IBM Cognos Unveils Revamped TM1 OLAP Stack

TM1 isn't going anywhere, IBM Cognos maintains -- even if Big Blue hasn't yet ruled out changing its brand.

It's been a long and unusual road for the venerable TM1 OLAP engine, which has twice changed ownership over the last 10 months.

First, in October of 2007, TM1's developer -- the former Applix Inc. -- was acquired by Cognos Inc. Less than two months later, Cognos was itself acquired by IBM Corp. Since then -- and despite promises by both do right by Applix customers and leverage TM1 as the centerpiece of its Cognos Financial Performance Management (FPM) platform -- things went dark on the TM1 front.

Until this week, that is. Today, IBM Cognos announced a new version 9.4 update for TM1, touting the expected performance and usability enhancements, along with new internationalization improvements that, officials argue, stem from Big Blue's stewardship of the Cognos and Applix brands.

TM1 isn't going anywhere, officials say -- although IBM hasn't yet ruled out changing its brand. Moreover, even though IBM Cognos is hard at work incorporating TM1 into its BI and PM products -- a process that involves both integration and reconciliation -- "legacy" Applix customers will still be able to buy the bread-and-butter TM1 OLAP engine, via TM1 MidMarket Edition, which IBM Cognos plans to market to SME types.

"We're offering a dedicated mid-market offering," says Applix veteran Joe Pusztai, now product marketing manager for TM1 with IBM Cognos. "We are very much committed to preserving the ability to use TM1 in a standalone, all-in-one capacity. We're not ever going to make customers buy software that they don't need."

Pusztai hints that the TM1 brand itself might go away: "The TM1 identity might not actually carry forward. We still haven't decided about that, but the actual technology itself … that [is something] we will continue to carry forward" on a standalone basis," he asserts.

TM1 version 9.1 was a relatively mature product when Cognos picked it up last year. Nonetheless, Pusztai says, there's always room for improvement. Enter TM1 9.4, which boasts several improvements, starting with a feature (Active Forms) that smacks of the Dynamic Slices capability which Applix delivered in TM1 9.1.

There's a reason for that, he acknowledges. "That [Dynamic Slices] capability has been enhanced significantly in the 9.4 release under a feature called Active Forms." Pusztai describes Active Forms as "effectively a version 2.0" update for Dynamic Slices, improving upon its predecessor in several respects -- e.g., enabling access via TM1 Web client sessions (Dynamic Slices is Excel-only), supporting formula-based row definitions (Dynamic Slices supports subset-only definitions), using Excel's native formatting metaphors to deliver "much-improved report formatting, and delivering support for server-side zero suppression capabilities.

This last is a big improvement over Dynamic Slices, which first pushed data down to the client before filtering it. This led to considerable bloat, Pusztai maintains. "We would send all of the data down the wire and then the client would filter it, as opposed to what we're doing now, [which is] suppressing it at the server, so that that data never goes down the wire," he explains.

Elsewhere in TM1 9.4, IBM Cognos focused on reconciling the sometimes different experiences of thick and thin client users.

"One of the design goals for the Active Forms feature was that we were getting feature drift between the [TM1] thick and thin clients. There was stuff you could only get in the Web client," Pusztai says. "As of [TM1] 9.4, we've equalized everything. We were able to create a common user experience across both [clients]."

Cognos' purchase of Applix and TM1 raised a few eyebrows. After all, didn't it already offer competitive OLAP technology in the form of Cognos PowerCubes, which are consumed by its market-leading PowerPlay OLAP front-end?

In reality, there wasn't all that much overlap between PowerCubes and TM1. The latter is a high-performance, in-memory OLAP engine that -- much like Oracle/Hyperion's not-in-memory Essbase OLAP engine -- is popular in finance departments. TM1 doesn't have quite the cachet of Essbase. On 32-bit Windows systems, moreover, it used to be bottlenecked by a limited address space (it could address a comparatively tiny 3 GB, with 1 GB reserved for the Windows OS itself). Thanks to the availability of commodity 64-bit hardware from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) -- as well as commodity x64 Windows operating system software -- that constraint has been effectively eliminated. These days, TM1's large in-memory address space and high performance should give it OLAP performance bragging rights, Pusztai contends.

There's also new cross-stack Unicode support -- thanks in no small part to prodding from IBM. "Unicode has a couple of customer-related benefits. For starters, it lets us do all of the Japanese and simplified Chinese, which are going to be localizations that are in the box. That's one of the impacts of IBM -- a much higher focus on globalization and a broader array of tier-one localization support."

Pusztai notes that that giving TM1 a Unicode retrofit should also benefit existing customers, in addition to IBM Cognos users. "We've used Unicode conversion to break some of the internal limits of TM1. It always had a unique capability to store string data as well as numerical data within a cube, but it was limited to 256-byte characters -- an 8-bit feature that was introduced in the product in the 80's," he says. "Thanks to Unicode, that [limitation] is gone."

Right now, IBM plans to continue to support both TM1 for HP-UX and TM1 for Solaris, although Big Blue also expects to deliver an AIX version. That could "force us to reassess our Unix support strategy," Pusztai concedes. Linux support, although not yet promised, is currently under consideration, he indicates. "That [Linux] is an area of strong commitment from IBM."

Joe Furmanek, director of finance with Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc., likes what he sees in the new TM1 9.4 feature palette. Active Forms, in particular, should help Checkers reduce much of its administrative overhead.

"It's going to give us some fairly substantial administrative benefits," Furmanek says. "We do use the Excel templates for output to our field managers, and [Active Forms is] going to help us save a lot of time in just purely administrative tasks, [such as] formatting, font changes, things like that, for different sizes of hierarchies."

Checkers is an intriguing TM1 case study: it licensed that product within days of Cognos announcing its plan to acquire Applix. According to Furmanek, Checkers gave "strong consideration" to TM1 on the basis of the Cognos acquisition.

"It fit very well for being a very cost-effective solution. Knowing that Cognos was going to be there, it gave me a little more comfort for down the road," he says.

This underscores a popular IBM/Cognos talking point: namely, that the hyper-fast TM1 engine -- which if anything was held back by its former parent company's lack of prominence -- will be an easier sell with an IBM Cognos brand. "Applix customers always felt that they weren't getting the respect that they deserved -- that they fought tooth and nail to get TM1 installed, often over the objections of IT, which wanted to go with something better known," Pusztai concludes. "So we think that Cognos brand of approval will be very well received."