The common refrains in every big business intelligence product debut this year have been "unified," "comprehensive" and "bringing BI to more users and applications." The chorus began in January with the launch of both BusinessObjects XI and Microstrategy 8. It continued in March with Information Builder's WebFocus 7 and in April with SAS's Enterprise BI Server. Last week, it was Cognos' turn, with its announcement of Cognos 8 Business Intelligence, and in November, Hyperion is expected to launch a next-generation BI platform based on its "Avalanche" project.
The objective, of course, is to be selected as the enterprise-wide standard for BI, so comprehensive capabilities and consistency in user interfaces, functionality, security and integration is key. The variation on a theme at Cognos' September 14 launch in New York was "single product, single architecture." Due in November, Cognos 8 consolidates the functionality of formerly separate products, including PowerPlay, Visualizer, Metrics Manager and NoticeCast, into the services-oriented architecture underlying ReportNet, the Web-based reporting environment Cognos introduced two years ago.
"What they're doing is pretty profound," says Forrester Research Analyst Keith Gile. "One, they're getting rid of all their separate brands in favor of one Cognos brand. That tells you they're serious about providing a single platform. Two, it's huge going from client-server for everything except ReportNet to an entirely services-oriented architecture."
Cognos says it has truly re-architected its products for the upgrade rather than simply creating Web services calls on legacy code. Gile had yet to see the actual product, but he speculates that much is true given that Cognos could have delivered a more superficial approach "within a month of introducing ReportNet."
Notably, Cognos 8 will let users apply BI functionality—reporting, analysis, dashboarding, scorecarding and event management—and let that functionality be performed against any data, including both relational and OLAP sources. The platform also presents a single metadata layer and a single query engine.
"This blurs the lines between OLAP and Reporting, which have long been separate in Cognos," says Cindi Howson, president of ASK, a BI consultancy. "That's somewhat in response to the success of Microsoft Analysis Services and a trend in the industry that OLAP data storage belongs more with the database vendors. Yet it's also very customer driven: Users shouldn't have to care where the data is or whether it's relational or OLAP to be able to analyze or report off of it."
Contrasting Cognos 8 with rival products, the company points to built-in support for real-time dashboards as "just another report type" rather than a separate product or module, and it highlights a new business event management feature and integrations with business process management vendors including FileNet, IBM and EMC Documentum as a differentiator.
"It's more than looking for events in the data and sending out notifications; we're looking over the time horizon [to spot patterns and predict recurring events]," says Christopher Dziekan, Cognos' vice president of platform strategy and market development. "We'll also work hand-in-hand with process engines, so we can pass context to them to automate a change in the process and, likewise, so they can share data with Cognos and leverage BI in their models."
Does Cognos' claim to "the industry's first single product to deliver complete BI functionality" ring true? Not quite, says Gile. "BusinessObjects is an integrated platform that has multiple services that can be turned on and off," he says. "You can argue that the services haven't been decoupled down to the same level as Cognos 8, but it represents the same thing. Microstrategy was also one of the first to bundle all these capabilities together... though they have clear limitations in the data they can get to."
As for the goal of spreading BI to more users, studies by Gartner, among others, show high awareness and interest in BI yet relatively low penetration. That means many more users are hungry for BI capabilities, but the database vendors also have their eyes on mainstream needs. The tools offered by the platform players may not be as mature or as deep as those of the pure-play BI vendors—and their ability to tap into diverse data sources will no doubt be limited—but in the race to spread BI, cost per seat may loom larger than qualitative concerns. Cognos, for one, has a new licensing plan with stripped-down pricing for basic consumers of reports, but the very idea of counting heads may be hold-out thinking from BI's departmental days.