Business Intelligence: Workgroups vs. the Platform


For the past year or two, much of the buzz around business intelligence has been about "enterprise strategy," often facilitated by a "platform approach." Many observers predicted more companies might consider standardizing their disparate collections of BI tools into a cohesive platform after software giants Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and IBM all purchased BI pureplays in 2007.


Yet it didn't happen in 2008, and now some folks are questioning whether it's even a good idea.


A move away from a platform approach was one of Gartner's list of BI predictions for 2009, which I wrote about earlier this year. Several factors are influencing this shift, including a desire for companies to get more direct bottom-line benefits from their BI investments and business users' fondness for specialized tools that may better suit their departmental needs than a product that's part of an overarching suite.


Vendors including QlikTech, Pentaho, Lyza, and yes, Microsoft are eager to take advantage of this trend, according to this Enterprise Systems article, with products that leapfrog on the popularity of Microsoft's Excel by offering interfaces and functionality similar to spreadsheets. (They add data centralization, reconciliation and governance features to create tools Ventana Research analyst Robert Kugel calls "better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheets.") These tools typically use in-memory data processing, which means queries are processed at users' desktops rather than in databases, reducing the chances of creating database problems.


The biggest risk of such an approach is creating siloed applications and data, which makes it mighty difficult to perform any kind of cross-functional analysis. And the data integration capabilities of some of these so-called "workgroup" tools is "primitive, at best," according to the Enterprise Systems article.


Included in the article are quotes from Wayne Eckerson, director of TDWI research, who nicely summarizes the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach. First, the advantages:

[It provides] good value for the price with advanced technology [that's] free from the architectural burdens of the bigger players.


And the disadvantages:

Even before the downturn, large companies were looking to cut costs by reducing the number of suppliers, systems, and disparate applications to support and to conform with compliance mandates regarding data and financial reporting. The leaders make it easy to deliver all BI from a single vendor. What could be more standard than that? Plus, these guys tout end-to-end integration of operations and analytics and everything in between.


Eckerson says some companies meet in the middle by standardizing on different toolsets for different tasks.


Nigel Pendse, author of an annual BI Survey that is billed as the largest independent survey of BI and performance management users, thinks the way most companies employ BI favors a workgroup approach. When I interviewed him earlier this month, I asked him about the advantages of using a platform for BI, mainly the promised ease of integration and the avoidance of data siloes. His response:

First of all, the integration is almost never true. Those products were almost certainly acquired from another vendor, so the integration ends up no better. And the "islands" of BI, you end up with that in any case because people generally don't do mass deployments. So it doesn't make any difference. You're trying to solve a specific business problem, for a specific set of users, using available data. That's just not going to be achieved if you go for some enterprise-wide solution using a bad product that isn't going to live for long. It's like saying you're going to have a corporate standard for office chairs, so you spend three years evaluating every office chair on the market. You just don't do that. And why should BI be any different?