Business intelligence vendors have a history of telling prospective business users that self-service BI software is a panacea that will get IT out of their hair and let them analyze data on their own -- easily. And I have a bridge to sell you…
But the problem business users have isn't really with IT -- it's with the time it takes to think of an analysis and then apply that idea to data. Because of previous technology limitations, that often required a heavy IT presence in creating and running analytical queries. That's changing, though, in a way that not only benefits end users but also helps IT to better handle the massive amounts of data now being generated and the increased demands for data analytics from line-of-business managers. The two key overlapping parts of that change are the expanding capabilities of BI and analytics tools and the growth of cloud computing -- a confluence that is making business intelligence in the cloud more feasible.
Much of the discussion surrounding the growth of cloud applications centers on large data volumes, fast processing, relatively low price points and simplified implementation. But there are also more indirect reasons to migrate to the cloud.
One benefit that too often is presented as an "Oh, also…" feature is improved control over application consistency. If you need to manage servers in multiple regions or PCs and mobile devices scattered everywhere, a cloud deployment, especially when combined with HTML5, makes it much easier for IT to see and keep track of who is using what software. It also makes upgrades and patches a lot easier.
In addition, cloud installations can help organizations maintain suitable controls for data accuracy and both regulatory and contract compliance as conditions on the ground change. A corollary to the ability to control change is the ability to more rapidly provide for it. Compared to on-premises applications, that can mean smaller, more frequent updates being rolled out to business users. Many cloud computing vendors let their clients choose when to migrate to new versions of cloud services. It also becomes much faster to provide new functionality to users in various locations: IT just has to flick a switch, and it's available to everyone.
BI in the cloud a natural way to go
BI is one of the applications that is well adapted to cloud computing. From data aggregation to distribution of analytical findings, doing business intelligence in the cloud can help simplify and streamline the BI process -- particularly if the data being analyzed is in the cloud to begin with.
Because of technical advances, BI and analytics systems now can not only look at larger data sets but also run far more complex analytics applications in less time than they could in the past. That means a lot more can be understood about business strategies and operations, both historically and predictively. And the cloud is clearly part of the advancing technology making that possible.
As mentioned above, one of the benefits of cloud systems is their support for inexpensively storing large amounts of data. That could include social media data and third-party market information, plus the exponentially growing volumes of sensor data coming from the Internet of Things. Much of that data is already in the cloud, so why spend the time and resources needed to move it on-premises for analysis?
On the other end, having reports, charts and other data visualizations centrally located in cloud servers makes it much easier to certify them for accuracy and then to distribute them inside an organization. The distribution process can be as basic as changing permission levels on the information to make it more widely available.
Self-service BI doesn't mean just DIY
Even so, all of that work must still be supervised by IT, to ensure that data sources are properly accessed and utilized and that analyses that work OK in tests are still accurate and run efficiently in production applications. And of course, IT also needs to provide the overarching security that links cloud BI tools into the full organizational security structure.
The self-service BI marketing message became bifurcated in recent years. Tech-savvy business analysts were addressed with powerful tools that let them run complex BI and analytics applications, while knowledge workers were the focus of self-service offerings that didn't amount to much more than spreadsheets with some drag-and-drop tools for creating simple reports.
But maybe we should just stop talking about self-service BI. The business user will never be able to manage, access and investigate corporate data alone -- ultimately, it's not a do-it-yourself thing. Companies need some structure around information and how it's accessed and used. Combining BI tools and techniques with cloud computing technologies is enabling IT and its business clients to work together in a way that wastes less time on both sides while letting each focus on its own area of expertise.
Synergistic, organic and empowered are some of the adjectives that come to mind in thinking about the changing relationship between IT and the business on BI initiatives. But one thing I know for sure is that BI is changing for the better, thanks to the cloud.
About the author:
David A. Teich is principal consultant at Teich Communications, a technology consulting and marketing services company. Teich has more than three decades of experience in the business of technology. Email him at [email protected].
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