Choosing a BI Architecture for Mobile Devices

As enterprise and mobile applications converge, users will demand consistency on mobile devices.

By Rado Kotorov, Ph.D.

For years we have been hearing about "consumer BI," "pervasive BI," and "BI for the masses." Whichever term you use, it's clear that the focus has shifted from BI professionals (who need complex tools to create and analyze information) to rank-and-file workers (who simply want to access BI content in intuitive ways).

Today, that often means accessing information while away from the office. Many people are beginning to use mobile phones and laptops almost interchangeably, and by 2011, 50 percent of mobile phones are expected to be smart phones (see Note 1).

As those phones become capable of displaying rich Web content, mobile workers are seeking more extensive access to corporate data. If you can send e-mail, watch movies, and browse the Web on your phone, why not check the status of an order as well? How about filing expense reports, reporting sales results, or updating an inventory control system?

Of course, like any emerging technology, mobile BI raises as many questions as it answers:

  • Which technology will best suit an organization's needs?
  • Will the new technologies complement existing investments or render them obsolete?
  • Will users flock to the new solutions to justify the investments?
  • What is the total cost of owning and operating mobile BI solutions?

Consumers want consistency, device-independence, and uninterrupted access to content. IT pros want solutions that work with existing hardware, software, and networking standards.

Meeting both sets of needs requires a robust BI platform that can deliver tailored solutions -- ideally, a platform that can work with any device, both online and offline.

Competing BI Architectures There are currently two approaches to mobile BI deployments: thick-client and thin-client.

Thick-client deployments run special software on each type of mobile device, fed by special servers that manage the interactions with those devices. The client-side software controls how content is displayed. This was an important factor in the early days of mobile browsers, when each device displayed content differently. However, it is less important today.

Most BI vendors offer thick-client solutions, with different client software for the different mobile devices. These approaches work well for organizations that have standardized on a relatively small number of mobile devices. However, the growingdiversity of operating systems (OS) -- all of which require unique client-side software -- could make this approach difficult to sustain for organizations that lack standards for the devices people use.

Thin-client architectures rely entirely on Web technologies to deliver mobile applications. No additional technology investment is required, and there is no risk of client-side software becoming obsolete. There is no need for additional servers, and no unique client-side software or upgrade costs. The drawback is that all content cannot be delivered to all browsers.

With the release of the iPhone, Apple has upped the ante by leveraging a Web-based Safari browser to deliver all applications. This means users can take advantage of the same Web-based applications that they use on their desktops, eliminating the need for dual devices for many employees. Apple does not allow developers to install applications on this platform for security reasons and because the iPhone uses the Web as a delivery mechanism. Thus, thick-client solutions won't work for this device.

Content Considerations

Regardless of which architecture you choose, since the memory and the processing power of most mobile devices cannot match that of a laptop, it is critical to deliver only the most relevant information. If the content is too difficult to read or the BI application is too difficult to use, end users will reject it.

I like to use an average-size post-it note as a model, which translates to about 7 rows of data by 4 or 5 columns of measures. Users should be able to select what they need, then drill down to obtain details.

The screens on smart phones are ideal for mini "scorecard-type" reports, from operational summaries and sales results to inventory reports and account statements. In the case of the iPhone, an advanced zoom function can accommodate dashboards as well.

But displaying reports and alerts is only half of the BI equation. To realize the full potential of a mobile business intelligence solution, users need to be able to perform analytics. True analytics means being about to explore BI content to identify trends, uncover anomalies, and discover hidden truths.

Some BI vendors have created "active reporting" technology that combines data and interactive capabilities into a single HTML. This is the foundation for "active dashboards" that pack a lot of information into a very small space. An associated payload of data enables users to display charts and tables using the zoom function of the browser. Users can perform analysis and forward their findings without any network or device constraints.

BI vendors are also taking advantage of Web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX, which makes Web pages more responsive and keeps users engaged. Gartner predicts that by 2010, 80 percent of software applications will be AJAX-enabled, and 30 percent of applications will be Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) -- Web applications that have the features and functionality of traditional desktop applications (see Note 1). RIAs typically transfer the processing necessary for the user interface to the browser or Web client, such as the Flash player. While RIA applications are already portable (they can be emailed, embedded in PowerPoint, etc.) the convergence of the Flash Player 9 and the Flash Lite (the player for mobile devices) into a single player, will make RIA accessible from any device. Additional benefit is that they will share the same development environment and user experience.

Following Apple's Lead

In practice, security, usability, and your legacy equipment will ultimately determine which mobile BI architecture to choose. Given the resiliency of the Web and the momentum of the iPhone, I'm betting on thin-client solutions that can work interchangeably in any Web browser on any device.

A thin-client, active reporting paradigm based on Web 2.0 concepts improves efficiency, facilitates collaborative decision-making, and positively impacts the entire enterprise in a number of ways:

  • By minimizing the number of report requests sent to IT: users have the ability to access and manipulate the underlying data on their own
  • By reducing network traffic: data can be transformed again and again, without repeated connections, and reports can be manipulated while in disconnected mode
  • By simplifying distribution: sophisticated reports can be packaged and sent to anyone, including people outside the firewall
  • By expanding analysis; the easy to use interface encourages analysis by individuals not highly skilled with spreadsheets

As enterprise and mobile applications converge, users will demand consistency, from desktops to cell phones. Forward-looking BI vendors will be there to meet their needs.

Note 1: Gartner Conference, Orlando, Florida, October 2007.

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Rado Kotorov, Ph.D., is technical director of strategic product management at Information Builders. You can reach the author at

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