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SAP unveils SaaS business intelligence suite 'for the rest of us'

SAP has unveiled a new SaaS BI suite that it says will allow organizations to extend BI capabilities to the masses. But one analyst isn't so sure that strategy is on target.

SAP today released a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business intelligence (BI) suite aimed at extending BI capabilities to more casual users. But at least one analyst thinks that strategy could be off the mark.

The new suite, called SAP BusinessObjects BI OnDemand, ties together a number of SAP's already on-demand BI tools in a common user interface and adds user collaboration and feedback functionality.

It includes "guided workflow" capabilities designed to let non-power users easily and quickly integrate data from multiple sources, create visualizations and dashboards, and share the analysis with colleagues, according to Marge Breya, an executive vice president at SAP.

Users can also make suggestions for -- and vote on -- new features they'd like to see developed. SAP plans to add new capabilities to the suite on a monthly basis.

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SAP has been in the SaaS BI market since it acquired Business Objects in 2008. But Business Objects' and other on-demand BI tools were aimed mainly at sophisticated users and were designed to access data from centrally controlled sources, like an enterprise data warehouse.

Both of those shortcomings have now been addressed, Breya said in a conference call with reporters and analysts. The new SaaS BI suite's simple user interface, ability to integrate data from multiple sources, and economical subscription pricing model -- details of which were not made available -- put SAP in a position to bring "BI to the rest of us," she said.

Boris Evelson, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, believes there is a growing demand for SaaS BI tools, especially among small and medium-sized businesses that lack the IT infrastructure to support an on-premise BI installment. SaaS BI is also useful for quick, one-off BI projects and as workspaces for power users that want to experiment with more advanced analytics.

"[But] this is not a panacea for BI for the masses," Evelson said.

Extending BI capabilities throughout an organization via SaaS BI has two big drawbacks, he said. First, integrating large data volumes from the cloud creates latency problems. Second, it makes it more difficult for IT departments to control the data and maintain "a single version of the truth."

SAP says, however, that it has built IT management tools into the new SaaS BI suite, including data lineage tracking, so that IT can keep an eye on the data.

The SaaS BI market, which analyst firm IDC predicts will grow at triple the pace of the on-premise BI market over the next five years, is currently largely the domain of small startups. They include PivotLink, GoodData, and 1010data, all of which are enjoying varying levels of growth.

But the market has also seen its share of failures, most notably the demise of LucidEra last summer.

SAP is betting its reputation as a market leader in the BI space and that its ability to satisfy what it says is customer demand for a "one-stop shop" for both on-premise and on-demand BI software will help it leap in front of its smaller SaaS BI competitors.

Holly Simmons, director of marketing for SAP's BusinessObjects BI on-demand business, said: "They just can't necessarily support what a company needs over time."

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