Information Builders: The unknown soldier of BI

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With WebFocus and iWay Software, Information Builders has the makings of a business intelligence powerhouse. However, a weak relationship with channel partners along with its being a private company has isolated Information Builders as a center of gravity for business intelligence.

META Trend: During 2004, enterprises will pursue business intelligence (BI) standards — enterprise reporting, ad hoc query/analysis, online analytical processing, and analytical dashboards — to increase consistency, promote reuse, and reduce costs. By 2005/06, standard BI tools will be linked to comprehensive BPM strategies enabling drill-through reporting and tighter management of business processes with key performance indicators. By 2007/08, organizations will incorporate BI platforms into comprehensive information delivery architectures, delivered through portals to a broader user constituency.

In many ways, Information Builders is well positioned to exploit current trends in BI, such as providing business intelligence to the masses and integrating analytics directly into the business process. Along with Actuate and Hyperion’s SQR, Information Builders is one of the few BI vendors with a long list of highly scalable enterprise reporting deployments. Moreover, its core business intelligence product, WebFocus, has unique strengths versus other BI tools (e.g., flexible programming environment) and its iWay Software subsidiary offers solid application integration functionality that can be leveraged to make Information Builders’ information delivery more effective (e.g., enabling the business process).

Yet Information Builders’ lack of a strong channel program and, to a lesser degree, its status as a private company have isolated it from much of the mainstream BI activity. For example, Information Builders lacks an OEM partnership such as SAP’s relationship with Crystal, and it does not have a cadre of system integrators actively promoting its products as Cognos, Business Objects, and Hyperion do. We expect Information Builders to bolster marketing efforts dramatically in 2004 to raise its profile outside of its established customer base and to foster channel relationships that create an indirect revenue stream. However, this will be challenging, as noted in previous research (see Delta 2660), since the BI space is crowded with established vendors, which dilutes the attention that analytic consulting service providers can devote to any one vendor. Moreover, Information Builders’ proprietary development environment does not make it easy for a consulting firm to acquire the necessary skill sets. Information Builders will most likely need to fund much of the investment to instill its skills within the channel partners it courts.

Information Builders’ core BI product, WebFocus 5.2, is primarily known as an enterprise report server, though it also offers ad hoc query capability as well as front-end OLAP capability. Information Builders does not offer a back-end OLAP cube, but its OLAP front end enables users to query third-party cubes (e.g., SAP InfoCube, Hyperion Essbase). In addition, Information Builders has a scalable multiplatform architecture that boasts numerous solutions that scale beyond 100,000 users. Although Information Builders does not have a well-developed business performance management solution or analytic scorecard, WebFocus does provide basic dashboard capabilities, which is sufficient to deliver key performance indicators (KPIs) to large user constituencies and enables these operational users (as opposed to power analysts) to perform basic drill-down or guided analysis.

Beyond enterprise scalability, Information Builders provides certain benefits to enhance the user experience (e.g., Excel integration). WebFocus enables users to render reports in Microsoft Excel, preserving the formulas and report formats. Some BI vendors (e.g., Actuate) offer similar functionality, but Information Builders is one of the few vendors (MicroStrategy being another) that can produce Excel pivot tables (actually mini-cubes) from an enterprise report server.

WebFocus touts two primary differentiators:

– Parameterized reporting

– Native access to 85 data sources

Although most enterprise reporting tools enable end users to filter reports based on certain values, WebFocus’s parameterized reporting enables end users to change the filter parameter. With other reporting tools, the filter variable is fixed (e.g., sales region), but with WebFocus, the user can actually change the filter variable from, for example, sales region to customer segment. Therefore, Information Builders can dramatically reduce the number of reports the IT organization (ITO) is required to produce and maintain — sometimes by a factor of 10-1. The advantage for users is that they can select different dimensions and measures from the same report. The advantage for ITOs is that they can reduce total cost of ownership by having fewer reports to manage.

WebFocus’s native access to 85 data sources is indeed a differentiator in very large organizations in which the data resides in a plethora of formats. Most BI vendors can provide native access to the most common data sources (e.g., SAP BW, Oracle, Hyperion), but they struggle to provide native access (without ODBC connectivity) to the more obscure data sources (e.g., VSAM). As a result, the common practice is to use ETL tools to migrate data from these sources to a central data warehouse. However, many IT organizations require production reporting directly from the operational sources.

WebFocus is able to query disparate data sources by joining tables between the data warehouse and the operational data sources. Other BI tools (e.g., Cognos ReportNet, Crystal Reports) can query multiple data sources, but lack the extensive list of native data-access adaptors and instead rely on standard middleware connectivity. Performance improvement is the major benefit of native data access, but without formal benchmarks (e.g., TPC), it is difficult for Information Builders to demonstrate this advantage.

WebFocus’s native data access adaptors are a direct benefit of Information Builders’ application integration subsidiary, iWay Software, which provides 250 adaptors to various application sources that go beyond data integration to include broader application integration techniques (e.g., message queuing). We believe this level of application integration, as well as Information Builders’ read/write capabilities, is the direction in which the market should move to improve the value proposition of business intelligence solutions. Yet we do not see iWay Software as the dominant enterprise application integration vendor, and Information Builders’ BI competitors will be able to partner with existing EAI vendors to embed this level of intelligence into the business process. We also believe that Information Builders will suffer from inertia on the part of ITOs that are slow to introduce read/write capabilities into a BI client.

Information Builders does offer a strong internal consulting arm that has built many successful reporting solutions. As a result, we find the Information Builders customer base to have a higher degree of customer satisfaction. However, IT organizations with no Information Builders installations to date will be reluctant to choose WebFocus as a BI standard. Our research indicates that incumbency is viewed as too important of a decision criterion. Most IT organizations are reluctant to adopt an outside BI standard when 80 per cent to 90 per cent of functional requirements can be met with existing tools. Therefore, we expect Information Builders to focus on an up-sell strategy to broaden WebFocus deployments to a wider user base. However, ITOs should consider WebFocus for specific BI projects. In particular, they should consider WebFocus to deploy interactive reports to a very large user audience and provide BI capabilities directly to an operational business process. No other BI vendor offers Information Builders’ read/write capabilities or comparable ability to query operational data sources.

Bottom Line: Non-Information Builders users should still consider WebFocus as they seek to deliver customer-facing BI applications to a large number of users, as should ITOs that are considering development of query capabilities directly to the operational data sources.

Business Impact: WebFocus offers unique capabilities to provide BI solutions within customer-facing applications, which can dramatically improve the ROI of existing data warehouse investments.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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