New Web 2.0-Oriented BI Tools Offer A Path Around IT

A new generation of vendor is creating tools that let businesspeople create their own BI applications.
You've heard about "BI for the masses," or using business intelligence software to generate reports and dashboards that are useful to most company users. But what if these conventional presentation methods aren't the best way to broaden use of BI? That's the idea behind a new class of offerings designed to let businesses quickly mash up public Web sources with internal data sources to create a new breed of analytic applications.

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Some of these offerings are intended to reduce or eliminate IT involvement in creating analytic apps. For example, Information Builders' WebFocus for Google Maps, to be released this week, lets nontechnical developers link data to Google Maps to create an app with a simple point-and-click process. And Tibco Software this week is releasing Spotfire 2.1, which lets tech-savvy business users create mashups using common scripting languages. Tibco's Spotfire unit is demonstrating a prototype mashup for pharmaceutical sales reps, showing charts of various drugs prescribed by physicians within a region alongside a Microsoft Virtual Earth map of the driving route for making sales calls to those physicians.

The two offerings demonstrate how small BI vendors are trying to show their innovation stripes in a rapidly consolidating industry, while larger vendors seem to treat the combo of Web 2.0 and BI as a cautious experiment. As mashup technology becomes easier to use, businesses face a big challenge in "how to allow end users access to the power of these tools without compromising the trust and integrity they have worked so hard to get into their data infrastructures," says Donald MacCormick, chief transformation officer with SAP's Business Objects, in an e-mail. As a result, mashups tend to be created by IT on the server-side data access layer of the Business Objects BI platform, instead of with SAP's Crystal Reports or Xcelsius data visualization tool, SAP says.

The ability for business users to create BI apps is new to most IT organizations, which are used to building OLAP cubes of data against which users can run queries and generate reports. But it's hard to imagine Web 2.0 approaches eliminating the need for such work. The new mashup technologies are mainly ways for presenting information in new, appealing forms while bringing in helpful external information. Data still has to be captured and organized in a way that it can easily be linked into mashups.

Still, emerging Web 2.0 approaches could take away some of IT's control over BI. "There's a trend around enabling end users and those who are not developers to get more control over how they analyze information," says Roger Oberg, Spotfire's VP of product strategy.

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Mashups are just one Web 2.0 area that could drive this shift. Gartner predicts that interactive visualization, in-memory analytics, and drag-and-drop development will marginalize IT's role in BI. One example of interactive visualization is Google's Gadgets, which visually display information on Google spreadsheets. Google this month began offering a gallery of gadgets with open APIs, including one from BI company Panorama Software for creating pivot tables within Google spreadsheets and one created by Google for bubble charts.

As Web 2.0 meets BI for the masses, businesses will need to reconsider how BI is managed and controlled throughout an organization. Managers from both business and IT should think about whether there are users who can benefit from these novel approaches to BI, and how they'll go about creating them.