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Birst takes SaaS BI out of the cloud, battles data security fears

Many IT managers are wary of SaaS BI tools because of the need to move data to an external cloud. Now, one SaaS BI vendor is letting data stay inside the firewall.

This is a two-part series on SaaS business intelligence technologies

  • Birst takes SaaS BI out of the cloud, battles data security fears
  • Hurdles for SaaS BI vendors include data integration, low recognition

For many IT managers, one of the biggest potential drawbacks of software as a service business intelligence technologies is SaaS BI's central feature: the ability to store data in the cloud. Taking sensitive BI data and moving it outside the corporate firewall, and thus beyond IT's immediate control, raises all sorts of security and data governance red flags, especially at large companies.

That wasn't a big issue when the Metro Atlanta YMCA first adopted SaaS BI technology from Birst Inc. last summer. The initial implementation was in the Y's marketing department, and the information that was sent to Birst's online cloud "was not highly confidential," said Betsy Lenahan, head of marketing for the 27-branch organization.

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 Now, though, the Y's finance department is working on its own Birst deployment, a move that Lenahan said "will definitely involve a bigger security commitment" on the vendor's part. And, she noted, the IT department at the Y wasn't too fired up about the idea of transferring financial data to an external cloud-based system.

With those kinds of concerns in mind, Birst this month released a software upgrade that eliminates the need for customers to upload data into the cloud. Via a new feature called Live Access, Birst 4 lets users leave data in their internal databases and stream it to Birst's analytic tools, which the San Francisco-based company hopes to sell as a less costly and less complex alternative to on-premise BI applications.

Jeffrey Kaplan, an analyst at Thinkstrategies Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., said Live Access is the most important addition in Birst 4. Although SaaS BI products typically are easier to deploy and more user-friendly than their on-premise counterparts, many IT managers and even senior business executives have been reluctant to embrace the SaaS approach because of security, privacy and regulatory compliance concerns, Kaplan said. But with Live Access, he added, Birst is enabling users to tap into its applications "without having to risk moving their corporate data to the cloud."

Birst CEO Brad Peters acknowledged that concerns about putting data outside the firewall have limited the vendor's ability to market itself to large companies with existing data warehouses. "If I've invested a lot of money in a Teradata box and done a lot of special stuff to the data in it, I'm not going to want to upload that to the cloud," Peters said, adding that Birst typically has targeted midmarket users and departmental applications until now.

But Live Access gives customers a mechanism for using Birst's BI tools to analyze information stored in "monster data warehouses," Peters claimed. Data is streamed to the Birst applications in a secure, encrypted format, he said -- an approach that essentially combines BI and webconferencing technologies.

Not everyone is convinced that Live Access is a real step forward. Dyke Hensen, chief marketing officer at SaaS BI vendor PivotLink Corp., said the San Francisco-based company has a group of business analytics customers -- including big organizations such as Macy's, REI and Levi Strauss -- that use its tools to analyze information from existing databases. But the data is still extracted and stored in the cloud for analysis, Hensen said.

The downside of the Live Access approach is that "you're limited by the capability, scalability and security of the source database or application," he contended. In addition, he said, "you really don't integrate the data in a classic BI sense."

At the Metro Atlanta YMCA, though, the addition of Live Access has mitigated the IT department's concerns about deploying Birst's technology for the Y's finance workers, according to Lenahan. "When the finance department was getting involved with Birst, that single change that was forthcoming was the major factor in IT becoming no longer negative about the product," she said.

More broadly, IT managers remain "the biggest gatekeepers" blocking potential SaaS BI deployments, said Cindi Howson, a BI consultant and founder of the technology evaluation website But the data security issue "is more of a perception problem than reality," she added. "I don't think IT should be as concerned about it as they might be."

Birst, which also is adding customizable extract, transform and load capabilities and integrated reporting tools, announced Birst 4 at the TDWI World Conference in Orlando. TDWI analyst Wayne Eckerson said that for many small and medium-sized businesses with limited IT resources, data "is probably more secure in a SaaS environment than it is inside a company." Nonetheless, he put SaaS BI in the "wait and see" box of a technology adoption quadrant during a keynote speech at the conference.


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