a flexible—perhaps even lightweight—next-gen application architecture. Poonen suggests that disruptive application development and delivery models—such as SaaS offerings and lightweight composite applications—are the wave of the future, if only because they will enable organizations to expose analytic capabilities to hitherto untapped—namely, rank-and-file—user constituencies.

The BI Suite Cometh

The big BI suite vendors, it must be said, don’t necessarily dispute this view. Each of the all-in-one BI suites—from vendors such as Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., Hyperion Solutions Corp., MicroStrategy Corp., and SAS Institute Inc.—is built on top of service-enabled underpinnings, for example.

But the integrated BI suite is also a throwback of sorts—to the all-in-one-ness of ERP, for example. There’s a reason for that.

BI suites, like the R/3 of old, are difficult to implement and maintain on an ongoing basis. Far from driving user adoption, the implementation and ongoing administration often prove to be the most difficult aspects of doing BI. Part of this is because the BI offerings of old—even the so-called BI suites of old—were frequently cobbled together from a range of different point solutions, or (frequently) from third-party acquisitions.

“Through both acquisition and innovation, a single vendor may now offer a much broader range of products to serve a full spectrum of users’ needs,” wrote Cindi Howson, a principal with BIScorecard.com, in a recent assessment of suite offerings from Business Objects, Cognos, and Hyperion. “For the most part and from a historical perspective, these individual modules were not well integrated. Users had to learn multiple tools and go to different sources to access content; IT had to maintain multiple software versions, servers, security schemes, and so on.”

On the other hand, the big BI suites of today do constitute a significant improvement over the cobbled-together BI offerings of old. And while few if any BI vendors can claim to offer best-of-breed capabilities across the breadth of their suite offerings, the features and functionality they do offer, coupled with the real gains they have made in unifying user interfaces and tightening up integration between and among suite components, might even amount to an increasingly attractive alternative to best-of-breed single-use tools.

“When companies strive to standardize on a BI platform or BI suite, the goal is not to give users a one-size-fits-all tool. Instead, the idea is to have a common platform, with interfaces optimized for each user segment,” Howson continued.She grades the BI suites on a weighted scale, taking into account breadth of integration, server infrastructure, suite-wide security, common metadata, a consistent user interface, seamless navigation, and overall suite integration.

Howson posted especially encouraging results in the integration department. The BI suite offerings from Business Objects, Cognos, and Hyperion incorporate non-native technology, most of which was acquired from third-party vendors. As such, one might expect there to be a few outstanding wrinkles—i.e., areas of not-quite-complete integration. This is true to a degree—all three vendors scored only moderately well (Business Objects) or poorly (Cognos, Hyperion) in Howson’s assessment of seamless suite navigation. Ditto for the degree to which the three vendors deliver a consistent user interface: here Cognos scored moderately well, while Business Objects and Hyperion faired poorly.

On the whole, however, all three suites are fairly well tied together, she says. “[The] latest releases from each of these vendors provides valuable integration that benefits both end users and IT professionals who support BI deployments,” she writes. On Howson’s weighted scale, Cognos scored best (2.6 out of 3) in terms of overall suite integration, followed by Business Objects (2.25) and Hyperion (1.9).