Workgroup BI Poised for a Comeback

With the advent of several explicit end-user-oriented offerings -- including Microsoft's Project Gemini -- workgroup BI is poised for a comeback.

Remember those rogue business intelligence (BI) and data warehousing (DW) deployments that first came to the fore in the 1990s? They're coming back. Workgroup BI didn't die, of course -- it was just dormant.

With the advent of several explicit end-user-oriented offerings -- including the much-anticipated Project Gemini from Microsoft Corp. -- workgroup BI is poised for a big comeback.

Researcher Gartner Inc., for example, recently talked up its return, citing the efforts of upstart vendors such as QlikTech, Pentaho, and others to fill the void created by the withdrawal of established BI powers, which -- over the last half-decade -- have shifted to "focus most of their resources on delivering enterprisewide BI solutions," according to Gartner.

One upshot of this, wrote Gartner analysts James Richardson, Kurt Schlegel, Rita Sallam, and Bill Hostman in Gartner's January BI Magic Quadrant report, is that a number of vendors -- QlikTech, Lyza Inc., and (once Project Gemini ships next year) Microsoft among them -- deliver "solutions for personal and workgroup BI requirements using disruptive technology" such as in-memory analytics. If anything, the Gartner quartet speculates, workgroup BI could prove to be an even more attractive play over the coming year, particularly -- if, as seems likely -- the economic outlook doesn't improve.

"It seems likely that despite the inherent risk of silo-perpetuation, workgroup BI's light-touch nature will prove attractive in a recession," Richardson, Schlegel, Sallam, and Hostman write.

Not surprisingly, advocates of workgroup- or end-user-oriented BI offerings agree. Far from being rogue or anomalous product entries, they contend, their offerings address the otherwise unaddressed requirements of real-world users.

On its surface, workgroup BI may look like an inelegant solution -- a Band-Aid, even -- to a very messy problem. In contrast to the centrally-managed and centrally-deployed enterprise BI suite, workgroup BI touts a seemingly anarchic topology: it brings data processing -- and in many cases, the data itself -- back to the end-user desktop.

Workgroup BI offerings -- chiefly those marketed by Lyza (developer of LyzaSoft), QlikTech (developer of QlikView), and Microsoft (which is still developing Project Gemini) -- usually include spreadsheet and basic visualization capabilities. They promise to make it easier for users to get at the data they want, run the analyses they want, and -- this is key -- perform seemingly unlimited what-if analysis. (Workgroup BI offerings tend to be sold with a caveat: namely, that IT must first perform the requisite background data integration. So they're not a completely out-of-band proposition.)

Advocates say that workgroup BI "empowers" users to do -- to fish, so to speak -- for themselves; critics contend that it will lead to Information Babel -- with multiple versions of the truth; they claim it's rife with security concerns, and that it poses a host of manageability problems.

Both sides are probably right: few dispute that the classic workgroup BI tool -- a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet -- has also given rise to that most regrettable of practices -- spreadmarting.

However, the workgroup BI offerings touted by QlikTech, Lyza, and (in the upcoming Project Gemini) Microsoft aren't classic spreadsheet tools, proponents maintain. They're of the same class that Robert Kugel, an analyst with BI and performance management (PM) consultancy Ventana Research, aptly describes as "better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheets." That is, they are tools that marry data centralization and data reconciliation features, governance, and -- yes -- manageability with a spreadsheet's famous user-self-serviceability.

The new crop of workgroup BI offerings, unlike the better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheets of old, do away with still another of IT's most strenuous objections: call it resource competition. One reason that IT folks try to limit both access to data sources and the kinds of queries that users can run is that they're concerned about the potential for havoc. A single "bad" query can bring down a database, after all. Enter workgroup BI, which takes the database out of the loop by bringing both the data and the data processing back to the end-user desktop. In the workgroup BI model, proponents maintain, users can run any kind of query -- no matter how involved (or how inelegantly structured, for that matter) -- against their local data store. In both Lyza's and Microsoft's cases, that local repository is an in-memory column-based store, which makes it ideal (Lyza and Microsoft officials claim) for analytic number crunching. QlikTech, likewise, does all of its processing in-memory, which representatives say also accelerates analytic performance.

It's a pitch to which business users are particularly receptive, proponents maintain. "We've done all of this work with BI across the whole industry. We've built all of these technologies. We know they're effective, we know they're reliable -- yet we're still only getting 20 percent penetration across businesses," says Donald Farmer, principal program manager for SQL Server Analysis Services with Microsoft.

The shift to enterprise BI -- or (in Farmer's parlance) to an "enterprise hierarchy" -- hasn't helped, he contends. "This whole move to the enterprise hierarchy … [is] driven primarily by IT, not by the business. IT can become inadvertently a bottleneck that constrains [a business's] resources. Business users don't get necessarily what they want."

On the other hand, Farmer points out, many business users enjoy working in Excel. They like it precisely because it lets them slice, dice, and manipulate data -- to "actually change numbers," as he puts it -- in situations where they're frequently constrained by the limitations of their BI tool or, just as likely, by a lack of responsiveness on the part of in-house IT.

"The number-one feature of every BI tool? It's always Excel integration. Why is that? Because Excel gives you the power, it gives you the flexibility. So how do you get that power, that flexibility, and yet at the same time get that responsibility, get that compliance?" Farmer's question is rhetorical: as far as he's concerned, Project Gemini will do just that.

Other players stake out similar ground. Take Scott Davis, CEO of BI start-up Lyza. In its Lyzasoft product, Lyza currently delivers what Microsoft has at this point promised to deliver -- next year -- with Project Gemini: an end-user-oriented analytic workbench, complete with a desktop-based columnar data store.

Davis, for his part, claims that Lyzasoft and Redmond each separately cooked up their respective schemes. He spins it as a case of parallel evolution that -- especially when considered alongside rival Qliktech's similar strategy -- demonstrates a pressing market need. "If Microsoft hadn't … been screaming exactly the same message that we're screaming, we'd probably find it rougher sledding. The fact that their research lines up almost exactly with our own research conclusions, the fact that … what they're delivering is parallel to what we're delivering, that's a validation of what we're doing," he contends.

Davis says Lyzasoft's vision goes further than Microsoft's; he talks up what he describes as an "enterprise-grade social computing infrastructure" -- delivered via Lyza -- which his company plans to deliver (on an iterative basis) in forthcoming releases. Borrowing from what works in social networking to make BI tools more usable might sound like heresy, Davis concedes, but it's of a piece, he contends, with what's driving Workgroup BI.

"There's a fundamental distinction between tools [that are] built for engineers and tools that are built for non-engineers. The former [class of tool] rightly assume[s] that engineers will not start work until they know what they're going to do. But non-engineers don't work that way, and that's the fundamental problem with most of the [existing BI tools] out there," he claims. "Engineers want to do things the ideal way. Users just want to do things."

Workgroup BI has its detractors, of course. Among other concerns, they raise valid objections about its scope: as a Band-Aid-like approach, one critic contends, Workgroup BI emphasizes short-term gains at the expense of a much bigger long-term return on investment.

There's also a belief that the Workgroup BI model amounts to a repudiation -- in practice, if not in principal -- of much of what BI and data management professionals have struggled to achieve over the last 15 years. "Sure you can take some data and put together something in a couple of days. As a former consultant for a large global firm, we would do this all the time with many BI tools to demonstrate capability. The reality is that without a data warehouse behind it, [a Workgroup BI tool] quickly becomes another disconnected, stove-piped application," says a BI Architect and QlikView user who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In the cases of both QlikTech and Lyza, data integration (DI) -- which this architect says is always the most time-consuming aspect of any enterprise BI effort -- is primitive, at best, taking the form of generic ODBC or JDBC connectivity, along with hand coding. (Project Gemini, on the other hand, boasts canned DI, thanks to Microsoft's SQL Server-based BI stack. Microsoft still hasn't articulated a coherent metadata strategy that spans both its SQL Server and Office BI toolset.)

For the record, this BI architect thinks QlikView a fine dashboarding tool. He bristles, however, at the notion that a Workgroup BI tool should -- or could -- supplant a well-managed BI and DW infrastructure. "While this might be good for a department or very small company, it is disastrous for a medium-size to large one. It becomes one more stove-piped application to support, like a spreadsheet on steroids. In the case where you already have a data warehouse, then [a workgroup BI tool] becomes just another front end. From this perspective, there is no real time saver versus any other front end."

Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI research, shares the architect’s sentiments but says workgroup-oriented offerings tend to exploit user pain points,offering best-of-breed functionality with low-cost. “Departmental purchasing ... is alive and well,” said Eckerson, in an interview earlier this year. “Best of breed tends to dominate, since vendors who play here are specialized, new, hungry, or all three. [It provides] good value for the price with advanced technology [that's] free from the architectural burdens of the bigger players.”

On the other hand, Eckerson continues, all-in-one BI -- with the purported cost efficiencies of standardization -- is still attractive to many customers. "[E]ven before the downturn, large companies were looking to cut costs by reducing the number of suppliers, systems, and disparate applications to support and to conform with compliance mandates regarding data and financial reporting," he said. "The leaders make it easy to deliver all BI from a single vendor. What could be more standard than that? Plus, these guys tout end-to-end integration of operations and analytics and everything in between."

Nevertheless, Eckerson continues, there will always be a place for best of breed products. This is precisely the need that most so-called workgroup BI offerings are tapping into. The mistake, if any, is to view workgroup BI-oriented offerings as in toto replacements for a well-managed BI and DW infrastructure.

"Most organizations recognize that you need to provide the right tool for the job and that standardizing on a single vendor for everything may saddle you with less-than-optimal toolsets," he concludes. "So many companies standardize on different toolsets for different tasks."

For further reading:

QlikView's Rapid Time-to-Implementation Improves BI Value

Lyza Empowers New Class of BI Consumers

Microsoft Convenes Second Annual BI Conference

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