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Is the Business Intelligence Market on a Collision Course?

Are BI vendors on a collision course with the relational database giants? Industry watchers aren’t sure—but some say the uneasy détente is unlikely to last.

Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., Hyperion Solutions Corp., MicroStrategy Corp., and other vendors are pushing their all-in-one BI suites as one-stop-shops for all of an organization’s BI needs. And–from lower TCO to compliance to improved productivity—there’s ample reason to recommend this model.

To date, however, the BI marketplace has been slow to embrace the all-in-one suite concept. This isn’t to say that organizations aren’t intrigued by the all-in-one concept—just that there’s substantial resistance to forsaking the best-of-breed (em>status quo that has long been dominant.

On the other side of the aisle, IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Oracle Corp. market relational database products that bundle fairly comprehensive BI stacks, complete with integrated ETL and analytics (in the case of all three vendors) and reporting (in the case of SQL Server).

These vendors, too, are pushing their all-in-one relational database-cum-BI stacks as one-stop-shops for most (if not all) of an organization’s BI needs. However, this vision also has been something of a tough sell, although Microsoft has enjoyed significant success with SQL Server and its commoditized BI stack.

Two competing visions; two very distinct ideas about just how BI should be done. Are they on a collision course? In the near-term, many industry pundits say, the two camps will continue to do their own things, with the BI stalwarts concentrating on the bread-and-butter front-end tools they’ve marketed for years, and the relational database vendors focusing on the back-end solutions that first catapulted them to BI superstardom.

But this uneasy détente is unlikely to last.

“The BI tools vendors are basically ceding [the back-end] to [Microsoft and Oracle],” says Mike Schiff, a principal with data warehousing consultancy MAS Strategies and a member of TDWI’s Research Collaborative. “[They’re] saying, use any database; it doesn’t matter what database you use: we support them all.”

This strategy has been successful, Schiff says, in part because Microsoft and Oracle haven’t mounted an explicit challenge to the front-end tools that account for most BI revenues, tools for operational reporting, ad hoc query and analysis, budgeting, planning, and performance management. For example, Schiff notes, Hyperion seems to have deemphasized its flagship Essbase OLAP engine in favor of its all-encompassing Hyperion 9 tools suite—in part, possibly, because Microsoft’s SQL Server Analysis Services (AS) is now the OLAP market leader.

Both Microsoft and Oracle are hungry, however—and both have outlined at least basic BI tools visions. With front-end tools (Oracle’s Portal, Reports, Daily Business Intelligence; Microsoft’s Office 12 productivity suite, Business Scorecard Manager, and SharePoint Portal) already in production, the chances of either vendor remaining complacent with mere dominance of the BI back-end is virtually nil.

Long Is the Road That Leads to BI Suite-dom

According to Cindi Howson, a principal with and a member of TDWI’s Research Collaborative, most companies do have BI suite strategies of some kind. “We do know that the majority of companies are trying to standardize and will do so in the next two years,” she confirms. There seems to be a disconnect, however, between what companies say and what they actually do, Howson notes: for example, more than 40 percent of organizations still let their departments buy their own BI solutions, according to TDWI research.

That’s hardly a prescription for BI suite standardization.

This begs an important question: when it comes to the all-in-one platform play, is it a case of the BI vendors leading (or perhaps even creating) a market? Or is the market, in fact, ripe and ready for the BI platform vision?

Many industry watchers subscribe to the latter view—to a degree. Few would say that the market is ripe and ready for all-in-one BI, but most seem to concede that the platform vision has something of an aura of inevitability about it. In other words, organizations will get there—eventually. “I agree ... BI platforms are the way to go. Cognos, Business Objects, MicroStrategy, and others are all pushing this vision,” says TDWI director Wayne Eckerson. “These platforms integrate reporting, some kind of interactive analysis—whether it’s OLAP or parameterized reporting—and sometimes integration with Microsoft Office.”

Eckerson downplays the notion that the all-in-one database stack will prove seriously disruptive to the BI pure plays; at least in the near term. For example, he notes, today anyone who buys a copy of Microsoft’s SQL Server Standard Edition has the option of using SQL Server’s integrated ETL capability (Integration Services, nee Data Transformation Services), but many of these customers will nevertheless go the third-party route.’s Howson agrees, noting, however, that three different strata must be taken into account here. “There is the front-end space—query and reporting and dashboards—and there’s that middle layer, with the database and reporting and ETL; but then there’s also the solutions for financial consolidation and budgeting and planning,” she says.

For some customers, perhaps a surprising number, even, the all-in-one database stack might indeed prove to be too attractive to pass up. TDWI Research Collaborative member Michael Gonzales, president of The Focus Group, points out that if your RDBMS is home to both your relational and your multidimensional data, you might be all the more inclined to partner with your database vendor to help you flesh out the rest of your BI stack.

But that’s not taking into account the final layer of Howson’s triple-layer-BI cake: budgeting, planning, and performance management tools. Because these products are apt to be used by business decision makers, corporate beancounters, and others with some say over discretionary IT spending—and because many BI players (including most major BI suite vendors) also produce dedicated versions of their tools (or separate tools entirely) for budgeting and planning—they could tip the balance, Howson says.

“I do feel there’s been more tension from the CFO [saying] ‘Whatever I use for planning is what I want to use for other BI stuff,” she points out.

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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