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Believe It: Google Will Change Business Intelligence

Search might not change everything, but—for BI vendors, at least—it has the potential to be hugely transformative, if not disruptive.

It seems as if the business intelligence (BI) pure-play vendors are taking fire on all fronts. Relational database powers such as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Oracle Corp. are today squatting in some of their bread-and-butter BI market segments, for starters—and with every fresh revision of their respective RDBMS platforms, they’re absquatulating even further. Ditto for Oracle and, to a limited extent, SAP AG in the ERP space. Both vendors have announced ambitious BI-related enhancements to their core enterprise applications—although most BI vendors at least pay lip service to the idea of SAP as benign ERP partner.

Then there’s enterprise search. It’s not a BI-centric technology segment, but—as recent announcements from Cognos Inc., IBM Corp., Information Builders Inc. (IBI), Oracle Corp., and SAS Institute Inc. (among others) have shown—search does have a BI-related facet or two.

That’s why the intentions of search powerhouse Google Inc. alternately excites and alarms potential BI coopetitioners. Some BI and search players tend to downplay Google’s prospects in the enterprise search space, even as others—such as Cognos, IBI, and SAS, for example—laud the search juggernaut’s Google Search Appliance and new Google OneBox Enterprise initiative as ideal complements to their BI tools.

“What we are able to do by partnering with Google is offer our joint customers a very searchable interface... so we [can] reach users who are non-technical but who know how to search,” says Christina McKeon, a marketing manager for BI with SAS. SAS and other Google partners say that by embracing OneBox Enterprise, they’re able to reach a range of different user constituencies—including many that are otherwise untapped by their BI tools. “These are casual or non-traditional users. In most companies, the majority of their users are going to be business users, non-technical users. These [non-technical users] are [a group] SAS has for several years now been targeting, and we’ve tried to offer them a very comfortable interface for BI. We see [integration with the Google Search Appliance] extending this even further.”

In this respect, McKeon says, the Google Search Appliance is a distinct improvement over the ubiquitous (and analogous) portal interface, which many BI vendors have pushed as a means to drive broader user adoption. “Even for people who might have been a little hesitant to go in through a Web portal, here’s another way for them to get [BI] information, in an interface that’s completely familiar to them from the Web.”

Google partner Cognos takes this idea and runs with it. The BI powerhouse just announced its own enterprise search offering, Cognos Go!, and has also partnered with two of the most prominent players in enterprise search: IBM and Google. Paul Hulford, senior product marketing manager with Cognos, describes enterprise search as a mechanism—a virtual deus ex machina—to help mainstream BI. In this respect, Hulford says, Cognos’ partnerships with IBM (purveyor of the OmniFind enterprise search tool), and Google (especially via the search juggernaut’s OneBox Enterprise program, which encourages ISVs to build Google Search Appliance-friendly hooks into their applications) will help expose BI functionality to a much more diverse subset of business users.

The idea, Hulford says, is that users can submit natural language queries—exactly as they do in the Web search model—and receive a listing of relevant reports, dashboards, scorecards, or other BI-related information—along with the context of such information as it appears in the source. “We feel that this is truly the way to bring BI to the masses. We—all of us—have been talking about this for years now, but this is the paradigm shift. It uses an interface and an experience that users feel completely at home in and it lets them access BI content without knowing anything about [BI]. This means companies can expose this [BI] technology to entirely new user groups, to users who have never had access before.”

The issue for some BI vendors could be one of abstraction: users are eminently familiar with the Google brand (so much so that Google is simultaneously both a noun and a verb), but—in part because of the historical difficulty of driving user adoption—brand recognition isn’t as much of a lead-pipe cinch for Google’s BI partners. Google-like access to BI, while it will assuredly help expose the benefits of BI to a much wider range of users, might also abstract, or otherwise downplay, the role of the enabling BI technology itself.Or so it would seem. But as Cognos’ Hulford points out, this (too) is something of a strawman: opportunities for BI branding abound, both in the context of search results (e.g., “Cognos scorecard document,” “SAS dashboard, etc.”)—and in the data sources themselves, which offer further opportunities for branding.

“It helps to give us more exposure,” agrees SAS’ McKeon. “Google is coming at it from being more well known on the consumer side, versus SAS [being] more well known on the business side. Google is going to bring a lot more awareness of SAS to a lot more people on the business and IT [sides].”

Michael Corcoran, vice-president of corporate strategy with Google partner IBI, says BI vendors need to come to terms with—or get past—the issue of branding. WebFocus and other data can be exposed to the Google Search Appliance via IBI’s iWay adapters, Corcoran says, but users themselves aren’t necessarily aware that they’re accessing WebFocus or other IBI data.

“This is a transition that a lot of BI vendors are going to struggle with. We’ve come to grips with this already. We made a decision a few years back... to enable our customers to embed us seamlessly without imposing our logo. There are similar situations [with other customers and applications] where perhaps we are driving content into a Google-like front-end, or if we embed in someone else’s portal, you don’t see an IBI, or an iWay logo come up.”

Corcoran says he doesn’t see enterprise search—ala Google, IBM, Oracle, or any other vendor—as the silver bullet for mainstream BI. Instead, he says, it’s much bigger than that—it’s about enabling access to a universe (instead of a mere constellation) of structured and unstructured information.

“I don’t know if I’d say it’s going to be the main vehicle [for the mainstreaming of BI]. There is one fundamental flaw with BI, that it assumes that all the users know where the data is, but someone has to [actually] point the [BI] tools for them to the databases. I think the real value of these search technologies alongside BI is that they’re going to be able to reach across a multitude of systems,” he comments. “I think [search] is going to help users become much more adept at finding the information—whether it’s structured information or unstructured—they’re looking for. I think it’s going to be something like ‘Oh, the places I can go!’”

For this reason, and for others, too, BI vendors shouldn’t sweat the prominence of Google-, IBM-, Microsoft- or Oracle-powered search solutions, Corcoran argues. Indeed, the future of BI might very well be a future of abstraction, providing enabling technology for applications from Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and other vendors—or being exposed by customers as part of custom- or composite applications.

“[A lot of these are] production systems, the workhorses of any system. For these it’s not important whose logo pops up,” he concludes. “There’s a downside to it, sure. A lot of people out there say they’ve never heard of WebFocus or Information Builders, whereas everybody’s heard of Crystal Reports. But there are far, far more WebFocus users in the world than [users of] Crystal Reports, because [WebFocus] powers [internal] applications or online Web sites that are used by millions of people. They just don’t know it.”

There’s another upshot of the search phenomenon, however—it could mean the end of per-seat BI licensing agreements. We’ll learn more about how search might transform the state of BI licensing in an upcoming article.

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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