Midmarket business intelligence planning: assessing technology options

New types of business intelligence technology, including SaaS BI and open source BI tools, might be a good fit for small and medium-sized businesses. But there are tradeoffs to consider.

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Many midmarket companies have long considered business intelligence (BI) software to be out of their reach. In the past, that was due partly to the complexity and specialized nature of BI tools, especially since small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often don't have the luxury of staffing dedicated BI teams to oversee the deployment and management of BI systems.

There was also the matter of the relatively high cost of BI platforms. All of that is starting to change, however, thanks to the introduction of new flavors of BI and analytics tools designed to be more appealing to the SMB palate. For example, most of the mainstream BI vendors have introduced variations of their products with revamped user interfaces, wizards, dashboards, portals and self-service technologies aimed at making the tools easier for non-experts to use.

In addition, BI technology is now available in several other forms that might be easier and less expensive for SMBs to digest, according to industry analysts. That includes Software as a Service (SaaS) BI offerings that let customers avoid having to invest in the hardware and manpower required to run a BI infrastructure; open source BI tools that offer a potentially less costly way to gain access not just to the technology but also to a community of BI experts and peers; and BI and data warehouse appliances that bundle hardware and software into a single package.

Now that BI is more accessible, one of the big issues for SMBs as part of the business intelligence planning process is choosing between the various options and picking the one that best meets their needs. As with anything, there are tradeoffs, analysts said. For example, the scaled-down applications offered by BI vendors might not have all the features an SMB needs. On the other hand, buying a midmarket BI package from a vendor whose data management tools you already use could create economies of scale on both licensing and training.

SaaS BI considerations for business intelligence planning purposes
SaaS BI tools can be used to quickly get started on projects without significant upfront costs in either time or resources. And given that many SMBs are already using SaaS versions of products such as CRM and ERP applications, the security and implementation hurdles common to SaaS deployments likely have been addressed to their satisfaction, said David Menninger, a vice president and research director at San Ramon, Calif.-based Ventana Research Inc.

"The cloud is the great equalizer in terms of minimizing investment risk," Menninger said. "Companies can now buy BI products and services in chunks on a monthly [subscription] basis, instead of having to do a big-bang [project]."

But, he added, scalability issues surrounding the features of SaaS BI technologies and their ability to support large data sets are some of the concerns that SMBs should consider when evaluating the SaaS approach as an option.

For companies that still aren't fully comfortable with the security aspects of cloud computing, data warehouse and BI appliances could be a possible alternative since they promise turnkey operation but still give organizations control over the installation and management of a core business asset, according to Menninger and other analysts.

Weighing open source's ups, downs in the BI planning process
Open source BI also can be less expensive than traditional BI offerings, but it may not be the right choice for companies that aren't willing to roll up their sleeves and dig into the technology, said William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group LLC, a Plano, Texas-based consulting firm that specializes in data warehousing, BI and master data management.

He added that SMBs considering the open source approach while developing a BI project plan need to assess whether the commercial versions of open source BI tools have the features they need – and if not, whether they have in-house developers with the proper skill sets or they can afford to hire outside development help. They should also be clear about the level of support offered by open source vendors and what it will cost them. "Companies need to understand that there are ups and down with open source," McKnight said.

In the end, Menninger suggested that SMBs pursuing business intelligence strategies use cloud-based BI implementations as the measuring stick to compare the other options against, since cloud technologies typically deliver the fastest path to deployment. And that may be the ultimate selling point in building a BI business case and winning approval for a project, he noted.

"The question is, can you do better with some other approach in terms of project timelines and capabilities," Menninger said. "You have to think in time frames of weeks, not months, because you have to realize a return on investment faster than that. Small organizations have to be nimble – they can't tie up money and resources for a significant period of time without delivering results."

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.

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