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Long Live the Spreadsheet

Armanta has released a solution that resembles a visual, more manageable spreadsheet that drops into existing business processes without disrupting them.

Last year produced a new spin on business intelligence (BI) and analytics: the self-contained analytic discovery environment, with its built-in data connectivity layer.

Call it discovery-in-a-box. In 2012, Cirro Inc., Quest (a subsidiary of Dell Inc.), and Armanta Inc. introduced discovery-in-a-box BI offerings: products that combine a visual discovery environment with a canned data virtualization (DV) layer. On the front-end, they expose a mash-up of spreadsheet, OLAP, and data visualization capabilities; via an underlying DV layer, they purport to address the Achilles Heel of BI and analytics: connectivity. It's a nice, neat description. On the surface, it seems compelling.

Nevertheless, says Armanta CEO Peter Chirlian, it's insufficient: it means nothing -- or next-to-nothing -- to business stakeholders. Technologists, to be sure, do get it -- although this wasn't always the case -- but the term "discovery-in-a-box" doesn't speak to the frustrations or concerns of business users. It describes a solution without (from a business perspective) clearly framing what the problem is. "I have been saying this for about seven to eight years now: how do we tell people what it is that we do?"

"Seven or eight years ago, we were doing something very similar to what we're doing now. At the time, you couldn't even grasp it in terms that technologists could get. You couldn't talk about in-memory analytics. BI at the time meant Cognos -- nobody had thoughts about richer sets of capabilities -- or it meant OLAP, with all of the limitations inherent in an OLAP tool. There was just nothing [i.e., no analogy] we could use to explain how we were different."

"For the audience we talk to, the spreadsheet is a powerful analogy. We've resisted it as technologists, but it resonates with any business user," Chirlian explains. "If you've used a spreadsheet before, you understand how a spreadsheet can take your data and allow you to model your business needs around your data. If you think of a spreadsheet that's enterprise-wide and shared collaboratively around hundreds or thousands of users, then you can understand the kinds of problems Armanta solves: [that is,] vastly analytic needs spanning massive aounts of data built around a business process that span an entire enterprise."

This is also how Chirlian wants to differentiate Armanta -- both from traditional BI players and from its discovery-oriented competitors. His pitch: you can drop a spreadsheet into any existing business process; in fact, spreadsheets are already used in most processes -- even those that have been ostensibly "augmented" or "enriched" by BI. When BI tools are shoe-horned into processes, spreadsheets don't go away. More often than not, they become the out-of-band means by which a sizeable proportion -- a plurality or even a majority -- of analytic work gets done.

In Chirlian's pitch, Armanta is like a spreadsheet: it complements existing business processes by dropping into them; competitive offerings almost invariably require process rejiggering (e.g., process "optimization" or "transformation") of some kind. Regardless of what you call it, most companies would rather avoid it, he says; customers prefer offerings that can be embedded (with minimal disruption) into their existing processes.

"We are about encompassing analytic business processes; we're not a random, exploratory product. As a user, you want the flexibility to change what you're doing, to look at it differently, to modify calculations -- but as an enterprise, you're still trying to deliver some amount of specific business capability. You want this [analytic discovery] to be part of the process, with all of the policies and oversight -- governance -- that are part of that [process]."

SAP AG makes a similar claim as part of its HANA marketing pitch: HANA, SAP officials say, can drop right into and accelerate existing business processes, without changing them. Over time, they argue, organizations can and will optimize processes -- in response both to changing business conditions and as a function of analytic-driven innovation.

With regard to the former claim -- i.e., dropping into existing business processes -- SAP has a kind of de facto credibility: its ERP software is already used to drive business processes in many organizations; in big SAP shops, business processes are already built around SAP's software. Can Armanta make a similar claim? Does it have a similar (de facto) presence?

No, Chirlian concedes, noting that Armanta does have a creditable footprint in financial services, where it's used in two of the nine largest global banks.

"SAP is in the business process software business. They sell you all of this stuff for doing many different things. They say, we'll develop HANA and we'll make [your SAP-centric business processes] faster, better, more optimized. We're going to people who have a business process already -- but it's not fast enough, it's not flexible enough, it can't handle the volume of data going through it. They already have a process," he says.

The point, Chirlain explains, is that the non-technological underpinnings of these processes are sound. The technology -- e.g., batch-driven, non-real-time, overwhelmed RDBMS-powered analytic resources -- just can't keep up. He uses the example of a recent Armanta customer in financial services. "They had a set of some batch processes ... or applications that sat on top of those batch processes that helped them understand the risk: helped them do regulatory reporting, helped them understand exposure to counterparties, helped them understand the market, but it was based on this rigid batch exercise ... that would run overnight, with maybe an ability to tweak things here or there," he comments.

"They had a business process. They didn't need to change this process: the actual math they were doing hasn't changed. They were really happy with the much more important part of their business process -- the math. What they needed was flexibility."

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