Q&A: The Benefits of On-demand BI

What on-demand BI can -- and cannot -- offer companies of any size.

On-demand BI, sometimes referred to in various iterations as software-as-a-service, hosted BI, or cloud computing, offers the power of business intelligence solutions delivered over the Internet instead of via a licensed and installed product. In tough economic times, the aspect of an on-demand solution that draws the most attention is cost – there’s far less up-front capital investment.

The benefits can reach well beyond cost, explains Brad Peters, founder and CEO of Birst. The company, which Peters (a Siebel alumnus) founded with a vision of making business intelligence solutions more affordable, faster, and easier to access to everyone, offers on-demand BI software. In this interview, Peters explains what on-demand BI can -- and can’t -- offer companies of any size.

TDWI: What precisely is on-demand BI?

Brad Peters: On-demand business intelligence is delivered over the Internet, so companies pay monthly for what they need. That means they don’t have to make heavy up-front investments in additional hardware, wait months for deployment, or tie up precious IT resources.

On-demand BI offers the ability to quickly and powerfully analyze critical business information so that companies can be more efficient and effective. Unlike traditional solutions, on-demand BI is quick to deploy, it’s affordable, and it’s easy to scale.

Many people are focusing on the subscription pricing aspect, which is certainly an important aspect. There’s also lots of interest in the fact that on-demand BI is “in the cloud,” which is also true. What really matters to customers is that on-demand BI represents a radical new value proposition in business intelligence. It makes the power of BI available to more companies and professionals than ever before, since it’s much more affordable and far easier to deploy.

Does on-demand get rid of the need for customization on the customer’s part, which is a continuing issue with BI?

Business intelligence is all about customization, since every customer has unique data and unique needs. Some on-demand vendors have tried to simplify their solutions by offering rigid, standardized reports. Our approach is to be an on-demand vendor that embraces the “guided discovery” model. One dashboard raises an issue that you want to pursue further, so you create a few reports on the fly, discover new things, and keep honing your analysis for more and better answers. It better matches how people truly approach business problems.

Are you seeing interest at the enterprise level or more with midmarket-size companies? For whom does on-demand BI make the most sense?

Birst has customers across the spectrum.

Enterprises typically understand BI very deeply already, since they’ve been able to afford traditional systems. In fact, they may well have a traditional system in place deployed years ago; however, it’s expensive, and it’s a complex proposition to extend the system to new departments or to integrate new issues. Those enterprises look to on-demand BI to quickly address under-served areas, or departments or projects that aren’t being served by the current BI tools at all. In those cases, on-demand can be very compatible with existing systems.

Midsize companies are often a different case. They may not have been able to afford BI before, for lack of budget or in-house expertise. Instead, they’ve been using spreadsheets or simple databases like Microsoft Access to get by, no matter how painful or time-consuming the process. On-demand BI gives these companies the chance to finally break free with a truly flexible and powerful BI solution.

The current economic climate has only emphasized to companies both large and small how important it is to make smart decisions quickly. On-demand BI offers a quick way to come up with answers to critical questions.

Do big issues such as data integration and data quality become easier with on-demand BI?

Not in and of itself. If your data is in a sorry state, on-demand can’t fix that, and having more data sources to integrate still increases the deployment time and complexity.

There’s still dramatic value with on-demand on this point, however -- on-demand solutions can make it far easier to integrate multiple sources than before. You don’t necessarily have to write code every time you want to integrate.

What does deployment look like with on-demand?

Deployment is almost always faster and easier, especially if you’re using a vendor that leverages automation. There is still some setup, of course, but it no longer has to be massively complex and headache-inducing. Many of our customers are up and running, even with complex and large implementations, in under 90 days.

What does Birst bring to the on-demand picture? Can you really automate the delivery of BI for each customer?

At Birst, we automate a number of BI processes that were complex, expensive, and time-consuming before. This doesn’t mean that you will get an instantaneous deployment. Nobody can promise that, especially when we’re dealing with something as complex as business intelligence. What we’ve done is to use automation to cut deployment requirements by over half in most cases, as well as make it easier to update, extend, and expand BI deployments.

In addition to the automation aspect, Birst provides a range of power and flexibility that’s competitive with some of the most established BI vendors. We’re one of the few on-demand solutions that allow you to analyze data from multiple sources, such as your CRM systems, ERP system, and financial system, all at once.

You can get very insightful analysis, such as seeing which marketing campaigns resulted in what sales pipeline and generated what amount of sales. All of that data comes from different places. Once you put it together, it’s amazing how much you can learn.