TDWI Report: Getting the Greatest BI Bang for Your Buck

You don't have to have a Global 2000 budget to reap the benefit of BI.

Amid economists talking about the possibility of a second economic downturn, the timing seems perfect for considering the results of a new study from TDWI: BI on a Limited Budget: Strategies for Doing More with Less.

According to TDWI, BI adopters use a handful of popular strategies to squeeze more out of their existing BI investments.

Most respondents (66 percent) cite self-service BI as a "High" or "Very High" value strategy, followed by "cultivate a network of super users in each department" and "create small, cross-functional BI teams" (both of which were cited by 65 percent of respondents).

"BI self-service offloads reporting from IT and empowers users to get the data they need when they need it without delay," says Wayne Eckerson, director of education and research with TDWI. Eckerson notes, however, that there's a downside to self-service BI: report chaos, which occurs when BI teams implement self-service BI without governance or controls. "In some cases, BI teams have implemented self-serving BI instead of self-service BI."

Other popular strategies include the implementation of a BI Competency Center, the cultivation of a network of "super users," and the use of small inter-disciplinary teams. Elsewhere, respondents favored both obvious strategies -- e.g., the reduction or elimination of spreadmarts (which was cited by 62 percent of respondents); using existing tools instead of purchasing new ones (cited by 63 percent) – as well as cutting-edge approaches, such as the application of agile or spiral development techniques (cited by 62 percent).

That old mainstay of every cost-cutting BI program -- BI tools consolidation -- also made the list, cited by three-fifths of respondents.

Eckerson and TDWI broke down responses in terms of combined "High" and "Very High" value totals. Other notable responses -- such as data mart consolidation (rated as "Very High" by 46 percent of respondents) or the use of open source BI (a "Very High" value strategy according to 38 percent of survey participants) -- also impressed Eckerson.

"If we examine 'very high' ratings alone, we see a few strategies bubble to the top. These are strategies that respondents feel offer the biggest bang for the buck," he explains, noting that at least one of the five most valuable value strategies -- namely, "implement open source" -- failed to crack the combined 50 percent mark among respondents.

Although 38 percent of survey-takers rated open source BI as a "Very High" value strategy, just 10 percent pegged it as a "high" value, for a combined tally of 48 percent. Another popular "very high" value practice -- "minimize project scope" -- barely broke the 50 percent threshold, with 37 percent of respondents rating its value as "very high" and 17 percent rating it "high."

"This suggests that [these] strategies proved very valuable for a small number of organizations, but were not widely implemented," Eckerson writes. "For instance, this appears to be the case with 'deploy BI solution in the cloud,' where more than three times as many respondents [i.e., 24 percent] rated it as 'very high' compared to 'high' [cited by 7 percent]."

Respondents seemed to split on the No. 2 finisher in TDWI's tally -- the implementation of a BI Competency Center -- which (like self-service BI) garnered two-thirds of the combined vote. Nearly four in ten (39 percent) survey participants rated it as a "High" value initiative; just over a quarter (27 percent) rated it "Very High."

Conversely, 42 percent of respondents rated self-service BI as a "Very High" value initiative, with nearly a quarter (24 percent) giving it a "High" score.

BI on a Shoestring: the SMB Way

BI isn't just the province of the Global 2000, of course. For example, notes Eckerson, more than one-quarter of respondents are employed by firms that generate less than $100 million in annual revenues.

Nevertheless, Eckerson notes, all of these companies have implemented (and are reaping the benefits of) BI solutions.

Small- and medium-sized businesses (SMB) used to be perceived as laggards with respect to technology adoption -- particularly when it came to BI. In addition, SMB shops are usually in the position of having to do more with less. These days, they're having to do more -- much more -- often with (much) less. For this reason, their BI implementations tend to be more from-the-hip than formal or disciplined. "At a small company, there often isn't a formal BI program," Eckerson observes, noting that just over one-fifth (22 percent) of survey respondents say that their companies haven't implemented formal BI programs.

What's more, he points out, nearly a quarter of survey respondents said that they spend less than $50,000 annually on BI maintenance, while another one-third spend less than $100,000. Just over one-quarter (26 percent) report having fewer than two full-time BI staff members.

BI heavyweights have been targeting SMB customers for some time, however. Eckerson cites the availability of SMB-oriented BI packages from MicroStrategy Inc. and SAP AG (both firms also co-sponsored the report); but a host of other vendors -- including Birst Inc. (a software-as-a-service BI vendor), IBM Corp., Information Builders Inc., JasperSoft Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Oracle Corp. -- market SMB-oriented BI offerings as well. For example, MicroStrategy offers a free, CPU-limited version of its flagship suite -- MicroStrategy Reporting Suite -- that isn't time-limited and includes both developer and professional licenses, along with free e-mail support.

In addition to packages for SMB BI, small- and mid-sized customers have other options, too. "Fortunately, small and midsize companies … have many options for delivering BI without breaking the bank. Vendors offer a panoply of low-cost options, from open source tools … and cloud-based BI services to low-cost, departmental BI suites and data warehousing appliances," Eckerson points out.

Indeed, several data warehouse appliance vendors (such as Kickfire Inc. and Teradata Corp., which markets a DW appliance that costs $15,000-per-TB) along with non-specialty vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle (all of which offer pre-sized DW configurations) claim to address SMB pricing. Still others (such as Aster Data Systems Inc., Dataupia Inc., Greenplum Software Inc., Infobright, Kognitio, Netezza, ParAccel Inc., and Vertica Inc.) offer SaaS or cloud-based DW packages.

One upshot, as Eckerson himself puts it: "Despite the tough conditions of a recession, most companies can now afford to deliver BI solutions."

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