"This release doesn't just level playing field, it takes it up several notches," asserted Steve Lucas, SAP's general manager for Business Analytics at this week's BusinessObjects BI 4.0 launch in New York. "We are far and away the leader in many areas."
The list of improvements in this release presents a dizzying array of enhancements and new capabilities. SAP emphasized three themes: real-time, easy, and optimized.
I wrote about the BI 4.0 release in this blog and BI Scorecard highlight report after it was previewed at ASUG last fall. The BI 4.0 release is now in ramp up, a production-code version that is used by a pre-approved list of 30 customers. SAP expects the product to be generally available in the first half of the year, hinting that the May Sapphire conference would be an ideal deadline.
Some of the biggest improvements in BI 4.0 include multi-source universes, mobile, in-memory, and SAP integration. Multiple data sources at the universe level has been a long-awaited improvement. Earlier versions of the product gave users different approaches to handling multiple data sources: at the report level, users could merge data from multiple data sources, but it is a manual, somewhat tedious process reserved for advanced report authors.
Data Federator was an optional module that had limited adoption and required an extra server license. Data federation in 4.0 is included in the base license (a point of difference with MicroStrategy). For usability, SAP nicely highlights the different data sources in the Information Design Tool (IDT), a replacement to the universe Designer.
The mobile demos were equally impressive and exciting. SAP showed Web Intelligence (WebI) reports and Xcelsius Flash-based dashboards (Xcelsius is renamed just Dashboards in 4.0), on RIM's new, not-yet-released tablet device, the BlackBerry PlayBook.
That the Playbook supports Flash natively has to be the product's biggest differentiator over the Apple iPad (as well as corporate security, smaller size, camera, synching with smartphone, printing... but I won't digress). WebI on the iPad was also demonstrated. SAP BusinessObjects previously only supported Explorer content on the iPad. This reflects an important point to all customers -- that you need to know both what content and which devices your BI vendor supports.
Ramp-up customer Hilti (maker of power drills) talked about their experience with HANA, SAP's new in-memory analytic appliance that also leverages a columnar data store. Queries that the customer used to run in two to three hours now run in two to three seconds. The data volumes were not that big -- 9 million customer records. But it's the complexity of customer segmentation and that the queries were running directly in the transactional source system that made for slow queries.
Christian Ritter, head of Reporting and Global IT at Hilti, explained that with HANA, they would skip building a data warehouse altogether. Data is replicated in near real time from the SAP transaction systems into HANA.
Oddly enough, it was the SAP integration that got little attention at the actual launch event, as the vendor continues to try to remain agnostic for non-SAP business app customers. The company had pre-briefed me on what's new here, the main headline being improved performance between BW and the SAP BusinessObjects client tools.
Because the client tools now access content through the BICS (Business Intelligence Consumer Services) layer, a proprietary communication layer that SAP's Excel interface, BEx, also uses to communicate with BW. Xcelsius leveraged BICS connectivity last year, but now in BI 4.0, all the traditional BusinessObjects client tools do as well, including Web Intelligence. This change reportedly boosts performance by a factor of four and addresses one of the biggest complaints with the SAP BusinessObjects XI 3.1 integration kit.
Beyond the performance improvement, the other big benefits here are that customers don't have to first create a universe on top of a BEx query or BW InfoCube; the BEx query can be access directly in WebI.
The big question will be: what does this mean for third-party BI vendors who support BW and for customers who use third party BI tools? If you are an SAP customer with a custom data warehouse, the playing field is still level. If you're on BW, SAP BusinessObjects now has a leg up.
Two of my biggest questions about BI 4.0, though, remained unanswered (or answered but vaguely, so I am unconvinced). One question was "how easy will the upgrade be? Executives were clear to say it's an upgrade, not a migration, but none of the ramp-up customers at the event had evaluated the upgrade utilities.
The other question is about the impact of the 4.0 server running only on 64-bit operating systems. While many corporations use new hardware and OSs in their data centers, infrastructure for BI application servers seems to still be 32-bit (one recent survey cites 83%, which sounds high to me). Bottom line: if your current BusinessObjects deployment is on older hardware, you need to plan for an upgrade. And if you have server-based licensing that counts cores, expect to have to re-negotiate.
You tell me: is your BI server on 64-bit already? And if not, do you suspect that the 4.0 upgrade will be costly on the hardware and software licensing front?
Cindi Howson is the founder of BI Scorecard , an independent analyst firm that advises companies on BI tool strategies and offers in-depth business intelligence product reviews.