IBM Cognos 10 Expands BI Boundaries

Upgrade delivers analytics, collaboration, user interface and iPhone options that broaden the footprint of business intelligence.
IBM has packed a lot into the IBM Cognos 10 release it announced Monday, pulling software from SPSS and Lotus into the suite while also upgrading the usability, manageability and performance of the total platform.

One of IBM's biggest preoccupations in recent years has been analytics, so it's no surprise that IBM Cognos 10 adds more ways to bring IBM SPSS predictive analytics into the BI environment. The two suites were are already integrated to share data sets and results, but Cognos 10 adds a statistical engine from SPSS that lets users embed algorithms into their reports.

Thus, users at chemical companies, pharmaceuticals and manufacturers that regularly plug quality control figures and other statistics into their reports can do so from a single Cognos reporting environment.

Another new integration in Cognos 10 makes the IBM SPSS Modeler a full partner with the BI environment so you can bring predictive indicators into dashboards to deliver forward-looking insight -- not just past results -- related to risk, churn, profitability and other conditions.

Another big push at IBM has been collaboration. That's something BI vendors like Lyzasoft and SAP BusinessObjects, with its cloud-based StreamWork offering, are already pursuing. The idea is to let BI practitioners share and brainstorm around insights and analyses to improve interpretations of results and advance analyses.

Rather than starting from square one, IBM has embedded collaboration capabilities from Lotus Connections right into Cognos 10. Working from familiar Cognos interfaces, users post messages, initiate discussions, post documents and reviews, tap into decision networks, and add comments and annotations on individual data points. When collaborators with appropriate privileges open the same reports, they see the comments and requests for feedback.

IBM Cognos 10 takes another stab at the old problem of making BI more business-user-friendly with a new BI Workspace interface. Workplace unifies all available BI views and analyses, including standard reports and graphs, plans, predictive analyses and real-time monitors. The interface is customizable to the needs and preference of the user. Somebody in finance, for example, might focus on forward-looking analyses while users in operations might choose real-time monitors.

The real challenge is helping users who are totally unfamiliar with the variety of BI tools and insights to get started. For these neophytes, Cognos 10 provides templates with suggested configurations. There are also embedded how-to images and video tutorials that guide novices through available analyses and Workspace customizations steps.

Hitting the mobile/smart-phone hot button, IBM Cognos 10 extends the Go! Mobile module to the iPhone and iPad. Blackberry, Windows and Symbian devices were already supported.

Mobile workers with notebooks and laptops also have access to new portable reports that combine data visualizations and underlying data in a format that can be e-mailed or downloaded online. The reports can be saved and viewed offline without sacrificing drill-down and data interaction capabilities. Information Builders introduced similar Active Reports several years ago, so IBM is validating a useful approach.

Many of the upgrades in IBM Cognos 10 are aimed at easing system deployment and manageability. A streamlined lifecycle management tool, for example, handles the upgrade process, preserving manually updated and customized code and allowing multiple versions of code to coexist. A new dynamic query analyzer gives administrators and power users a visual way to spot the bottlenecks behind query performance problems.

Query performance depends on well-designed data models, so a new model designer ensures that they are built correctly from the start; the tool employs wizard interfaces said to coach designers on best practices as they build metadata models.

To improve performance, IBM Cognos 10 optimizes query generation to the tune of three times faster performance than the previous generation of software, according to IBM. The release also ads security-aware caching for faster query execution. On-demand data caching and metadata caching gives users the choice when it comes to boosting query performance.

In a nutshell, IBM Cogos 10 is an upgrade that hits most -- though not all -- of today's IT and business intelligence hot buttons: there was nary a word about cloud computing. That's refreshing in a way. But it's surprising that IBM isn't doing more with one the most consistently services-oriented BI platforms in the industry.

Some would argue that software-as-a-service is best handled by a separate company that focuses on the cloud model. So perhaps that's something for yet another IBM acquisition.