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Business Objects XI Redux

New features and enhancements extend a robust BI platform.

Business Objects XI Release 2 both enhances existing products and adds several new ones. It improves query capabilities and streamlines administration and development, among other benefits. New user interfaces enhance BO’s value for users unfamiliar with business intelligence (BI) and for managers seeking improved visualization of their businesses. Release 2 addresses some deficiencies where other leading BI products were superior. However, new releases from such other players are intensifying competition for large customers. On the other hand, medium-size companies may seek simpler, less expensive products from smaller vendors if they perceive products from leading BI players contain more features than they need.

At its annual user summit in November, Business Objects showcased Release 2 of XI, its business intelligence product suite. This new release is significant because it delivers the last phase of integration between its Crystal and Business Objects software lines; it also includes an updated Windows client, now named Business Objects Desktop Intelligence. A maturation of the previous version, Release 2 adds new features for interactivity and administration. The suite also includes two new options: Intelligent Question, a simplified, question-based user query interface, and Crystal Xcelsius, a visual animation tool that supports what-if data analysis.

Intelligent Question allows users to assemble queries as text questions by using a structured sequence of pull-down menus. The purpose of this interface is to provide access to data for users who lacked the skills, aptitude or interest in learning a Business Objects or other BI interface. Interestingly, it departs from the trend toward adding interactive functionality in each successive version of a BI user interface. Ventana Research believes that less-experienced BI users will prefer Intelligent Question and other interfaces that use text-string-oriented BI queries (such as that from Cognos) of BI data sources.

Xcelsius enhances the analytic functionality of XI. Business Objects acquired it when it absorbed the start-up company Infommersion. This tool allows users to import tabular data and associated calculation formulas to create animated charts and controls for them. They can use controls to change inputs while viewing the resulting changes to the charts. Xcelsius provides a compelling way to gain insight from data, although currently it is limited to data from Excel. Its uses include consensus-building for internal initiatives, collection of survey data and the enhancing of sales presentations.

Queries built within Release 2 are significantly more flexible than before. Users can combine result sets from multiple independent data sources into a single table or chart. They also can build query results from unions, intersections and differences between two queries. These capabilities will help organizations build comprehensive customer or product dashboards and reports. They can use queries to filter subsequent queries, which allows market basket and product affinity analyses. Queries assembled from universe metadata also can be edited manually to accommodate customizations not represented in the universe. Release 2 also enables queries of SAP, Essbase and Microsoft Analysis Services OLAP data sources and offers support for Unicode.

This new release aids business metadata availability for users via the BO Encyclopedia; with this release they can view data lineage (data sources) and other descriptive information within Web Intelligence. Ventana Research believes that enterprises need easily available business and technical metadata to distribute information widely.

For administrators and developers, new tools have been added to aid the transition from development to test and production. A system-auditing universe and a set of audit reports aid analysis of user activity, session data and system usage. A new administration tool, Metadata Manager, provides reports on BI, extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) and other third-party data. Ventana Research believes that centralized management features such as these are key to streamlined, cost-effective, enterprise-wide deployment of information.

BO’s suite has some weaknesses, however; a primary one is that the Crystal Reports, Web Intelligence and Desktop Intelligence modules present different editing and usage environments. For some organizations, this won’t matter, but Ventana Research believes that unification of user interfaces is necessary to produce a seamless environment.

Market Impact
Release 2 further diminishes the opportunity for competing BI vendors to sell against BO’s product weaknesses. While some differences between Crystal and BO Web Intelligence and Desktop Intelligence remain, the company has mostly succeeded in integrating them. MicroStrategy will have a tougher time selling into BO’s base, now that Release 2 can handle subqueries. The additions that facilitate administration and development further distinguish the product as enterprise-capable.

Of course, other BI vendors have not been idle while BO has been busy with Release 2. Cognos announced Cognos 8, Microsoft is rolling out SQL Server 2005, Hyperion has launched Hyperion 9, and Siebel announced Business Analytics 7.8 (a major release despite the incremental designation). With each new release, the competition between BI vendors intensifies as the overlap of their platforms increases and they add new capabilities in non-traditional areas of BI (such as search and process management). Many of these upgrades will be embraced by the vendors’ installed bases, but capturing accounts from competitors will likely become more difficult (and expensive) as customers make deeper commitments to their current BI suppliers. At the same time, growth in these platforms may make them appear ungainly, giving smaller BI vendors opportunities to position their products as simpler, cheaper alternatives and attract customers that have tighter budgets and less extensive internal BI support resources.

Ventana Research recommends that existing Business Objects customers on older versions of BO consider upgrading to XI Release 2. Organizations looking to standardize on an enterprise-capable BI platform also should consider Release 2. Those that intend to integrate data from multiple data sources in real time should compare BO’s capabilities to those of an enterprise information integration system capable of more robust query federation (such as those from Composite Software, IBM, Ipedo, MetaMatrix and Sybase).

Some organizations are looking at deploying interactive ad-hoc analysis or parameterized reports to large user communities. They should be aware that these kinds of systems place much larger demands on underlying database servers than do batch reporting systems. As a result, to assure reasonable query performance they likely will have to implement much more powerful server hardware.

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