Enterprise BI Standardization Gains Steam - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management
02:38 PM

Enterprise BI Standardization Gains Steam

Enterprises are consolidating the number of BI applications they use as consensus builds that it's time to get a handle on analytic and reporting tools.

Consolidation and standardization are recurring watchwords in most IT shops, but they're now especially applicable to Business Intelligence. Enterprises are consolidating the number of BI applications they use as consensus builds that it is time to get a handle on analytic and reporting tools.

"About 70 percent of the queries I get are about standardization and consolidation of BI," said Meta Group analyst Kurt Schlegel. Companies' primary motivations, he explained, are cost savings, elimination of redundant systems, and establishing consistent analysis.

The savings can be significant. A large portion comes from the reduction in software licenses, but in some cases it's also from a lowered head count. Canada-based Zarlink Semiconductor, for example, used three different BI tools from Cognos, Business Objects, and SAP before it consolidated its business intelligence strategy. As part of an overall re-structuring of IT, the company set up a single data warehouse and standardized on Cognos. "We cut our total IT staff from 112 to 34," said Bill O’Connor, CIO at Zarlink. "A good bit of this was due to consolidation of BI."

For years, BI tools have proliferated throughout enterprises as individual departments built BI applications on an as-needed basis. The result has been the creation of duplication and overlap.

Such was certainly the case at office furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. "In the mid-90's, IS wanted to get out of the reporting business," explained Jeff Bakker, senior systems engineer at Haworth. "We had a reporting tool called Forest & Trees which we pushed out to the users."

These users, left to their own devices, created mini-IS departments devoted to BI. "They sprang up all over, in finance, in purchasing, in manufacturing, and they became little monsters," Bakker said. "The Forest & Trees applications were out of control. All the queries were stored on local hard drives. Many of them were complicated and inefficient. When they broke, we [IS] got the call. But often as not, we couldn’t fix them."

The biggest problem, however, was inconsistency in analysis. Because data wasn’t consistent, Bakker said, analysts from different departments sometimes got different answers for the same question. This, according to Schlegel, is one of the most important drivers for BI consolidation.

"In data warehousing, this is sometimes referred to as getting 'a single version of the truth,'" said Schlegel. "In BI it's a similar problem. You want a single version of the front end, analytic and reporting tools. Otherwise you can get people from different departments, who don’t necessarily trust each other, sitting around the conference table with conflicting analyses."

Bakker said his CIO was instrumental in bringing Haworth's rogue BI cells back into the IS fold. The company also standardized on Business Objects. "It wasn’t that hard to rewrite the applications in Business Objects," Bakker said. "The real challenge is convincing the user that the change is good." In cases like these where companies take away a familiar application, he explained, they need to make sure to give something back. Most users at Haworth have come to consider the new Business Objects tools easier to use and navigate, Bakker said.

But don’t expect consolidation efforts to give you a single tool that will serve all your BI needs forevermore. Schlegel said the reduction is usually much more conservative, such as rationalizing half a dozen BI products to a smaller, more integrated set. "You can do a wholesale rip-and-replace, and I sometimes see that, but it is rare," Schlegel said.

The reason is a familiar one for most IT professionals: Legacy systems die hard, especially ones that still perform reasonably well. It's far more common to see companies select a standard for all new BI application development rather than replace what they already have.

Selecting a standard is a little easier now than it was a few years ago as vendors have broadened their offerings. Most reporting and analytics vendors, Schlegel explained, are branching out from their core areas of expertise to offer more comprehensive BI suites. MicroStrategy, Cognos and Microsoft, for example, all have expanded their product lines to offer more robust, enterprise-level reporting tools.

In other words, the BI world is very different than ten years ago when, according to Todd Norris, manager of decision support services at Lowe’s Companies, "the difficulty was finding any packaged applications for BI and analytics."

Back then, Norris and his team wrote their own BI applications and a GUI to run against their DB2 database. Lowe’s also used Easytrieve analytic applications at the time, and over the next few years they acquired reporting tools from Brio and Crystal.

The mix was inefficient and expensive, however. "Cost was a major issue in our decision to consolidate around MicroStrategy," Norris said. His team recently worked with MicroStrategy to create more customized reporting. The effort has helped liberate critical, human intelligence, he said.

"By simplifying and consolidating, we've freed our analysts to use their brains more," Norris said. "They were spending way too much time figuring out how to churn out reports and get them to the right users, but now they can do more of what they were hired to do."

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