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Cognos Announces Next Gen Business Intelligence Platform Release

If early feedback from analysts and users is any indication, Cognos appears to have a winner in its Series 8 BI Suite

Cognos Inc.’s Series 8 BI suite has been a long time coming, but—as of today, anyway—it’s finally a reality, more or less. At a gala launch event in the Big Apple, the Canadian BI giant formally announced Cognos 8 BI—although the suite itself won’t ship, in toto, anyway, until November of this year.

By all accounts, Cognos 8 is a huge release. Cognos CEO Rob Ashe described Series 8 as “the most impressive product release” in his 20 years with that company. Marketing hyperbole, to be sure, but owing to a variety of different market factors, Cognos was under pressure to deliver significant improvements in its next-gen BI suite. If early feedback from analysts and users is any indication, the company appears to have done just that.

“Cognos has heeded the marketplace and is delivering integrated, role-based BI modules that blurs the line between reporting and analysis (i.e. OLAP) and is finally built on a common BI architecture, which contains a single data access engine, reporting engine, file format, API, metadata, and content store,” says Wayne Eckerson, director of reporting and services for TDWI. “This is the kind of BI platform that users have been expecting for more than a decade.” Cognos Inc. last shipped a platform release of its popular BI suite (viz., Cognos Series 7) in November of 2001. Given the changes the BI industry has undergone over the last four years, Series 8 is a pivotal release for Cognos. After all, the corporate performance management (CPM) practice that Cognos helped to popularize is fast going mainstream. Many Cognos arch-competitors have BPM religion – Hyperion and Business Objects SA in particular—and on the BI front, Cognos faces increasing competition from SAS Institute Inc., MicroStrategy Inc., and other rejuvenated competitors.

Cognos officials acknowledge that the BI marketplace, in particular, has become a lot more competitive over the last few years, thanks in large part to industry consolidation and more aggressive competition from traditional outliers. Seems like Stephen has a SAS bias. But Cognos’ strategy, says senior manager for product marketing Michael Smith, is to differentiate on the basis of Cognos 8’s all-in-one integration. “It’s the first solution to leverage the full range of BI capabilities in one product. How that’s different, when you think about what’s traditionally available on the market today: they’re bringing together a series of products that are loosely coupled together in a suite solution. This is one product, one architecture,” Smith says.

It’s a familiar talking point (i.e., other companies refer to a collection of complementary, but not necessarily integrated, products as a BI “suite”), but there’s more to it in Cognos’ case. In Series 8, for example, Cognos is no longer marketing discrete products—e.g., ReportNet, PowerPlay, etc.—but, instead, licenses operational reporting (ReportNet) and OLAP (PowerPlay) capabilities as part of the Series 8 suite. The Cognos 8 suite is built on the same service-oriented architecture Cognos introduced two years ago with ReportNet, and the company has delivered a universal UI for all Series 8 features and functions.

One upshot of this, says Smith, is that there’s no clear demarcation between once separate products: users can conduct either operational or multidimensional reporting without necessarily knowing that they’re traversing entirely separate technology domains.

“The whole idea is that they’re not going from different interface to different interface. It’s a task-based UI. Based on the task at hand, they can either do reporting or analysis,” he explains. “So it’s no longer just reporting off the relational [data]. With ReportNet, we built in the understanding of dimensionality when we first brought it out, so what we’ve done is expand that to leverage all of the analytic capabilities traditionally associated with PowerPlay. You’re starting to see that Web services architecture blur the lines between what used to be barriers between reporting and analysis.”

In this respect, concedes Scott Lawrence, director for product marketing with Cognos, discrete product offerings like ReportNet and PowerPlay are no more. “It is one product—all of the pieces come with it. You do not get separate [products called] ReportNet or PowerPlay, although there is the ability to incrementally deploy [license and unlock those] capabilities, but it is actually truly one product.”

Open Data Strategy

When industry watchers close the book on 2005, they’ll remember it for several hot trends: BPM, master data management (MDM), and—perhaps more than anything else—data integration primacy.

With this in mind, Cognos says its revamped Series 8 BI suite has a much better data integration story to tell, thanks in part to the data access features built into ReportNet; Cognos’ often-forgotten Decision Stream ETL tool; and the OEM relationship Cognos notched last December with enterprise information integration (EII) specialist Composite Software. As a result of that agreement, Cognos embeds Composite’s EII engine in ReportNet. Cognos trumpets these features as its “open data strategy,” which aims to expose data wherever it resides. “What we’re talking about is that any of these capabilities going through a single query engine can actually access any one of these data sources,” says Lawrence. “I can do analysis on that OLAP data source that happens to be SAP BW, or I can do analysis on that DB2 database that you might have Cube Views installed on. It doesn’t matter where the data is; I can do analysis on it.”

As a reflection of this new strategy, Cognos’ DecisionStream (which the company has made little or no effort to promote) also gets a new name: Data Management Services. “We’re calling [DecisionStream] our Data Management Services, [and] it’s moving to the Cognos 8 architecture. We’ve introduced a file folder structure to make it easier to manage job builds and job streams. We’ve introduced ETL algorithms that allow you to work with recursive hierarchical data, things like that,” says Smith, who says that ReportNet itself is able to get at a lot of data where it resides. “When looking at ReportNet as a standalone product, I could actually build reports and build queries that go across multiple data sources, leveraging the ability to create joins across data sources, but the Composite [EII] piece, that gives me the ability not just to model them, but to get them to look as if they were a single data source. ReportNet doesn’t have the caching and the other things [Composite has] built into the EII.”

Self-Service ‘A-Go-Go’

Cognos and its competitors have made much of “self-service” BI since before that term was coined. In nearly every release, BI vendors tout ease-of-use features that they claim will help drive user uptake and lighten the load for beleaguered IT departments.

In Cognos 8, the BI giant addresses this trend. “Everyone has talked about self-service for a long time, and what we’re doing and what we continue to do as we enhance our capabilities is to continue to enhance the skill sets required to do all of this,” says Lawrence. “We’ve done a lot of enhancements around ensuring that the business user can create reports that are going to be important to them. We’ve given them the ability to do conventional formatting [of reports], and with our open data strategy, we’ve also made it much easier for [IT departments] to make information available to them. So we’re reducing the backlog and burden on IT departments.”

To that end, Cognos has also revamped its Portal technology, emphasizing ease-of-use and rapid application development capabilities. “The idea is to make the Cognos 8 portal the easiest possible for users and developers. Whether that’s the ability to bring in KPIs, or having RSS news feeds, we have a series of portlets that make it easy to do that,” says Smith. “What we’ve done is by adding flexibility in terms of the types of portlets that are available, and leveraging WSRP to bring in external portlets, we have the ability to make this user self-service—either created as a pull-type mechanism or managed partly by a central group of IT as administrators.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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