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Can on-demand business intelligence break down pervasive BI barriers?


This is the first half of a series on on-demand business intelligence tools


The desire of business users for information that can help them to better reach customers and improve business operations and corporate profitability far outstrips what many IT departments have been able to supply. And as IT struggles to create reporting and analytics systems that can make sense of existing data, the never-ending data deluge from inside and outside the corporate walls is only widening the information gap.

People have been searching for the Holy Grail of pervasive business intelligence (BI) and self-service reporting for years. But even in enterprises making significant investments in BI software, BI is still largely the domain of a select group of business power users. They’re often the only people who are actively using BI tools even though an organization may have purchased hundreds of software licenses or paid for an unlimited enterprise contract.

Most end users are still relying on Microsoft Excel for their reporting and data analysis needs; many continue to build spreadmarts or data shadow systems to get the information they need to manage business operations and try to improve performance. 

In this two-part article, we’ll explore the barriers to pervasive BI and look at how on-demand business intelligence technology can help companies with both new and existing BI initiatives. We’ll also examine the state of on-demand BI offerings and their strengths as well as the myths surrounding them, and we’ll explore how to position these tools in your BI project plans.

We won’t proclaim that Software as a Service (SaaS) BI overcomes all BI roadblocks, takes only minutes to solve your business information needs and should replace your existing on-premise BI platform. We’ll take a pragmatic (and non-hype-driven) approach to using on-demand BI tools that we hope will indeed enable self-service reporting by leveraging ongoing data warehousing and BI efforts.

The barriers to pervasive BI
Business users lament that they’ve been waiting for years for pervasive BI to become a reality. They’re frustrated with the long cycle time that IT often takes from gathering business requirements to building BI systems and then creating and deploying BI reports.

Corporate executives also complain that it’s too expensive both to purchase BI technology and to fund the IT staff needed to install, maintain, upgrade and support BI systems. Finally, many users feel that their BI tools are overly complex and difficult to use once they have them at their disposal.

The end result is that IT is generally putting the needed data in place, but then it can’t enable the business to effectively use the information for reporting, analysis and decision making. And that drives business users back to their spreadsheets, because they still have important decisions to make whether or not they have functional BI systems that can help them make those decisions.

The promise of on-demand BI
As you might expect, the sales pitch for on-demand BI takes direct aim at on-premise BI technology, with vendors playing up the potential benefits it offers over traditional products. And the on-demand approach does attempt to address the three main barriers to successful pervasive BI deployments:

  • Total cost of ownership (TCO): On-demand BI eliminates the need to purchase hardware and software that must be installed, configured, upgraded and maintained internally. The on-demand subscription model bundles all of those costs into periodic payments that enable customers to avoid the upfront expenditures for technology purchases along with the associated investments in IT support staff. Theoretically, at least, that could reduce TCO.
  • Time to value: On-premise BI can consume a lot of time during both the initial technology setup (see above) and the process of deploying the BI tools to business users. In contrast, on-demand architectures allow an organization to go from technology selection to deployment as quickly as their data can be made available. In addition, lengthy projects are no longer necessary to upgrade BI software, since that is part of the on-demand BI service.
  • Ease of use: This has as much to do with traditional BI tools being overly complex and difficult to use as it does with how user-friendly on-demand offerings may be. On-premise BI tools are complex for two reasons. First, many are 10 or more years old, and vendors have consistently added functionality. Just as many of the features in Microsoft Office go unused by the typical user, so too do many of the features in BI tools. And as you stack features upon features, something has to give – usually, ease of use. Second, many of the top on-premise BI suites have been built up via acquisitions and the merging of different products. Typically, merged software is more cumbersome to use than the separate tools were.

The fact that on-demand BI has some advantages doesn’t mean it’s a panacea, of course. In part two of this series, we’ll discuss on-demand BI roadblocks, the all-or-nothing trap and how to overcome the downsides of SaaS BI software and position on-demand tools alongside on-premise ones in new or existing BI initiatives.

About the author: Rick Sherman is the founder of Athena IT Solutions, a Stow, Mass.-based consulting firm that provides data warehouse and business intelligence consulting, training and vendor services. In addition to having more than 20 years of experience in the IT business, Sherman is a published author of more than 50 articles, a frequent industry speaker, an Information Management Innovative Solution Awards judge and an expert contributor to both SearchBusinessAnalytics.com and SearchDataManagement.com. He can be found blogging at The Data Doghouse and can be reached at rsherman@athena-solutions.com.


This was first published in March 2010

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