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What is Business Intelligence?


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Business Intelligence (BI) systems are used to improve an enterprise's decision making by combining tools for gathering, storing, accessing, and analyzing business data. While traditional features for querying, reporting, and analytics have long been the core focus of these tools, BI has evolved in recent years to become comprehensive, enterprise-wide platforms, and newer trends, such as self-service BI, have helped to continue interest in this technology.

BI is a combination of the tools and systems involved in an enterprise's strategic planning that aid in its analysis. 

These solutions provide a single source through which to analyze a company's disparate data sources, permitting users to execute queries without the assistance of technical staff. Over the past several years, they have evolved from narrowly focused query and reporting tools to enterprise-wide platforms. The resulting single source offers not only current, but also historical and predictive views of operations.

Sometimes referred to as decision-support software, BI applications analyze patterns in sales, trends, pricing, and customer behavior to assist in the business decision-making process. The expanded use of data warehouses, e-commerce tools, CRM packages, and other enterprise software has created a proportional need to easily view and use the information stored within these systems.

The continued evolution of this software genre encompasses new trends, including self-service techniques, and ongoing acquisitions that represent a major market consolidation. The major players in the sector range from a dwindling supply of pure-play vendors to enterprise software suppliers that include IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP.

 Market Dynamics

While applicable to organizations of any size, business intelligence solutions are most relevant to industries with large numbers of customers, high levels of competition (with the resultant need for differentiation), and large volumes of data. Common business intelligence functions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Analyzing sales trends.
  • Tracking customer buying habits.
  • Managing finances.
  • Evaluating sales and marketing campaign effectiveness.
  • Predicting market demand.
  • Analyzing vendor relationships.
  • Assessing staffing needs and performance.

Non-traditional market segments are also driving the need for enterprise-wide, cross-application business intelligence solutions. The healthcare industry in particular is a key area of focus for software developers. Rather than tracking customer buying habits and other factors that are part of business intelligence for the corporate world, products used within the healthcare sector analyze data on drug studies, enable data on patients to be exchanged in accord with HIPAA privacy regulations, and let patients schedule procedures through self-service modules built into the software. Functions that are not industry-specific, such as managing finances, are performed as well.

Within government agencies, business intelligence software tracks tax revenues and monitors the delivery of public services. For instance, Information Builders reports that NASA's Shuttle Business Office uses the company's solutions to oversee its relationships with the third-party contractors it employs.

Prospective users of business intelligence solutions today show a preference for suites that address all business intelligence functions across an organization. Solution providers have responded to this trend by further developing their own software and by executing mergers with one-time rivals.

The significant efforts that leading software companies are making to expand their business intelligence lines, both organically through in-house development and "artificially" through acquisitions, suggests that they see strong demand for the technology. The outcome of these changes is taking shape as a market dominated by companies with complete business intelligence suites. Developers that specialize in a narrow sub-category, such as reporting tools, will likely find themselves squeezed out of many sales opportunities or will be acquired by larger players that are looking to broaden their own suites.

Growth of the business intelligence market has slowed somewhat from previous years, but it continues nonetheless. Estimates of its size vary widely, with some sources placing the size of the BI market at about $10 billion. Analyst firm Gartner forecasts that the market will grow, in spite of the current economic conditions; however, the growth is expected to be only in single digits, with a compound annual growth rate through 2013 of 6.3 percent.

 Market Leaders

As with other aspects of the technology industry, the business intelligence market has long been segmented into two major parts: standalone solutions and products that are part of larger, enterprise suites. However, that is changing as enterprise vendors acquire the standalone ones. In the past couple of years, SAP acquired Business Objects, IBM acquired Cognos, and Oracle acquired Hyperion.

IBM Cognos

Cognos, around since the 1970s, entered the BI market in the 1990s. In late 2005, Cognos re-architected its BI product and released Cognos 8 BI. The product includes reporting, analysis, scorecarding, dashboards, business event management, data integration, and a strong searching feature. Cognos acquired Applix, a well known vendor of performance analytics, in October 2007.

Cognos itself then was acquired by IBM in early 2008, allowing IBM its entry into the BI market. IBM stated that the acquisition took place in order to "accelerate its ‘Information on Demand' strategy." Now known as IBM Cognos 8, the product line has seen additions and updates to it since its acquisition. For example, Cognos was updated to include a self-serve flash-based dashboard and new mobile and search capabilities, as well as compatibility with devices including BlackBerry, Symbian, and Windows Mobile. Cognos Express, introduced in September 2009, provides integrated BI and planning for midsize companies; Cognos TM1 provides complete planning, analysis, and reporting with advanced personalization and real-time response; Cognos Analytic Applications provide packaged reports and analysis; and other Cognos software applications are available for consolidation, planning, and dimension management.

Information Builders

Information Builders' BI product is called WebFOCUS. It uses Ajax technology, which combines asynchronous JavaScript and XML. The latest release, WebFOCUS 8, was introduced in April 2010. It fully integrates a Performance Management Framework (PMF) interface; includes a new BI Portal for developers to build and deploy dashboard solutions; allows users to create portable BI applications; offers an Activity Monitor for business activity monitoring (BAM) and the CEP Enable capability for complex event processing; and includes two new advanced analytic components, Visual Discovery 8 for visual analytics and RStat 1.2 for predictive analytics. The product will be generally available in the fourth quarter of 2010.

The company offers related products, as well. IWebFOCUS FLEX Enable, released in early 2008, uses Adobe Flex technology to incorporate interactive features, such as animation, into BI dashboards, which Information Builders calls "Flashboards." The company states that the product will work with any current or future version of WebFOCUS. In October 2008 the vendor introduced WebFOCUS InfoAssist, an ad hoc reporting solution built on AJAX technology with a Microsoft Office-like user interface.

Microsoft

Microsoft's BI product line comprises SQL Server 2008 R2 for data storage and management (encompassing data mining, data warehousing, data quality, and ad-hoc analysis); SharePoint Server 2010 for information delivery (encompassing dashboards, collaboration/search, managed reporting, visualization, and scorecards); and Excel, along with SQL Server, for query, reporting, and analysis (encompassing ad-hoc analysis, production reporting, and OLAP analysis).

Microsoft released SharePoint Server 2010 and Office 2010 on May 12, 2010; however, both products were involved in a large beta program. By the time of the products' release, 8.6 million people were already using Office 2010 and related products, and more than 1,000 partners were already building solutions for the products. 

MicroStrategy

Founded in 1989, MicroStrategy's latest BI release is MicroStrategy 9, released in March 2009. The product includes adaptive caching technology called In-memory ROLAP, which utilizes large addressable memory and provides a middle-tier database that can respond directly to data requests from reports, dashboards, and OLAP analyses. Additionally, MicroStrategy 9 offers SQL generation optimizations to improve performance for queries involving complex metrics.

MicroStrategy has announced a new application platform called MicroStrategy Mobile. Due to be launched in July 2010, the platform is designed for the Apple's iPad and iPhone, as well as the BlackBerry mobile device. The platform will allow an organization to develop specific applications that can run on those mobile devices, allowing users to access information in what MicroStrategy has billed "mobile intelligence." 

Oracle

Oracle's BI focus is based on its Business Intelligence Suite. This product line comprises Oracle BI Suite Enterprise Edition Plus, Oracle BI Standard Edition One, and Oracle BI Oracle Publisher (formerly XML Publisher), an enterprise reporting solution for authoring, managing, and delivering highly formatted documents. The Oracle BI product line integrates the Oracle database with Fusion middleware and analytics software and also includes analytics software originally from Siebel Systems, another Oracle acquisition. The product family works with both Oracle and non-Oracle environments.

Oracle took another step in the direction of BI supremacy with the acquisition in March 2007 of Hyperion System 9 BI+. This product, originally called Hyperion Essbase (derived from Extended SpreadSheet database), was developed by Arbor Software, which Hyperion acquired in 1998. Oracle has now renamed it Oracle Essbase. The product includes reporting capabilities, dashboards, and an analysis feature that also can be used in Microsoft Excel. Additionally, it combines its BI functionality with financial applications, making it more of a Business Process Management (BPM) system than "just" BI.

The company includes another product in with those pertaining to BI: Oracle's Real-Time Decisions (RTD) platform combines both rules and predictive analytics, enabling real-time intelligence via a high-performance transactional server. This server automatically renders decisions within a business process and creates actionable intelligence from data flowing through the process in real time.

SAP

Business Objects was acquired by SAP in a "friendly takeover" completed in 2008. At its completion, SAP announced the release of nine packages, combining solutions from both companies in various groupings that are being sold by the sales departments of both companies as well. The packages fall into three categories: performance optimization applications, including Financial Performance Management (FPM) and Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC); business intelligence platform packages that include Visualization and Reporting, Enterprise Query, Reporting, and Analysis, Data Integration and Data Quality Management, and Master Data Services; and packages geared to small and midsized companies, including SAP Business All-in-One with BusinessObjects Edge Standard, Crystal Reports Server, and BusinessObjects Edge Series, which now includes integration for SAP Solutions. According to Gartner, the combination of SAP and Business Objects formed the largest installed base in the market, with an estimated 46,000 customers.

However, even before its acquisition of Business Objects, SAP began to expand its BI capabilities via acquisition. In February 2007 the vendor acquired Pilot Software, a privately held company specializing in strategy management software, and its flagship product, PilotWorks. SAP has integrated PilotWorks with its own applications. Additionally, the company continues to market another BI product line. SAP's Business Intelligence software package is a component of the company's NetWeaver platform, which also includes an enterprise portal, tools for integrating SAP software with barcode readers and Bluetooth devices, and data management software, as well as tools for custom application development. The Business Intelligence component offers a full line of extraction, analysis, and reporting tools with the capability to publish information to an intranet portal or mobile device.

SAS

The vendor's solution, called SAS Enterprise BI Server, includes both BI tools and a BI architecture. Its features include Web and desktop reporting interfaces, self-service query interfaces, a Web-based interface, OLAP data storage, and a suite of graphic data presentation options, and a centralized management framework. Additionally, the vendor offers a variety of specific industry solutions, including three geared for financial services, two aimed at manufacturing, three intended for retail, and two for telecommunications.

In April 2007 SAS announced its Visual BI software that allows the creation of what the vendor calls "data movies" by manipulating a motion-enabled, graphical environment. The product includes a graphics library for presentations and customizable graphics generation accessible through a dashboard that displays all content in a customizable environment. It is powered by SAS' JMP statistical discovery software. JMP, developed by SAS in-house, can dynamically link statistics with graphics on the desktop, allowing what the vendor bills as interactive data exploration.

Market Trends

Self Service

The latest trend in this technology area is called "self-service BI." Analyst firm Forrester refers to it as "the only way to make BI more pervasive, delivering insights into every decision-important or mundane-that drives your business. It's the key to empowering users with actionable insights while removing many mundane BI development and maintenance tasks from IT's crushing workload." 

Information Today's "Unisphere Media" concurs on the importance of this trend, stating that "organizations that make BI tools more readily accessible to a larger number of decision makers... report faster delivery of reports and models." That is, indeed, the gist of self service: it allows business decision makers to build their own business performance reports, instead of waiting, sometimes for weeks, for IT resources to deliver reports, as has been traditional in the BI world. However, organizations that make BI tools more readily accessible to a larger number of decision makers report faster delivery of reports and models. 

Consolidation

One trend that has slowed recently, likely due to the economic turndown, is the market consolidation that happens when enterprise vendors acquire best-of-breed, smaller vendors. An example of what is sometimes called Big Fish-Little Fish, whereby large companies gobble up smaller ones, only to be gobbled up themselves by even larger companies, began in late 2007 when Cognos acquired performance analytics firm Applix, and then was itself acquired by IBM several months later. IBM isn't alone; many of the major enterprise vendors have been busy acquiring smaller ones to increase their BI portfolio. Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP all have acquired former best-of-breed BI vendors as well. 

The trend to acquisitions is not a new one. It can be traced back over the years, but one of the first of major importance was when Business Objects acquired Crystal Decisions, a specialist in reporting tools, in December 2003. Likewise, Hyperion acquired Brio to integrate the latter's reporting technology software into its own product suite. Other activity of note included Business Objects' acquisition of Firstlogic and Hyperion's acquisition of Upstream Software. Many acquisitions occurred in 2006: Oracle acquired Siebel Systems, best known for its customer relationship management (CRM) products; Microsoft acquired ProClarity; and Business Objects acquired Firstlogic, Inc., a provider of enterprise data quality software, and Nsite, a "software-as-a-service" (SaaS) provider.

In 2007 the previously mentioned Cognos and Applix acquisition happened, SAP acquired Pilot Software, and Oracle continued its buying frenzy by acquiring a major BI vendor, Hyperion Solutions. In 2008 SAP acquired Business Objects, IBM acquired Cognos, and Microsoft acquired Fast Search & Transfer ASA and DATAllegro.

Software as a Service

Often referred to by the acronym "SaaS," this software application delivery model was previously called "hosting." A vendor offers an application for use by customers over the Internet, and charges customers for its use, precluding the need for them to buy a similar application. Most BI vendors-particularly those courting the mid-size market-now support some type of on-demand service. For example, Business Objects, now an SAP company, specifically acquired a SaaS provider, Nsite, in November 2006 in order to offer a stronger on-demand service.

In 2007 Microsoft introduced its idea of "software plus services," defined as a blended model that includes desktop software, the Internet, and data and applications on servers that can be delivered as services. Microsoft's point is to ensure that its Office suite can be used as a front end to other SaaS applications.

In spite of the trend of major vendors to offer their own SaaS solutions, interest continues in business intelligence and data warehousing services offered through third-party ASPs,. Hosted services are particularly attractive to small and mid-size firms, who were traditionally shut out of the business intelligence market, since data-analysis capabilities can be delivered without the time and cost associated with client-based implementations.

Search Functionality

Vendors have begun adding to their BI products the ability to search throughout corporate data sources, including financial and operational reports, by anyone within an organization. Cognos, now owned by IBM, first added its own search capability, called Cognos Go! Search Service; shortly thereafter, the vendor announced an alliance with Google, where searching was made even easier via Google technology. Additionally, even before its acquisition, another alliance with IBM allowed users of Cognos Go! Search Service and those of WebSphere Information Integrator OmniFind Edition (a key component of the IBM WebSphere Content Discovery platform) to locate and analyze information by including Cognos BI information as part of IBM enterprise search results. In addition, Information Builders also announced an Intelligent Search capability that uses its subsidiary IWay's connectivity capability to link WebFOCUS with Google's Search Appliance.

Microsoft joined in on the belief in the importance of enterprise searching capabilities. In 2008 Microsoft acquired Fast Search & Transfer ASA, a provider of enterprise search solutions. The company, which now operates as a Microsoft subsidiary, refers to the solution as "business intelligence built on search (BIBOS)."

Dashboards

Dashboards, which have fallen in and out of favor several times in the information technology world over the past 15 years or so, are another trend to impact the BI market. These snapshots of data, resplendent with graphs, charts, and gauges, have changed since the days when they were intended for executive use only and the information they presented was static. Now they are quickly created, with no programming expertise necessary. Data is updated in real time, delivered to workers throughout the enterprise who can then drill down and analyze metrics as needed. Furthermore, today's dashboards are laden with drag-and-drop personalization features that assure pertinence to anyone's role. Virtually all of the standalone BI vendors offer some dashboard capabilities as part of their product suites, and an entire industry of add-on dashboard software products has sprung up as well.

Business Activity Monitoring

Similar in some respects to dashboards because it also captures data and process events, Business Activity Monitoring (BAM) allows the real-time monitoring of business processes. It compares and combines them into business metrics. Then it displays the real-time status of those metrics. An enterprise solution primarily intended for use by operations managers and upper management. BAM is being integrated into many of the top BI packages.

Mobile Access

Some companies are building wireless access and alerting into their products in order to allow the growing numbers of mobile workers to keep abreast of critical business issues from their handheld devices. BusinessObjects Mobile, for example, allows viewing and manipulating reports from BusinessObjects XI via mobile devices such as Blackberry or Windows Mobile. Cognos Go! Mobile offers wireless access to Cognos BI data via a mobile client. SAP's offering includes the capability to publish information to an intranet portal or mobile device. And Microsoft is touting mobile device support to its BI products by third parties.

Enterprise Information Portals

Increasingly, information from disparate and disconnected systems is being accumulated and presented through enterprise portals, which are accessible via ordinary desktop browsers. A portal can provide decision makers with a real-time, customized view of the business, thereby providing the ability to manage key processes. Delivery over a Web interface improves ease-of-use, which is a significant decision criterion for organizations that are evaluating business intelligence solutions.

Strategic Planning Implications

In many cases, organizations considering the implementation of a business intelligence solution will already have in place a business intelligence platform, such as an Oracle database. Adding business intelligence capabilities to an existing platform could significantly minimize learning curves, implementation difficulties, and costs. The alternative would be to patch-on a third-party product.

Enterprise-wide solutions from database vendors are not the best option in all situations, however, and other considerations weigh in favor of the best-of-breed approach. For example, BI vendors are looking to expand into smaller and mid-sized businesses (SMB); for this segment, a standalone BI product, rather than an enterprise solution, is probably a smarter choice.

In theory, a business intelligence tool with complex analytic and reporting tools offers the most value to an organization; in practice, however, an application with a narrowly defined set of functions may prove the most beneficial. Business intelligence tools can be narrowly defined by focusing on only one area of decision-making, such as product development, or by being delivered to a limited group of users as opposed to an entire organization. Although the prevailing trend is toward solutions that provide access to business intelligence information across an entire enterprise, to executive and end-users alike, department-level solutions remain a viable option in many circumstances.

Business intelligence solutions aim to reduce the confusion produced by maintaining data in disparate systems across multiple departments. Often the tools only add to the confusion, however, creating an additional layer of complexity for users. As a result, solution providers are spending significant development resources to ensure that their tools can deliver effective printed reports and can integrate well with common applications such as Microsoft Excel. Ultimately, the primary consideration in selecting a business intelligence solution is whether it will provide information that is useful in making strategic decisions; information will be useful only to the extent that it can be easily and quickly accessed.

Web Links

DATAllegro: http://www.datallegro.com/
IBM Cognos: http://www-01.ibm.com/software/data/cognos/
Information Builders: http://www.informationbuilders.com/
Microsoft: http://www.microsoft.com/
MicroStrategy: http://www.microstrategy.com/
Oracle: http://www.oracle.com/
SAP: http://www.sap.com/
SAS: http://www.sas.com/

This article was adapted from the Faulkner Information Services library of reports covering computing and telecommunications. For more information contact www.faulkner.com. To subscribe to the Faulkner Information Services visit http://www.faulkner.com/showcase/subscription.asp


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