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What Makes a BI Platform Agile?

Agile isn't a methodology or a toolset or even a state of mind, Forrester's report argues. If anything, it's a platform play -- just don't call it an enterprise BI platform play.

What makes a business intelligence (BI) platform "agile?"

According to a recent report from market-watcher Forrester Research, it doesn't have anything to do with the adoption of agile concepts and methodologies. Agile isn't a methodology or a toolset or even a state of mind, Forrester's report argues. If anything, it's a platform play -- just don't call it an enterprise BI platform play.

That's one upshot of The Forrester Wave: Agile Business Intelligence Platforms, Q3 2014, which Forrester published this summer. "[E]nterprise[-]grade BI platforms are often anything but agile. Indeed, all modern enterprise BI platforms are scalable and robust, support and promote a single version of the truth, and minimize operational risk," writes Forrester analyst Boris Evelson. "However, these capabilities carry a hefty price tag of complexity, rigidity, and inflexibility, and as a result they are slow to react to constantly changing customer and business requirements. This lack of BI agility promotes an unfortunate side effect -- proliferation of shadow IT, 'homegrown' BI applications."

For this reason, Evelson indicates, "Forrester takes a more pragmatic and practical approach and describes [a]gile BI in highly objective and quantifiable terms, which specifically address many of the shortcomings and limitations of the traditional enterprise BI platforms."

That said, nearly half of the products Evelson and Forrester review are enterprise BI platforms. These include BI platforms from powerhouses such as IBM Corp. (Cognos BI), Information Builders Inc. (IBI, WebFOCUS 8), Microsoft Corp., MicroStrategy Corp., Oracle Corp. (Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition), and SAS Institute Inc. (SAS Enterprise BI Server). In fact, Evelson specifically commends most of these vendors (with the conspicuous omission of IBM and its Cognos Insight offering) with the teaser headline "Agile BI buyers are in great hands" and notes that "Information Builders, Microsoft, MicroStrategy, SAP, Qlik, and Tableau Software lead the [a]gile BI pack."

Forrester bases this claim on what it describes as the "completeness, comprehensiveness, and integration of the entire suite of agile capabilities," which, in their totality, distinguish market Leaders from the rest of the pack. Interestingly, even though Evelson stresses that individual capabilities shouldn't be used to differentiate market Leaders from Strong Performers, they can be helpful in distinguishing one Leader from another.

"While many of the Leaders appear to be closely grouped, each of them differentiates itself in terms of specific individual capabilities. For example, in this research, Forrester found that data integration ... BI automation, and ADV [i.e., advanced data visualization] content functionality appear to be evenly supported by all of the vendors," he writes.

"However, BI self-service features that technology professionals can enable for the business users, application and data provisioning, effectiveness of the UI, and ADV features vary significantly among the vendors."

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

Forrester's survey raises a few questions, starting with its mixing and matching of dedicated visual discovery products (such as SAP's Lumira or SAS' Visual Analytics) with full-fledged BI platforms, such as those from IBM, MicroStrategy, and Oracle. (All of these market dedicated visual discovery products of their own.)

A second question is why Forrester has IBM, which, in Cognos Insight, delivered one of the mainstream BI industry's first (i.e., or non-Tableau/non-Spotfire) visual discovery offerings, in its "Strong Performer" category -- along with players such as Actuate Corp., Birst Inc., Panorama Software Inc., Pentaho, GoodData, and Tibco Jaspersoft. (Tibco acquired the former Jaspersoft BI platform earlier this year. Intriguingly, Forrester lists Tibco's Spotfire data visualization and discovery offering in its Leaders grouping.)

In its vendor break-out section for IBM, after all, Forrester discloses that Big Blue's "Cognos products were not evaluated in this research." Consistent with this, Forrester doesn't assess IBM's agile BI offering(s) in its Wave scoring table (in which vendors are ranked from 0-5 for features or capabilities such as "IT-enabled end user self-service" and "Product direction.") Nevertheless, it does place IBM (again, as a "Strong Performer") in its Wave tally of vendors. How is this possible when it didn't evaluate IBM as part of its research?

According to Forrester, its Wave "findings were based on prior product briefings, demos, and feedback from Forrester clients." The apparent justification for this is that IBM's Agile BI portfolio "is currently being extended" -- in this case, from Cognos Insight to Big Blue's new Watson Analytics platform. That said, in its vendor break-out section for IBM, Forrester provides a detailed assessment of the historical state of IBM's Cognos Insight offering, along with a description of Watson Analytics that in its choice of adjectives ("significant," "powerful," even "intuitive," a term that -- at any earlier point in this same Wave report -- Evelson had rejected as unhelpful) and verbs ("ensure" and "surface") that could easily have been culled from one of IBM's own press statements.

What of Oracle's poor showing? The software giant sits alone in Forrester's "Contender" segment -- in spite of the fact that it markets a respected visual self-service discovery tool in its Oracle Endeca Information Discovery. Why? After all, Oracle purchased Endeca several years ago; it released a new version (3.1) of Endeca Information Discovery late last year; Endeca's self-service ace-in-the-hole is its best-of-breed natural language processing search engine, which it pairs (on the front end) with interactive data visualization capabilities.

For better or for worse, Evelson argues that Oracle's poor showing is a function of its not-yet-complete cloud strategy. "Oracle OBIEE is a powerful enterprise reporting platform, with multiple, scalable components that address all of the advanced BI capabilities such as pixel perfect reporting, ad hoc querying, interactive dashboards, and ADV. Data exploration is available in a separately available Endeca offering," he indicates.

"However, all of these features still require significant resources by technology professionals to install and setup the environment. For example, OBIEE still lacks a desktop or a cloud-based business user sandbox, where knowledge workers can provision their own BI tools, connect to new data sources, and manipulate data beyond what the underlying DBMS or BI Server [i.e., OBIEE's ROLAP engine] data and semantic models allow."

This doesn't quite seem sufficient, either. SAS doesn't ship Visual Insight (or SAS Office Analytics) with its SAS Enterprise BI Server; ditto for SAP Lumira -- the former BusinessObjects Visual Intelligence. As with Endeca, customers must buy these products separately. The claim that OBIEE requires significantly more resources or expertise to configure than, say, IBM Cognos BI, SAP BusinessObjects BI Platform, or SAS Enterprise BI Server is tendentious, to say the least.

The difference, Evelson emphasizes, is cloud: OBIEE's cloud serviceability trails that of its top competitors (IBM, Microsoft, and SAP), as well as cloud offerings from specialty providers such as Birst and GoodData and BI providers such as MicroStrategy and even SAS. This will improve, he indicates. "This deployment and provisioning process will get simplified with the upcoming Oracle BI cloud service that makes Oracle's BI technology available as a subscription-based cloud service, along with a version of the Oracle DB cloud service," Evelson writes.

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