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Oracle BI software spotlights architecture over innovation

Oracle BI software isn’t very quick to incorporate the latest bells and whistles, analysts say.

Oracle business intelligence (BI) software gets high marks for its wide range of capabilities and strong focus on scalability, but there is always room for improvement, according to IT industry analysts and one Oracle BI software user.

Oracle’s major BI strengths include its solid data federation capabilities and relative ease of use. The software giant’s strategy of providing customers with pre-packaged BI applications has also been highly successful. However, analysts say, the considerable effort Oracle puts into developing its existing architecture and assimilating acquisitions involves a tradeoff in terms of BI innovation. The result, they say, is that Oracle generally does not deliver the newest BI functions and enhancements as quickly as IBM, SAP and a host of smaller BI software vendors.

“Oracle hasn’t really been focused on some of the more advanced areas that BI is moving toward, like interactive visualization or combining and integrating BI with a [graphical] search interface,” said Rita Sallam, a research director with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research Inc. “They also haven’t really moved forward with BI in the cloud or [BI software as a service] as IBM and SAP both have done. Oracle is sort of focused on the meat and potatoes, and they’ve done a good job at that.”

Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE) user Jim Collison said he would like Oracle to beef up collaborative functionality for shops with multiple BI application developers. Collison, the IT manager for Washington, D.C.-based Gallup Inc., the well-known polling, statistical research and consulting firm, said OBIEE for the most part only supports the idea of one developer at a time.

"The tool doesn’t really have a great way to manage code revisions,” Collison explained. “If you’re doing part of the code and I’m doing part of the code, it doesn’t have a good way to merge that code or check-in and check-out the code."

Collison said the concept of allowing multiple users to manage a code repository is picking up speed in the BI software user community, and he expects Oracle to get on board fairly soon. Overall, he has been pleased with OBIEE, mainly because it works well with the Oracle E-Business Suite Financials module. Gallup uses Financials along with Oracle BI Publisher -- a component of OBIEE -- to produce various types of graphical and non-graphical fiscal reports.

“At most, I would probably have three or four developers who would do that repository development,” Collison said. “[Some shops] have 20 or 30 developers.”

Holger Kisker, Ph.D., a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said Oracle made it into the top tier of BI software vendors mainly via acquisitions but is falling behind the BI pack in terms of advanced analytics, predictive analytics, text analytics and complex event processing (CEP).

“[These] are upcoming new BI technologies that will fuel BI market growth,” Kisker wrote in an email interview. “Other vendors have a more innovative strategy and vision.”

Inside the Oracle BI software strategy

Oracle acquired CRM giant Siebel Systems Inc. in 2005, and the toward-Fusion  Siebel Analytics platform, combined with Oracle BI Publisher, became the foundation of Oracle’s BI software portfolio. Later, Oracle rounded out its BI-related offering with the acquisition of Hyperion and its popular Essbase OLAP (online analytical processing) engine, which is widely deployed in areas of finance.

“From an overall strategy perspective, it’s not really just in selling the tools that they’ve been the most successful,” Sallam said. “Their major strength is in selling the packaged analytic applications.”

Oracle’s packaged applications include, among other things, ETL scripts and connectors, pre-built semantic layers and packaged reports and dashboards designed for specific subject areas covered by all of Oracle’s enterprise applications.

“Oracle has packaged applications for all the E-Business Suite modules, all the Siebel modules, for PeopleSoft, and they are newly creating packaged content for JD Edwards users,” Sallam explained. “That allows Oracle’s installed base of applications users to rapidly deploy out-of-the-box reports and dashboards that are likely to meet a large percentage of their basic reporting and dashboarding requirements.”

Oracle’s packaged BI products are what set the company apart from IBM Cognos and SAP BusinessObjects, she said. While Oracle isn’t a major BI innovator, she added, the company is focused on building out a strong and scalable BI architecture.

BI advice from a seasoned pro

In addition to using OBIEE for financial reporting, Gallup runs BI software from IBM Cognos and Microsoft, which helps the company analyze data gleaned from its polling operations.

“BI is our business,” Collison said. “Everything we do around polling and consulting is designed to help people make better decisions.”

One thing Collison has learned from his years working with a wide range of BI tools is that the most important aspects of an effective BI strategy have more to do with people and business processes than with software.

Before beginning any BI software implementation, he said, it’s a good idea to form a Business Intelligence Competence Center (BICC)– a group of employees charged with identifying, coordinating and implementing the organization’s long-term BI plans. A well-rounded BICC might consist of department heads, key IT staff, executives or anyone else in a position to help determine how the organization can get the most out of data analytics.

The newly established BICC should begin its assignment by taking a hard look at company data. Collison said that means working with individual departments to find out precisely where data is stored and assess the levels of data integrity.

“These things have to be done to ensure that the data is consumable and that it is in a place you can get to quickly,” he said.

After the BICC sets goals and completes the data inventory, it’s time to pick the BI software tools and presentation layer, Collison said. But don’t be easily wooed by BI systems with flashy scorecards and dashboards unless people in the organization truly need that functionality, he warned.

For example, the accountants at Gallup like to see information reported in basic Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. They’re not particularly interested in colorful reports with various charts and graphs. But highly graphical reports might be just the thing for an executive who is getting ready to give a big presentation.

“Understanding your end users’ need to make change in the organization is just as important as the tool itself,” Collison said.

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