BI gets smarter with enterprise search


If finding the information you need across BI systems and departmental silos to make business decisions is like looking for a needle in a haystack, then enterprise search is the new metal detector.

Finding that needle may once have been the sole domain of statistics gurus and data architects, but today more users are looking toward enterprise search for finding information, pushing traditional BI vendors to act and new players to enter the field.

Rising user expectations

According to a survey of Canadian businesses by research firm IDC Canada, 10 per cent of employee time is spent searching for information. If that number can be reduced, Canadian businesses could realize significant gains in employee productivity. One tool that can help, says IDC, is enterprise search.

“This is the evolution of the BI industry,” says Joel Martin, vice-president of enterprise software with IDC Canada. “Enterprise search will become a critical technology platform to access data and information across the organization to drive improved customer service, increased revenue and employee productivity.”

While the case for search is strong in an organization of any size, Martin says smaller companies in particular are fueling the push for more robust enterprise search capabilities. That’s because the business analysis and sophisticated BI tools that large companies have relied on aren’t a viable option for smaller firms.

“They’re looking to leverage BI to empower line of business managers and people on the front lines to take that data and turn it into action-based knowledge,” says Martin. “That’s where search comes in.”

Another key factor driving enterprise search, says Martin, is user expectations. Thanks to the growth of Internet search engines and desktop search, when an average user is looking for information today they turn to search tools. And they’re beginning to expect the same capabilities from their enterprise applications.

“BI tools are moving downstream and search is moving upstream,” says Martin.

The view is echoed by Zia Zaman, senior vice-president of strategic marketing with Fast Search and Transfer, a Norwegian developer of enterprise search software. Zaman says the expectations of knowledge workers are going up, and traditional application vendors have to pay more attention to usability.

“I think people are just waking up to the idea that users out there have been taught over the past few years that it should be easy to get access to the information they need via the Web search world,” says Zaman. “Search is the means by which people will get access to the information they need, independent of where it sits.”

The BI industry has been around for some time, and Martin says companies like Cognos, Business Objects and SAS have made a lot of money helping companies harness the information contained within their walls by providing a layered view into those applications. When BI as we know it was conceived, the search that we know now wasn’t on the radar.

“It wasn’t even in the equation (that) you could have a search engine that could crawl over a vast amount of structured and unstructured data, and send stuff back that’s relevant,” Martin says.

“Search technology has come so far in the past five years that people now default to search to find the information they need to make business decisions,” he adds.

Searching for the right model

With the world of enterprise search still evolving, the verdict is still out on the form enterprise search will take and its importance in the larger BI world. But that hasn’t stopped vendors from bringing solutions to market. Web search giant Google is branching out to the enterprise space with Google OneBox for Enterprise, an appliance solution that indexes and searches structured and unstructured data contained in databases and data warehouses, in addition to text. A range of BI vendors, including Cognos, Information Builders and SAS Institute, have created links between their platforms and OneBox.

IBM and Yahoo have also teamed up on a free enterprise search application called IBM OmniFind Yahoo Edition. Information Builders has launched WebFocus Magnify. Hyperion Solutions has launched Hyperion System 9 Smart Search, and Business Objects is also working on a search tool.

“The introduction of the Google OneBox API was a watershed event,” says Gartner analyst Whit Andrews. “We have seen the BI vendors approach search with real eagerness, and it is a rare BI vendor today who can’t tell you about an integration [of its BI software] to an enterprise search product.”

Keith Collins, senior vice-president and chief technology officer with Cary, N.C.-based SAS, says users see how easy search appears to be and vendors don’t want to be left behind. However, there are still challenges to overcome around the marrying of search and traditional BI query and reporting, he adds.

“There’s a lot of energy being spent trying to make sure we understand the space, its impact on traditional BI, and how to make it valuable to the customer,” says Collins. “We’re not so convinced that search in its current form will be its future.”

Currently, search provides a very “brute-force” approach to getting information, says Collins. While it’s fast, it’s built primarily around static information, not the evolving dynamic information that is the bread and butter of BI. In a BI context, there’s not much value in the brute-force indexing of static information, says Collins.

Manya Mayes, chief text mining strategist with SAS, says she sees search combining with data mining for a deeper understanding of what’s in a document. Text mining allows users to also integrate unrelated structured data, so companies can be forward-looking with things like predicting the likelihood of churn.

“We see the search vendors moving in this direction, trying to refine their search and make it more usable,” says Mayes. “Customers are looking for integrated applications that not only help them understand what’s in those documents, but also search those documents for specific things.”

While traditional BI vendors are moving to integrate enterprise search into their platforms, third-party vendors like Fast are also playing in the space. Fast offers a software solution that layers on top of the enterprise application architecture allowing the search of all data repositories within a company, rather than just within a single BI or CRM tool. That’s an advantage Fast has that Zaman says BI vendors don’t.

“If you do put search into an application like Documentum or Cognos, all you’re really doing is allowing search within that application silo,” he says.

Zaman adds enterprise search is a way for firms to improve the return on investment they’re getting from their legacy BI implementations, by revitalizing the information contained within them.

Information tends to hide within an organization, and he says if you broaden the number of people that look at the problem the more likely it is that someone will have access to that critical piece of information. The right information is usually out there; it’s a matter of finding it, and the average user is only going to spend so much time looking.

“The real challenge of knowledge workers in the future will be how you get access to all the different resources of the company,” says Zaman. “Often people don’t know what they don’t know.”

Searching the future

The technology is continuing to evolve, making search an increasingly relevant information access medium in an enterprise BI context. Zaman say

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