Software // Information Management
05:45 PM

How To Choose Among The Four Bright Lights Of BI

IBM, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft account for about half of the $7 billion business intelligence market. All four are pitching enterprise-wide BI platforms, each with its own twist. Here's what you need to know to choose.

IBM's view is that business intelligence is best handled by a data specialist. The company has leveraged its strength in databases and middleware as a foundation, adding numerous acquisitions of software for cleansing, managing, and organizing data. Its $4.9 billion Cognos acquisition, completed in January, was the culmination, providing the tools for accessing and analyzing data.

Cognos is critical to IBM's big and expensive Information On Demand strategy, launched two years ago by Steve Mills, senior VP of software, and spearheaded by Ambuj Goyal, general manager of IBM's Information Management software division. Before the purchase of Cognos, IBM had funneled several acquisitions into this strategy, including Ascential, a data integration software vendor IBM bought for $1.1 billion, and FileNet, a content management vendor it got for $1.6 billion. IBM's OmniFind search products also are part of Information On Demand.

IBM is positioning itself as the go-to megavendor that can help customers create a company-wide information architecture, from the desktop down to the bowels of the data repositories. But BI tool-buying decisions are typically made based on application functionality and not how well they work with data management systems. IBM's approach forces IT departments to consider not just what users want from BI tools, but how they integrate with the search, content management, master data management, data cleansing, data warehousing, and data integration systems to form a cohesive whole.

Whether this is the right focus will be determined by how the majority of companies end up deploying BI, says Gartner's Hostmann, who calls IBM's strategy an infrastructure approach. "At some point, this will become a tipping point inside organizations: the application-centric approach versus the infrastructure-centric approach," he says.

  • Cognos is the standard BI tool at many companies
  • Strong database platform
  • Expertise in data management, data integration, and middleware
  • Information management focus requires thinking differently about buying and managing BI
  • Could lose ground in the race toward operational BI since it offers few business apps
While IBM works this strategy, it also will try to convince customers that they shouldn't be looking to application vendors such as SAP for BI expertise. Application vendors are specialists at automating processes and transactions, but not at understanding data, says Rob Ashe, who was CEO of Cognos when it was acquired and retains that title as head of IBM's Cognos unit, reporting to Goyal.

IBM's information architecture approach is ambitious. It helps that IT and business units aren't used to buying BI tools from their enterprise applications vendors. IBM also has an advantage with customers concerned about vendor lock-in. Businesses typically want to have a combination of transaction software from various vendors, and since IBM has been a "neutral player," it isn't going to show favoritism toward any one enterprise app, Ashe says.

In the coming year, Ashe says Cognos technologies will be tied more closely to a "treasure trove" of IBM capabilities and products. One plan is to tap into the company's extensive work in natural language processing to develop new products and capabilities for analyzing unstructured data, such as e-mails and customer service transcripts. IBM also is creating more collaborative BI capabilities by tying Cognos to Lotus Notes. "There's a lot of smart thinking and research going on in how this will all work together in a social environment," Ashe says.

But did IBM get the best BI vendor when it bought Cognos? That's debatable. After Business Objects, Cognos is the second-largest vendor in reporting and analysis tools sales ($622 million in 2006, according to IDC), making it a popular platform among BI specialists.

With Cognos 8, launched in November 2005, the company brought to market its first integrated BI suite, far improved in terms of integration and scalability. Older Cognos products didn't work well together and lacked a common look and feel, says Simon Gratton, director of business transformation at Telus, a $9 billion-a-year Canadian telecom company that's migrating from a hodgepodge of BI tools to company-wide use of Cognos 8 for analyzing data from SAP Business Warehouse, IBM DB2, and Oracle databases. Cognos 8 looked like it's "truly intending to deal with information needs on an enterprise basis," Gratton says, with dashboards and scorecards that deliver views personalized to job roles.

Regarding the marriage with IBM, Gratton says it's too early to say how it will benefit Telus, but he sees potential, especially in using Cognos with IBM's middleware and federation tools to make data more usable for analysis.

Sounds like the seeds of an information management architecture. If IBM's vision of how these various layers of data management link together makes sense to you, it could be the BI platform you're looking for, particularly if you already have investments in IBM databases, middleware, or Cognos tools.

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