The third element poised to change BI is the much faster analysis that's possible using in-memory calculations. In-memory tools can quickly slice and dice large data sets without resorting to summarized data, pre-built cubes, or IT-intensive database tuning.
Products such as Spotfire (acquired by Tibco), Applix TM1 (acquired by IBM, now IBM Cognos TM1), and QlikTech were pioneers in the category, and in recent months more vendors have joined the in-memory ranks, or laid out plans to do so. Microsoft, for example, plans to add in-memory analysis to next year's release of SQL Server 2008 R2. MicroStrategy added optional in-memory analysis capabilities in January to its BI suite.
The power and appeal of in-memory products have grown in recent years as multicore, multithreaded, and 64-bit server technologies have become more commonplace and affordable. These hardware advances enable in-memory products to analyze the equivalent of multiple data marts or even small data warehouses in RAM. The technology also eliminates, or at least minimizes, the need for extensive data prep and performance tuning by IT. For end users, that means faster self-service BI without waiting in the IT queue.
SAP gave a jolt to in-memory approaches this spring with SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, which blends the Internet-search-style querying of its Polestar interface with the in-memory analysis of SAP's Business Warehouse Accelerator appliance. The product is available with or without the super-charging of in-memory 64-bit technology, but without it, it's an Internet-search-style querying tool. The big handicap: The in-memory version accesses data only in SAP Business Warehouse. An upgrade due this fall is expected to access myriad data sources.
Sara Lee is an Explorer beta-tester turned customer. Having completed a pilot test this spring, the food conglomerate bought the system with expectations that the speed will let it eventually open up BI to many more employees. A lot of people don't use BI now because "every time you ask a question, you can go get yourself a cup a coffee before you'll get an answer," says Vincent Vloemans, director of global information management at Sara Lee. "With this technology, you get answers in a second, and that implies you also start asking questions out of curiosity."
Sara Lee will test Explorer in two areas. First, its continuous improvement/lean group will use it to help optimize processes such as purchase-to-pay and order-to-cash. That requires country-by-country analysis to know which units perform best and worst, and why. "Answering those questions is easier if you can navigate data quickly," Vloemans says.
Second, its finance unit in Europe thinks faster answers will improve its standard BI reporting. "These people are constantly planning and reviewing the business, and they also get a lot of 'what if' questions thrown at them from senior management for which they don't have pre-defined reports," Vloemans says.
If those two deployments go well, he thinks the tool could be exposed company-wide. But that will require security controls and careful thought about the dangers of bad intelligence -- like assuming "sales" is measured the same in each business unit. Warns Vloemans, "That's a BI problem in general, but when you give a powerful tool to more users, you need to be even more mindful about how people will interpret the data."
Your employees want that speed--fast data query and analysis is cited more than any other feature as most important among BI buyers. Real-time insight and prediction fall lower on the list, though that's not surprising given they're unfamiliar capabilities for many BI practitioners. Query and analysis is as old as BI itself, and who doesn't want a faster and easier version of what you already use every day? Don't be lulled, though: While prediction and real-time insight are over-the-horizon capabilities for many, they'll be table stakes within a few short years.
Doug Henschen is editor in chief of IntelligentEnterprise.com.
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