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4/10/2008
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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.

Last year, it was about massive consolidation in the business intelligence market. This year, it's about making decisions. The four largest vendors are promising the world: "Need an entire infrastructure for all of your BI and data management needs? We've got it. Want to give hundreds more employees the power of business intelligence? We can do that, too." They each want you to buy their vision of a BI platform. Understanding their strategies will help you decide whether to listen or walk away. In one short year, Oracle acquired Hyperion, SAP bought Business Objects, and IBM grabbed Cognos. Including Microsoft, the big four BI vendors now account for about half of the $7 billion-a-year BI tools market, which is expected to grow 11% this year, according to IDC.

Now the big four are crafting platforms that will provide customers with enterprise-wide approaches to BI software, encompassing all of the IT systems involved in delivering relevant information to users. They're improving the integration of conventional BI tools--query, reporting, and dashboards--with the other software they sell, including databases, middleware, enterprise applications, and collaboration software. At the same time, they say they'll continue to develop and support BI tools that integrate equally well with their competitors' software. Don't believe it. Vendor development teams will have to be selective about where to spend time and money, and you can bet their company's products will come first.

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Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft will push you to buy both their databases and BI tools, but beware of depending too much on one vendor. "CIOs want vendors that don't lock them in and give them flexibility," says Michael Saylor, CEO of MicroStrategy, among the last of the independent BI vendors. Of course, he insists that "an independent platform is the most credible choice."

But using your main software or database vendor to build a BI platform also has advantages. They can help piece together the broader technology puzzle to support a company-wide BI initiative and minimize the number of vendors you have to manage.

You'll need to evaluate the vendors against your own view of what makes a great BI platform. Does everything stem from the power of the database? Then Oracle or IBM might make the most sense. Do you want to give users more ways to analyze data in your transactional systems? Then take a look at SAP. If the CFO is the primary user, that's where Oracle and SAP are strong. Concerned about data quality and management? IBM has expertise there. If you need to get BI into the hands of a broader range of employees, Microsoft could be your best bet.

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Pervasive BI
If you're not using BI tools throughout your workforce, it's time to start -- or get left behind in your competitors' dust.
Whether it's from one of the big four or an independent vendor, adopting a standard BI tools platform makes sense. "There are a lot of BI weeds that have cropped up in organizations, hitchhiking as part of another application," says Gartner analyst Bill Hostmann. That leaves managers trying to compare reports across applications that have different data models and vocabularies, he says, and "it becomes impossible to get a view across the business."

All four vendors have talked about pushing BI tools out to more types of users, but Oracle, IBM, and SAP will need to lower their pricing if they want to compete with inexpensive open source providers like Pentaho and entry-level tools that are gaining more capabilities, such as the Google Docs spreadsheet. Tools from IBM-Cognos, Oracle-Hyperion and SAP-Business Objects typically cost well over $1,000 per user. Microsoft has adopted a pricing structure to make the cost per seat decrease as the number of users increases, charging $20,000 for PerformancePoint Server 2007 and $195 per user.

The first step in developing a BI platform that encompasses databases, enterprise apps, and other systems is deciding whether to go with one of the big four. To help with that decision, here's a look at their technologies and strategies.

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