Making sense of business intelligence market mayhem

Customers need to be wary of pricing changes and integration issues in the wake of all the consolidation in the business intelligence market.

Making predictions is a tricky business to begin with. But in the case of the business intelligence (BI) market, recent consolidation has made the task even more difficult than usual and left industry experts largely at odds.

The only agreement is that until "mega-vendors" SAP, IBM and Oracle announce integration strategies for their recently acquired BI technologies -- expected to happen sometime in the next six to 12 months -- customers have little more to rely on than their wits when making BI buying decisions. Even then, the only sure bet is that they will have to make some difficult choices.

According to Bill Gassman, a BI analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., the toughest decisions will fall to customers of Business Objects, Cognos and Hyperion, whose IT infrastructures are not based on the technology of the acquiring vendor -- SAP, IBM and Oracle, respectively.

Such customers may have to ditch their current BI tools for the newly acquired technologies, Gassman said, or, less likely, migrate their IT infrastructures to technologies from their BI vendor's new parent company. He expects the mega-vendors to integrate their BI acquisitions into their own SOA stacks. Using a third-party BI system will be a less attractive option, he said.

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"You buy a Ford car and you're probably going to buy a Ford radio. You can buy an aftermarket radio, but it's not necessarily as convenient," Gassman said. "That same kind of world is going to exist where you can buy an alternate business intelligence stack, but it's just going to be more difficult to make it work."

Forrester Research analyst Jim Kobielus disagrees. SAP, IBM and Oracle are data warehousing vendors "par excellence," he said, and it's in their best interest to maintain across-the-board interoperability with the full range of available BI tools. To do otherwise would risk alienating a large customer base.

"Customers would be up in arms," Kobielus said. "I think that Oracle has no intention of putting together a monolithic BI/SOA stack." The same goes for IBM and SAP, he added.

Bigelow Tea is a Business Objects' customer whose IT infrastructure is completely void of any SAP tools or applications. Applications manager Melanie Dower said the Fairfield, Conn.-based beverage company uses Business Objects' reporting tools on top of IBM's AS/400 database, among other sources, and she echoed Kobielus' sentiments.

"[Business Objects] strength lies in the fact that it can access multi-types of databases," she said. "I wouldn't think that SAP would want to force Business Objects to be such an SAP-focused business intelligence tool. If they did that, then they'd certainly lose … a lot of opportunities with companies our size." Privately owned Bigelow's has about 350 employees.

Customer service and pricing concerns

The biggest concern for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) like Bigelow will be customer service, according to David Loshin, president and principal consultant of Silver Spring, Md.-based Knowledge Integrity Inc. The mega-vendors are used to dealing with large enterprise customers, he said, and how they will accommodate their new SMB customers is still an unknown.

Loshin said that SMB customers may find themselves asking: "Am I going to be lost in the crowd now that we're migrating into the customer pool of a much bigger organization that focuses on much bigger fish?"

Increased pricing thanks to reduced competition in the BI space could also become an issue.

"From a pricing standpoint, as renewals come up, both IBM and SAP are not known for their cheap prices," Gartner's Gassman said, "but then neither [are] Business Object or Cognos. I haven't heard of any price changes, but that's one of the things that people have to be cognizant of down the road."

BI buying advice

Embedding BI into business processes is becoming a greater priority for many companies and should be an important factor when deciding on a BI strategy, Gassman said. Companies that are ready to integrate (or have already integrated) business processes with BI should choose both their BI system and SOA architecture from the same vendor, he said.

Though Forrester's Kobielus believes interoperability is less of a concern than Gassman does, he agreed that a unified BI/SOA stack could make sense for some companies.

Once SAP, IBM and Oracle finally announce their integration plans, companies should ask themselves two questions, Loshin advises: First, are the resulting tools and applications still suitable to our needs? And second, are we being forced to go "all in" with one of the mega-vendors, a decision we might not be ready to make?

If the answer to the former is no and to the latter is yes, then it's probably time to look for a different BI vendor, Loshin said.

Bigelow's Dower said her gut tells her that SAP isn't foolish enough to tinker with Business Objects' offerings. She's so sure of it, in fact, that Bigelow just implemented BusinessObjects Data Integrator, after the acquisition by SAP was announced.

SAP and Business Objects have taken their first tentative steps, announcing last week a number of newly integrated BI tools. But the integration process is sure to be a long one.

"We're still very happy with Business Objects, and I don't feel that staying with them or utilizing them means in any way, shape or form that SAP is going to be forced on us or anything like that," Dower said. "Otherwise, we'd have to drop them."

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