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Polarization of BI Solutions

It almost seems like the big BI companies figured out they had to be a part of something even bigger to justify their already sky-high license costs. Just within last 12 months, we’ve seen Hyperion get bought Oracle, Business Objects get bought by SAP, and now today Cognos got bought by IBM.

And I can’t help but feel that Enterprise BI software has become a dying breed.

If you are a fortune 1000 type of organization, chances are you already have some sort of elaborate licensing agreement with at least one of these acquirers (Oracle, SAP, or IBM). So now, they have one more thing to sell you so that you can have a check mark for your BI initiatives without having to drive too far to a different vendor.

I guess I shouldn’t be so cynical. As BI software, Hyperion, Business Objects, and Cognos are pretty feature-rich, and have many compelling qualities. My problem is with their complex enterprise deployment model, proprietary nature, and staggering cost of ownership that continues standing in the way of making BI available to the masses. And their recent acquisitions further polarizes the world of BI haves and have-nots.

Perhaps this is how corporate world will come to demand a new breed of BI solutions. Back in 2002, when we started our marketing analytics company, we thought (and still do) open source and software-as-a-service were going to drive this new trend. And it’s good to see companies like JasperSoft, Pentaho, Swivel, and LucidEra lead the way in this direction. What’s more important than just looking for open source and/or SaaS solutions to BI, is to demand “openness” — openness in terms of architecture, sharing of insights, and just as importantly, openness about cost of ownership. How many times you have seen a BI initiative where the entire budget got spent just on data integration and/or cleansing? How about the cost of those special consultants who seemed to be the only earthlings that understood the esoteric workings of a popular yet proprietary BI software package?

Above all, one needs to keep in mind that BI is about leveraging all available data to get a clearer picture of what’s going on in the business, be able to focus on the most relevant issues, and make better decisions. Instead of taking a centralized approach of one system doing it all, a good BI system today needs to act more like a network that can connect to various data sources, systems, API’s, web services, etc. What if your BI system acted more like a mashup that lets you combine compatible information sources and cross-reference them as you please? Swivel has an approach close to this except that it expects all information to be uploaded by its users. It could be interesting if Swivel could connect to some common public data repositories (like geographical locations, weather, stock prices).

The key here is to have BI systems that enable mashup of information resources and analyses, a la web 2.0, as opposed to being traditional “enterprise” solutions that need your business to bend over backwards to fit into their proprietary framework and terminologies. Which to me conjures up images of Oracle, SAP, and IBM.

Maybe I liked them better when they were Hyperion, Business Objects, and Cognos. At least they didn’t say — “BTW, we also do BI”.

Commoditization of Business Intelligence

I received an email from Seth Grimes, a very familiar voice in the BI community, with an interesting question — Do you now see BI as a commodity market?

He was referring to an earlier post about our open source BI project OpenI, where I’d mentioned:

The state of business intelligence software market has been very much controlled by a few big players. The situation is very similar to how the J2EE application server market was before JBoss, or how database server market used to be before MySQL and Postgres emerged as serious alternatives, or how OS market was before Linux. Pretty soon we will talk about the BI platform market in the same manner, because open source and open standards are driving the commoditization of BI as we speak. It is just a matter of time.

That was a few years ago. So, I asked myself — well, how do I feel now? Have I learned anything?

The question is a tough one — something I’ve always grappled with. Ultimately, it depends on what do we mean by “business intelligence”. If we go by the current big commercial players’ definition — then BI is more about a software tool providing capabilities around data warehousing/ETL, OLAP, analytical modeling, and visualization. So by that account, I’d definitely stick to my original thoughts and say it’s a commodity market.

However, a more relevant question might be — does having these capabilities make a business intelligent? In reality, what I’ve seen is that it comes down to an analyst (or group of analysts) who (a) know how to work a “BI” tool, and (b) have some fundamental expertise in the business domain they are analyzing. So, the “BI” tool is more about facilitating the job of an analyst or a general business user. You could argue that by making performance metrics, etc. more easily accessible to a business user, the BI tool is helping them make more effective decisions, but it is making a big assumption that the user knows how relevant the performance metrics are for the business.

In the end, my take on this is that, the most effective BI tools are domain-centric, i.e. they embody some inherent knowledge about a particular business domain — so, not only they are extremely efficient and accurate about compiling all the performance metrics and making them available, they also “understand” the applicability of those metrics and can almost act like expert systems in guiding crucial decisions. This, I don’t think is a commodity market. It needs to be grounded into specific industry domains to be effective.

Would love to hear your thoughts.