Next-generation BI at Hand, Forrester Reports

New Forrester study paints a picture of a BI landscape that remains diverse, thriving, and maturing.

Despite the last 18 tumultuous months in the BI marketplace, a recent Forrester research report (The Forrester Wave: Enterprise Business Intelligence Platforms, Q3 2008) concludes that the BI leaders of today are much like those of two years ago: a handful of vendors -- namely, IBM Cognos and SAP Business Objects, followed by Oracle Corp. and SAS Institute Inc. -- still sit atop the BI platform market.

BI isn't just a platform play, either. Forrester says Information Builders Inc. (IBI), Microsoft Corp., and MicroStrategy Inc. are doing their level best to keep things interesting.

All in all, Forrester's latest report paints a picture of a diverse, thriving -- and maturing -- BI landscape.

Forrester didn't rank BI vendors in terms of market share, revenue, or installed base alone. The firm says it assessed each of 12 different BI vendors on the basis of 151 criteria, including overall product strength, vendor strategy, and market presence.

In spite of unprecedented consolidation at all levels, Forrester found that the BI market is still far from mature.

"Contrary to popular belief, this vibrant market continues to evolve across multiple dimensions," writes Boris Evelson, a principal analyst with Forrester. "We are currently on the cusp of a next-generation BI with different user interfaces, integration with process and rules, end-user self-service, alternative analytical DBMS technologies, and many others."

SAP Business Objects, IBM Cognos Lead the Pack

Evelson highlights two common paths to BI market leadership: dominance via acquisition -- typically as a means to flesh out portfolio shortcomings (and not strictly as a means to acquire market share) -- and dominance via platform integration. He cites SAP/Business Objects as a textbook case of the former strategy and IBM/Cognos as exemplary of the latter.

"SAP Business Objects believes that enterprises need the best BI tool for every use case, sometimes even at the expense of less-than-complete integration," Evelson writes. "[T]he company went on a spree of acquiring and building many different BI tools over the past few years and ended up with one of the richest BI portfolios on the market in its XI release."

Things are different for IBM Cognos according to Evelson. "IBM Cognos believed that a unified, integrated platform is preferable [to a composite of best-of-breed offerings], even if it did not address every single BI function and feature end users wanted," he writes. "Rather than acquiring multiple technologies, IBM Cognos completely rebuilt its architecture in release 8, falling a bit behind SAP Business Objects in functionality but leading in modern unified architecture."

There's a sense in which the strengths and weaknesses of SAP Business Objects and IBM Cognos reflect these approaches, too.

SAP Business Objects, for example, has cobbled together a best-of-breed powerhouse. "Business Objects … provides some of the best-in-class tools for each use case," he says. "[It] offers a very rich set of mature BI products, and it is also one of the very few vendors offering a complete BI solution including data integration, data quality, and text analytics products.

"One of the main advantages of implementing the entire suite of products from SAP Business Objects is that end-to-end data lineage and impact analysis become a no-brainer. There's indeed a best-in-class tool for every use case." He cites a litany of SAP Business Objects offerings, starting with Crystal Reports (for production reporting); WebIntelligence (for ad hoc query and analysis); Voyager (for OLAP); Polestar (a guided BI search technology); and Xcelsius (a highly visual environment that supports interactive dashboards).

The post-acquisition SAP Business Objects still has its work cut out for it, according to Evelson and Forrester. "While release XI is a huge step in the right direction, plenty remains to be done. Top priorities … include bringing all SAP Business Objects products into a common platform for improved security and administration, integrating the multiple products enabling easier interchange of all metadata, and migrating from one product to another -- all of which could require a significant rewrite effort," Evelson says.

The former Cognos, on the other hand, tended to focus more heavily on platform integration. "Even though IBM Cognos may not have as many bells and whistles as its top competitor SAP Business Objects, product integration is much less of an issue. Any report or dashboard developed in Query Studio or Analysis Studio can always be easily migrated to Report Studio, the higher-end product," Evelson writes.

"IBM Cognos also tries to make it as easy as possible for its customers to migrate applications from one environment to another [e.g., development to test to production, for example] with a rich set of impact analysis utilities." Other Cognos advantages include not one but two OLAP engines (both PowerCube and the TM1, which Cognos picked up from the former Applix Inc.), as well as a business activity monitoring (BAM) appliance -- Cognos Now! -- which the company picked up via its acquisition of the former Celequest Inc. last year.

If Cognos has an Achilles heel -- outside of its functionality shortcomings, it's an extensive reliance on partners (for data integration, data quality, and text analytics), which it uses to flesh out its end-to-end BI stack. One upshot of this, Evelson points out, is that in spite of Cognos 8 BI's highly integrated value proposition, "enterprise IT pros or systems integrators … still need to assemble components from several vendors."

Oracle and SAS Emerge as Canny Contenders

Like SAP Business Objects and IBM Cognos, both Oracle and SAS followed widely divergent paths to market leadership.

Oracle, for its part, bought itself the makings of a booming BI practice, via its acquisitions of the former Siebel Systems Inc. and the former Hyperion Solutions Corp. However, a smorgasbord of BI technologies does not a market-leading BI platform make, so Oracle has had to do a lot of integration work to reconcile its many BI assets. One upshot of this, according to Evelson, is that its Oracle BI Suite Enterprise Edition (EE) is "very rich in features and functions" and "scores very close to the leading BI vendors." When it comes to product differentiation, Oracle BI Suite EE includes a ROLAP engine and bundles enterprise information integration (EII) capabilities, which helps establish its heterogeneous bona-fides.

There's also Essbase, the OLAP engine Oracle inherited from Hyperion. "Essbase continues to be one of the leading OLAP engines on the market and a preferred tool of finance departments all over the world," Evelson indicates. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that a few pieces -- such as data quality -- are still missing from Oracle's value proposition. Given Oracle's penchant for fleshing out technology shortcomings (and expanding its market share) by acquisition, it's a safe bet that the firm will buy from without what it doesn't already have (and can't easily develop) within.

"[Forrester] expects Oracle to continue to acquire companies in the areas where it still heavily relies on partners, such as data quality," Evelson writes. "Oracle's main BI challenge will continue to be a fine balancing act: supporting multiple redundant and overlapping products versus bringing the strategic products closer together and integrating the platform, UI, and other core features."

Like Cognos, SAS has focused on building up its BI platform. Unlike Cognos, SAS has a best-of-breed ace up its sleeve: its analytic power. At a time when most of its competitors seem to have recognized the importance of analytics, SAS nonetheless maintains a clear-cut edge.

"Even though several other vendors realize or are starting to realize the value of providing higher-end analytics tools like statistical analysis and predictive modeling, SAS is pretty hard to beat in this category, especially when it comes to embedding such analytical routines in powerful DBMS engines like Teradata," Evelson says. "SAS also continues to differentiate itself in many areas of functional subject-matter expertise, including but not limited to areas like marketing analytics and risk management."

If SAS needs to work on anything, he continues, it's in reducing its dependence on the SAS programming language, which is a requirement to use some advanced features. "[W]ith every new release, more and more features are becoming available in the SAS point-and-click GUI, such as its very popular Enterprise Guide product," he points out.

BI Thrives

Elsewhere, Forrester makes the case for compelling BI diversity, citing multi-use offerings from IBI, Microsoft, and SAP NetWeaver -- along with best-of-breed products from Actuate Corp., MicroStrategy Inc., and the former Spotfire (now TIBCO Spotfire) -- as just a sampling of a thriving BI ecosystem.

"[C]ontrary to some market consolidation trends, respectable and rich BI alternatives abound," Evelson writes. "[IBI} shines with continued innovation, comparable to much larger BI vendors, and the most comprehensive information access adapters [via its iWay assets], easily connecting a large number of very heterogeneous data sources including legacy mainframe databases."

Similarly, Evelson cites Microsoft's credible "enterprise-grade" push via BI (or BI-related) offerings such as SharePoint and its SQL Server stack. "[T]he gap in functionality between Microsoft BI and vendors with more years of BI experience continues to narrow, [and] it will be harder and harder for [data management] professionals not to shortlist Microsoft BI as one of the options on the table," he writes.

"The bottom line is that most enterprises -- whether they know it or not -- have SQL Server somewhere in their organization, and therefore already own a large portion of Microsoft BI tools, which includes one of the most widely used OLAP engines with a highly useful ROLAP/MOLAP real-time tuning feature." Microsoft's weaknesses include -- as expected -- its Windows-centric deployment and development strictures and its lack of a complete platform offering.

SAP makes another appearance, thanks to a near-ubiquitous NetWeaver BI stack that shines in SAP-only environments. "While its portfolio of BI products is still best for SAP environments, the Business Objects acquisition and the converged product road map will change that equation over the next 12 months," he writes.

Forrester and Evelson also singled out the strengths of the MicroStrategy BI platform, particularly in very-large data warehousing environments.

Unlike almost all of its competitors, Evelson notes, MicroStrategy hasn't followed an expansion by way of acquisition, so it can credibly claim to offer a "unified" platform. "What ['unified'] means [in this context] is something few other BI vendors can offer: You can define any object [e.g., a prompt, a filter, etc.] only once and reuse it in multiple reports and dashboards. When you need to change that object, you change it only in one place," he writes.

"Also, unlike many other BI vendors that rely mainly on the power of the underlying DBMS, MicroStrategy offers its own very powerful ROLAP engine, which can virtually optimize even poorly architected data models," he continues, adding that MicroStrategy also shines in high-end analytics. "While many other BI vendors partner with third-party providers for higher-end analytics such as statistical analysis and predictive modeling, MicroStrategy has such functionality built in and fully integrated," he notes.

Unfortunately, MicroStrategy's value proposition comes at a price. "It is not MicroStrategy's strategy to address BI components other than enterprise reporting and analytics, and the company will continue to rely heavily on partners to deliver complete end-to-end BI solutions. As a result, MicroStrategy buyers often need to assemble components from other vendors," Evelson concludes.

Must Read Articles