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Cognos 8 a Hit With Users

Users say performance and usability improvements make Cognos 8 a much more attractive package

From a competitive perspective, the Series 8 business intelligence (BI) suite Cognos Inc. announced last week was not necessarily earth-shattering. After all, one of its biggest selling points is integration: it’s the first Cognos release based on the company’s ReportNet architecture; it boasts a unified user interface (UI); and it delivers what Cognos says is seamless integration between and among its BI functions.

But Cognos isn’t the first vendor to deliver as much. On the integration front, anyway, the BI giant is a bit late to the party: Business Objects SA delivered a unified version of its BI and reporting tools earlier this year, as did MicroStrategy Inc. Meanwhile, data mining and statistical analysis champ SAS Institute Inc, long a peripheral BI player, delivered what it calls a unified version of its BI stack 18 months ago.

But Series 8 still has the makings of a hugely substantive release. That’s because Cognos customers can’t say enough good things about it; and everyone knows the customer is king.

In fact, users are decidedly enthusiastic about Cognos 8’s integration, and many cite additional performance and usability improvements that they feel help make the suite a much more attractive package. From a customer perspective, anyway, Series 8 looks to be a winner.

Take Louis Barton, director of data warehousing for Cullen/Frost Bankers Inc., a financial holding company based in the Southwest. A long-time user of Cognos’ Impromptu reporting tool, Cullen/Frost upgraded to the company’s ReportNet offering last year. As a result, Barton says, Series 8 seems a natural evolution, UI-wise, at least. “It was familiar. It was easier, particularly in the administration [of the BI tools]. I have a lot of technical people who work for me... [and] they’re telling me that many things—especially Metrics Manager—are easier to administrate because of the UI being a lot more seamless than it was before.”

On the client side, Barton says, Cognos 8 addresses several oft-lamented user pain points. “One main area of frustration for us was not being able to have the degree of integration between ReportNet and PowerPlay. Those were the two biggies in our company that brought us 80 percent of the value that we got from BI. So doing a ReportNet off of a cube is going to be huge for us,” Barton says.

Integration is just the tip of the spear, some users say. After all, Cognos’ ReportNet turns two this month—an eternity in the technology world. And even though Cognos refreshed that product with a 1.1 release, the new Cognos 8 BI suite fixes several of the revamped ReportNet’s shortcomings, too. “To do drilling in ReportNet 1.1, you had to create two reports, and then you’d drill through from one report to the other. You create a summary report, and then you create a drill report and then you connect them through drilling,” explains David Wheat, manager of decision support systems with United Agri Products. “[But in Cognos 8] you can set up drill paths at the metadata layer: you define them once, and then ReportNet can enable those or disable [them]. The drill-up and drill-down capability is far more advanced than it was in 1.1; we can choose if we want to do the metadata layer, and have the data be aware that there’s a drilling option.”

In addition, says John Hazenthal, director of knowledge services and data management for transportation and logistics specialist Schneider National Inc., the new version of ReportNet is a much better performer than its predecessors. “One improvement we really saw [with ReportNet] is the PDF-rendering. We pretty much do all of our reporting with PDF. In Series 7, what we found was that the PDF rendering was very CPU-intensive. It would literally take an entire CPU for a portion of time while it was doing the PDF-rendering. They’ve done a lot of work in Cognos 8 and they’ve definitely fixed this, along with some other performance enhancements,” he indicates.

Hazenthal and other users also cite improvements in the new version of Cognos Metrics Manager. “There were some issues with granularity of the Cognos Metrics Manager metrics. What we had with Series 7 with Cognos Metrics Manager, if you define your metrics for one business unit at a monthly level, we have other business units that might want to see it at a weekly level. The granularity was more at a global [level], so if you define it monthly and they want to see it weekly, you had to do some special things to make that happen.”

Cullen/Frost’s Barton says he likes the new Metrics Manager’s UI. “The user interface [in Series 7] was a bit awkward because you had to go to different screens and different paths to do what you needed to do, and now it’s one single path which will streamline [its use],” he says.

Requiem for Impromptu

Cognos Impromptu may not be the most powerful, flexible, or intuitive of reporting tools—hence the impetus for ReportNet—but it’s still widely used in many organizations. When the Cognos 8 BI suite officially ships in November, however, the company’s next-gen ReportNet tool will officially supplant Impromptu—which means that the only upgrade path for customers will be from Impromptu to ReportNet. It’s an unenviable situation, to be sure, but some Impromptu users seem philosophical about it.

Many cite the Cognos 8 suite’s ReportNet architectural underpinnings and ReportNet-like UI, and say Impromptu users will get training in a ReportNet-like environment as a matter of course. Similarly, many plan to upgrade to ReportNet as part of their Cognos 8 migration plans. Of these, most seem at least okay with Cognos’ decision, even though it will almost certainly involve migration issues of one kind or another.

“We came on board with Cognos in late 1999, and the products we’re using are PowerPlay and the Impromptu Client. We haven’t really upgraded to ReportNet, [although] we recently did purchase ReportNet for operational reporting. We’re embedding the ReportNet reports within our operational system’s applications, so they’re called directly from the operational system,” says Schneider National’s Hazenthal.

For his part, Hazenthal says he’s okay with Impromptu’s demise. He says ReportNet will be easier to manage, for starters, and—in combination with the revamped PowerPlay tool (which is now called Analysis Studio)—should be a much more powerful solution. At the same time, he stresses, for companies like Schneider National, Impromptu-to-ReportNet migration almost certainly won’t be a cakewalk—in spite of the migration tools Cognos has made available.

“[ReportNet] is something that’s very appealing to us. But we currently have well over 1,000 [Cognos] Objects in production. When I look at migrating [Impromptu Web Reports] and [Cognos Query] to ReportNet, it’s going to be a long project,” he comments. Adds Hazenthal. “We have about 3,300 [Impromptu and PowerPlay] users internal and external, so most of this is all Web-enabled. We have close to 9,000 Cognos Objects in our production environment.”

Mike Reeves, a manager for customer information services with a prominent staffing firm, has a similarly philosophical perspective. In spite of the potential migration issues, the upgrade from Impromptu to ReportNet will be well worth it, he says. “Obviously Impromptu is a very powerful tool, but it’s not something you can put in the hands of someone who doesn’t use it everyday, whereas in ReportNet and Cognos 8 you can do that very intuitively,” he comments. “[ReportNet is] much more intuitive, and you can organize it in a fashion [so the user] can structure their experience.”

Reeves says his company’s external customers will likely be much happier with ReportNet—once the migration from Impromptu is complete. “For some of our customers, they’re always going to be the type of customer that wants information pushed out to them. We do have a good majority of our customers that … like the ability to ask questions, and what it allows them to do in Cognos 8 is build their own reports, save them, and they can link and provide drill-through capabilities. It’s not something they need to be experts on: it’s very intuitive.”

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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