SAP's Business Objects To Release Major Upgrade Next Month

SAP plans to integrate Business Objects' data management technologies with its own, and link its BI Accelerator appliance to non-SAP data sources.
Business Objects next month will make available the first major release of its software in more than two years, XI 3.0. The version was too late in development to allow extensive integration work with SAP, which completed its $6.8 billion acquisition of Business Objects in January. Instead, XI 3.0 focuses on improved search and query capabilities, better visual tools, and giving users access to more types of data.

The new version also includes better access to data within SAP Business Warehouse, but that effort was in the works well before the acquisition was announced, said Marge Breya, executive VP of Business Objects' business intelligence platform. Yet deeper integration with SAP is coming. Among the projects is an effort to integrate Business Objects' data integration and data quality software with SAP's master data management software, she said.

SAP hasn't indicated what, if any, products it will combine or eliminate due to overlap, but has said it will combine the core technologies in SAP's BI Accelerator -- an appliance that speeds query processing in Business Warehouse -- with Business Objects' technologies. Breya indicated this work will result in a new, improved BI accelerator that for the first time works with non-SAP data sources.

The focus of the SAP/Business Objects integration work reflects what nearly all software vendors in this market are trying to do: improve access to all sorts of data, no matter where it resides. That effort is already showing in Business Objects XI 3.0. It includes what the company calls integrated text analysis, from Business Objects' acquisition of InXight Software last year, which lets users search for data in unstructured sources, such as customer call records and external Web sites. That means, for example, that a user analyzing structured database data -- perhaps the purchase amounts and buying patterns of a customer -- can incorporate information on a customer's satisfaction level based on call center interactions.

By making more types of information available, SAP's Business Objects division hopes more customers will see value in expanding BI software to more types of users beyond business and financial analysts, including those in sales, marketing, and customer service.

That effort also includes improving the customer experience. A new query tool in XI 3.0 called Polestar is designed to work as easily as a consumer Internet engine. Xcelsius 2008 is designed to let users easily create interactive, shareable dashboards. Mobile software lets users access BI reports and data from smartphones. Crystal Reports 2008 embeds Flash and Flex, to improve usability and the ability to better integrate reports with business processes, according to SAP. And BI Widgets lets users keep personalized metrics on their desktops.

SAP's bigger vision, said CEO Henning Kagermann in a press conference last month, is to use the Business Objects acquisition to create what it calls a "closed loop," in which SAP users can rapidly adjust business processes in SAP applications based on business intelligence they get from Business Objects and SAP apps. That's a lofty goal compared with IBM, which said earlier this month it'll focus on integrating BI tools from Cognos, acquired last month for $5 billion, with IBM's content management and database middleware.

Last month, SAP began selling nine packages that include apps from both SAP and Business Objects for such areas as financial performance management, risk and compliance, and visualization and reporting. While these packages don't include any new integration work among the SAP/Business Objects apps, SAP says they're more affordable than if the software was sold separately.

SAP and IBM, meanwhile, will need to keep their eyes on Microsoft in the coming year, which is increasingly recognized as providing a viable, low-cost BI platform that's ideal for Microsoft-dominated IT environments. The bundling and pricing of Microsoft's first-ever cohesive BI package released last year, PerformancePoint Server, with its Office software apps and SQL server, is becoming a force to be reckoned with. In a report earlier this month, Gartner moved Microsoft into the leaders section of its magic quadrant for business intelligence platforms for the first time. And while Gartner rated Cognos and Business Objects higher on completeness of vision, Microsoft got the top ranking for ability to execute, which includes such things competitiveness of products and customer experience.

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