Getting smart with business intelligence

The rationale behind business intelligence software seems simple enough – to assist enterprises in predicting the future impact of their current decisions.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that business intelligence (BI) spending has been robust, particularly given the state of IT budgets in recent years. Today BI spending is seen as a must for end-user “line-of-business” organizations seeking information on financial and business results required to manage their business units.

Statistics back this up: according to Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Meta Group Inc., the BI market experienced modest growth – five per cent to 10 per cent – in both 2002 and 2003. The rise of BI mirrors an increasing, enterprise need for better decision-making frameworks, including analytics and data warehousing. Typical BI installations centre on customer profiling, market and customer contact analysis, inventory movement and market segmentation.

And based on Meta’s findings from its latest business performance management METAspectrum market evaluation, the traditionally mature BI market is heating up. It appears vendors are taking the hint and broadening their product suites. According to Meta, by 2007 the BI market will likely consolidate around two to four large vendors with comprehensive product suites, leaving a series of smaller specialists that have niche offerings.

In Canada, there’s a noticeable difference in BI focus between mid-market and large organizations. As Warren Shiau, a Toronto-based software analyst for IDC Canada Ltd. noted, while large enterprise BI is a primary focus area for software investment, this isn’t the case for smaller firms.

“Canadian buying is centering on the quick and dirty BI implementations, like putting in a query and report system, or extending basic query and report to more users. That’s something end-users see and can place instant value on,” Shiau said.

Regardless, jockeying for position among vendors has begun. The market leaders (which Meta Group identifies as SAS, SAP, Business Objects, and Cognos Inc.) are all focusing on ramping up the OLAP (online analytical processing), data integration and desktop application integration aspects of their BI offerings. Relative upstarts such as Hyperion Solutions Corp. and Actuate Corp. are also gaining ground, according to Meta.

Donald MacTavish, director of market intelligence for Mississauga, Ont.-based Hyperion Solutions in Canada, said it is targeting those organizations set on standardizing and deploying BI solutions beyond finance and across the enterprise. The company recently unveiled new versions of its BI products touting interface usability, integration with third-party infrastructure and applications software and tools.

According to Karen Williams, vice-president of product marketing at Ottawa-based Cognos Inc., organizations are realizing the use of data as a competitive advantage.

“The use of information is key to…getting a handle on that information and driving it down to all the their users so everyone has the information they need to make decisions.” Cognos late last year launched its ReportNet applications which includes both business reporting capabilities (ad hoc, production reporting, inventory and sales trends) with batch-oriented, high-volume reports on a single architecture.

Business Objects recently updated its data integration platform, which offers support for grid computing, embedded data-cleansing functionality in partnership with Firstlogic, and the first integration with BI tools from Crystal Decisions since acquiring the company in 2003.

According to Business Objects, the link with Crystal Decisions enables users to build a data warehouse or data mart from historical data stored in Crystal reports.

Bill Gibson, senior vice-president of alliances and OEM integration at Business Objects in Vancouver (formerly Crystal’s headquarters, now acting Business Objects largest research facility), said the integration of the two products – the company recently shipped version 10 of Crystal Reports – is proceeding as planned.

“We have (a) technical roadmap, which clearly highlights a migration path,” he said. “Customers have been pretty loyal.” Meanwhile, SAS Institute last month took the wraps off its SAS 9 business intelligence platform. The offering includes data integration, enhanced analytics, and refined user interfaces. SAS 9 data integration supports data quality and a common metadata repository to ensure the reliability of information across IT systems, whereas the ETL (extraction, transformation, and loading) server is designed to cleanse and integrate data.

Analysts note that organizations are increasingly turning to enhanced analytics, particularly as they scramble to bring together intelligence from vast streams of data, such as Web site click streams and point-of-sale (PoS) information.

“Business intelligence as a market segment is clearly coming of age now,” said Bill Gibson, senior vice-president of alliances and OEM integration at Business Objects in Vancouver (formerly Crystal’s headquarters, now Business Objects largest research facility). Industry observers note that Microsoft Corp.’s foray into the business intelligence sector with its free (for certain licensees) SQL Server add-on tool, Reporting Services, is behind the recent merger/acquisition activity in the BI space, which saw Crystal and Brio disappear as independent entities. But for Business Objects at least, Microsoft is less a competitive threat than a committed partner, Gibson said.

“We’re the only BI company…where Microsoft actually ships our (Crystal Reports) product in the code,” he said. “We have had to learn how to be a flexible OEM partner.”

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