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Increase BI Adoption by Embedding BI in Everyday Apps

Try as they might, organizations haven't been able to push BI adoption beyond 25 percent. JasperSoft's Karl van den Bergh has a theory to explain the situation.

Adoption is the Gordian Knot of business intelligence (BI). Try as they might, organizations haven't been able to push BI adoption rates beyond 25 percent.

Over the course of nearly three decades, no combination of vendor-driven innovation and organizational reconfiguration/process optimization has managed to cut this knot. It's an issue about which Karl van den Bergh, vice president of products and alliances with open source software (OSS) BI specialist JasperSoft Inc., is especially passionate.

"We [the industry] have shifted the focus to analytics, but basic BI continues to be at the top of the list[s of CIOs]. They have a ton of money invested in and they've put a ton of focus [into] BI -- and what's the result? They still can't push usage beyond its current level," he says.

Van den Bergh cites research from BIScorecard, which tracks BI usage, trends, and best practices in its annual "The Successful BI Survey." In this year's edition, analytst Cindi Howson, a principal with BIScorecard, noted that BI usage in 2012 (24 percent) was unchanged from 2005, the first year that BIScorecard conducted its survey.

He has a theory. "The biggest problem is the standard BI [user] experience. Most business users don't spend their day in a BI system. They don't want to spend to [have to use a separate BI system]; they have their own preferred app -- [be it] their CRM, sales, or ERP system," van den Bergh continues. "That's where they spend their day. Basically from the beginning, [the BI industry has] been trying to force another app, our own preferred app, on[to] them."

This isn't by any means a new argument. A decade and more ago, Crystal Reports (then marketed by the former Crystal Decisions Inc.) was commonplace in application development efforts, in and out of the enterprise; Microsoft even bundled Crystal with its Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE) up until Visual Studio 2008. The idea was that developers could embed Crystal as a general-purpose reporting engine in their own applications. (They were also encouraged to use Crystal to extend reporting capabilities to third-party apps.) Other players, such as Information Builders Inc. (IBI) and Actuate Corp. pursued similar strategies, although IBI -- in contrast to Crystal, JasperReports, Actuate's BI Reporting Tool (BIRT) project, and Microsoft's SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) -- focused almost exclusively on enterprise application developers, as distinct from software developers (in SMB shops, working independently, etc.) as a whole.

The point is that many vendors champion a similar strategy. What makes JasperSoft any different? Van den Bergh claims that there's something distinctly different about JasperSoft's approach. Part of this has to do with its pedigree, he argues; part of it has to do with the changing conditions or prerogatives of enterprise application development. JasperSoft's capsule history goes something like this: it evolved from JasperReports, a seminal OSS reporting project that debuted in 2001. Like Crystal Reports, but even more so, JasperReports was geared primarily toward software developers: it was designed as a Java library for Java Enterprise Edition software development.

The JasperSoft BI platform of today bears almost no resemblance to the JasperReports of old -- almost, van den Bergh insists. Then as now, he claims, JasperSoft's focus has been on complementing and extending application software. This means embedding into -- "enhancing," as van den Bergh puts it -- existing applications instead of supplanting them. It's the difference between embedding into an existing business process -- i.e., in the context of the applications that drive or support business processes -- and changing a business process, he argues.

"Our focus is on bringing intelligence to the users inside where they spend their day. From the beginning, we designed our platform to be highly embeddable," he says. "The benefit to the end user is that they get the data at the point of decision inside the app where they work. They don't have to go find it in a separate BI system."

What's meant by "embedding" has changed over time, van den Bergh explains. There's on-premises embedding, which is the means by which JasperSoft is usually deployed. There's also off-premises embedding, which -- with the availability of platform- or infrastructure-as-a-service (PaaS or IaaS, respectively) offerings from Amazon, VMWare, Red Hat, and other vendors -- has emerged as a credible deployment scenario, too.

A PaaS or IaaS deployment isn't the same as a traditional software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription, van den Bergh stresses: customers aren't simply subscribing (a la carte) to applications that support business processes. Increasingly, the IT infrastructure that supports critical business processes is being shifted into the cloud; some business processes are enabled solely by cloud services. In the PaaS or IaaS scheme, companies are building application infrastructures in the cloud. These cloud-based applications are interoperating with and consuming information from an array of Web-based providers, including other cloud services (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS); social services; third-party data sources from academic, government, and other providers; among others.

Thanks to JasperSoft's Java Enterprise Edition pedigree, van den Bergh maintains, it's architected for the loosely-coupled world of the cloud and Web services.

"That's really our differentiator. Because it's a full Web-architected product, an open API, with a standards-compliant Java backend, it's very easy to embed. The business benefit with end users is that they have the information where and when they need it," he says.

JasperSoft has signed partnerships with Amazon, Red Hat, and VMWare. The Community Edition (CE) of its BI platform is available on IaaS cloud offerings from all three vendors. In addition, JasperSoft offers its commercial JasperSoft BI platform on Amazon's EC2 service. It's still early, van den Bergh maintains, but EC2 hints at how cloud and IaaS could utterly up-end traditional BI. It isn't so much a question of a company shifting all of its IT operations to the cloud; it's rather the inevitability of what might be called a bifurcated cloud/on-premises deployment strategy: some applications or workloads -- and some business processes, in toto -- will shift to the cloud.

The price point and convenience, among other benefits -- including ease of connectivity, particularly to other services -- can't be ignored, van denBergh claims. "We're seeing app development move to the cloud. It's probably the fastest growing segment of our customer community," he explains. "The idea is that there is a ton of data already in the cloud. [Amazon] S3 in Q1 now has two trillion objects stored on it. All of those developers have all of this data and they don't have anything to analyze it with."

"What we've done with Amazon is that ... we launched our full commercial BI server ... in Amazon's cloud ... and [made it] available through the Amazon marketplace," he continues. "JasperSoft BI [installs and] launches [from the Marketplace] and it starts at 40 cents an hour, with no user or data limit restrictions and no other fees."

Then there's Redshift, the massively parallel processing (MPP) data-warehouse-as-a-service offering from Amazon. Late last year, JasperSoft announced support for Redshift; at this point, Van den Bergh says, several customers run JasperSoft BI on top of Redshift.

"We have one customer who uses us on top of Redshift to do analysis of weblogs, which is the kind of [application] that might be too expensive [to do in a traditional on-premises MPP engine]. We're seeing a lot of our customers look at us and Redshift because we have a perfectly aligned business model: you can totally buy a full data warehouse stack for less than $1 an hour if you take JasperSoft and Redshift."

On- or off-premises, application development still isn't hip to BI, he says. This is in spite of the ubiquitous bundling of Crystal Reports through the late 1990s and early 2000s; the decade-plus availability of JasperReports/JasperSoft; and the near-decade-long availability of BIRT and Microsoft's SSRS. A developer doesn't "build" BI into an application simply by embedding a reporting feature, van den Bergh stresses.

He sees this as both a challenge and as an opportunity. "We need to focus more on the intelligence inside -- on building the capacity for intelligence into [applications]," he says.

"There are so many apps being developed that don't have BI, in spite of the fact that today it's a necessary component," van den Bergh concludes. "Almost any app can benefit from BI. Just because you put a chart[ing capability] into [an app] doesn't mean you've [exposed] BI. You might have a pretty HTML chart, but there's no intelligence behind it."

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