BI Parts Become a Platform - InformationWeek

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3/13/2006
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BI Parts Become a Platform

Cognos 8 transforms separate tools into a Web-based BI platform.

PROS
• Completely Web-based
• Robust and consistent metadata layer
• Easy but powerful query and analysis
• Broad set of BI capabilities within a single platform
CONS
• Limited caching will strain database servers and slow response times
• Framework Manager modeling tool is powerful but less than intuitive
• Reporting and analysis tasks are still somewhat separate
• Highly formatted reports are awkward to build and lack interactivity

2005 was the year of the BI suite, during which most leading business intelligence vendors had major product releases to address a broader set of user needs on an integrated platform. Cognos 8 Business Intelligence, rolled out in November, delivers BI on one, modern architecture, with purpose-built studios replacing what had been separate products:

  • Analysis Studio delivers OLAP capabilities (replacing Power Play Web)
  • Query Studio lets business users build basic ad hoc queries and reports
  • Report Studio lets experts build formatted reports and dashboards
  • Metric Studio lets you build scorecards (replacing Metrics Manager)
  • Event Studio lets you define alerts and actions for exception-based reporting and notification (replacing Noticecast)

All rely on the same server architecture, metadata and security--a major departure and improvement from the Series 7 product line. All the modules are Web-based, using zero-footprint DHTML or Java Script to author and interact with BI content. This is a key differentiator from BI products that author on the desktop and publish to the Web.

Cognos products have been criticized over the years for being proprietary and not well-integrated. Cognos 8 BI changes that. All interfaces use the same security for authentication, relying on third-party directory servers, such as Microsoft Active Directory or Sun ONE Directory Server. Metadata, including the business view of the data and report definitions, are stored in a relational repository (SQL Server, DB2, Oracle or Sybase). The same metadata layer is used by all user interfaces, putting businesses one step closer to achieving one version of the truth.

Although the product's Web-based authoring and analysis is impressive, its caching is limited. In Report Net 1.0, caching was nonexistent, and though it has improved slightly in Cognos 8, it remains a competitive weakness that will strain database servers and slow user response time. Once a user runs a report in Query Studio, routine tasks of filtering, displaying data in a crosstab or viewing the output in a PDF will requery the database. Caching is slightly better in Analysis Studio, in which drill-down and drill-up does not always requery the database; however, in all the studios, data is never saved with a report definition, thus forcing a query refresh when a user opens a document.

Building the Business Layer

At the heart of Cognos 8 BI is the business meta layer, called a "package," which administrators build in Framework Manager. Framework Manager lets admins create more robust models than were previously possible and with some capabilities not found in other BI tools. If you rely on third-party modeling tools, such as CA's AllFusion ERwin, Framework Manager can import these data models. In addition, the model can access multiple data sources: relational, multidimensional and XML files. The server and security integration in Cognos 8 doesn't extend to Cognos Finance and Planning (in contrast to the performance-management integration in Hyperion System 9), but the platform does provide integration where it matters most: Users can readily report and analyze off these data sources since Framework Manager models can access these data sources natively.

For those who need to combine data warehouse and operational data, Cognos has an exclusive relationship with EII vendor Composite. The EII model appears to Framework Manager as another data source, so the query engine can perform a distributed query. You could fetch "total open orders" from the transaction system, for example, and compare it to "product on hand" from the data warehouse.

New in Cognos 8 BI is the ability to build dimensional models within Framework Manager, blurring the line between query and analysis. With ReportNet, a model could contain only relational data sources and the system couldn't handle hierarchical data (such as months rolling up to quarters and quarters to years). Framework Manager now lets administrators define these hierarchies for relational or OLAP data sources. Query Studio users can drill within a relational report, Analysis Studio users can perform rankings and comparative analysis against relational data, and Report Studio users can create highly formatted documents against any data source. You can still use Cognos PowerCubes (or a third-party OLAP server) for better performance, but they're no longer strictly required for multidimensional analysis.

Although powerful, Framework Manager isn't very intuitive, even when building a simple model. There's a way to ensure that ratios are correctly aggregated at different levels, for example, but the method isn't well documented and requires the ratio to be separated from the query subject, a far-from-obvious approach. Given this complexity, customers should plan for training and consulting services before implementing the product.

Query and Analysis Converge

Query Studio and Analysis Studio are two of the strongest aspects of the Cognos 8 platform as they are easy to use yet powerful. With Query Studio, users can easily query any package (thus, any relational, multidimensional or planning data source) to create crosstabs, simple charts or detailed reports. Cognos 8 BI can apply formatted templates to give any report a standard corporate layout or logo. Also new are prompted and nested filters, which are easy to build from within Query Studio. When accessing a dimensional model, users can drill up or down to explore levels of detail, within a tabular report or a chart.

Analysis Studio uses the same underlying data model as the other studios, but you can perform more complex analyses such as percent-of totals, this-year-versus-last-year variances and rankings. The breakthrough in Cognos 8 is that analysis is no longer strictly against Cognos PowerCubes but also against relational data sources. Analysis Studio offers an intuitive dimension bar, an improvement over PowerPlay Web in that it now displays the dimensions used in the table or chart (see screen at left). A new Context Area lets you filter on dimensions that are not in the table. Comparative Analysis, another new feature, lets you freeze a given set of data, such as Northeast Region, and compare it to other sets. Analysis Studio automatically calculates subtotals and differences, an example of its ease of use and analytic power.

In both Query Studio and Analysis Studio, users can readily mix a tabular display or a chart, and a hover-over feature displays the value of an individual bar or wedge in a chart.

Cognos 8 BI brings query and analysis closer together, but I'd like to see more integration from an end-user perspective. If you create a query within Query Studio and then decide to rank or further analyze the data, for example, you have to create a new query within Analysis Studio. The integration in Cognos 8 is miles ahead of Cognos Series 7, but MicroStrategy's eponymous product does a better job of integrating query and analysis.

Generating Reports

To create formatted documents, power users and professional developers use Report Studio. Reports created in Query Studio or Analysis Studio can be opened in Report Studio and enhanced. Most of the capabilities of Series 7 Visualizer have been rolled into Report Studio, so developers can create a dashboard-style report that contains multiple charts or tabular data sets from multiple subject areas (within the same package). Report Studio offers additional chart types, such as gauges and maps, that aren't available in Query Studio or Analysis Studio.

Unlike other reporting tools (but consistent with the rest of Cognos 8 BI), Report Studio is completely Web-based. To design a formatted report, authors use tables to place objects. I found this cumbersome compared with simply placing elements anywhere on a page. Formatted documents also lack interactivity that report consumers need (and that is available in reports designed in Analysis Studio and Query Studio). Report consumers can drill within a report and answer query prompts, but once the report is generated, users can't perform simple sorts, filters or subtotals against the cached dataset. This forces users to export data to Excel to perform such manipulations, or forces developers to build more reports suited to individual users.

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