The state of BI tools

Who's offering what, and some low-cost options

Self-service tools are becoming a must-have for successful BI vendors.

In 2009, small, "visionary" self-service BI companies like Tibco Software , QlikTech and Tableau challenged established BI vendors by introducing "intuitive, interactive BI tools" and "strong, interactive visualization tools for analysis," according to a Gartner January 2010 report.

The big players have fought back with their own self-service introductions: Microsoft's PowerPivot , SAP's BusinessObjects Explorer , IBM's Cognos Express and Information Builders' WebFocus Visual Discovery . Pure-play BI vendors including Targit and MicroStrategy also have self-service offerings.

However, prospective business buyers should be aware that all self-service offerings are not created equal. One of the key differentiators is ease of use, according to Forrester vice president Boris Evelson. While most BI vendors claim to have user friendly and intuitive applications and tools, "what's intuitive to a BI professional is not necessarily intuitive to, say, a marketing analyst," he points out.

End users with limited BI expertise need tools that prompt and guide them through basic BI tasks, as well as customizable report and dashboard templates, he adds. Other key features include a Web portal for sharing information and a natural language interface for queries and searches.

Power users such as business analysts, on the other hand, want sophisticated BI tools such as in-database analytics, that give them the flexibility to drill down deep into databases, and create their own views and queries on the fly, but without having to deal with the technicalities of the underlying data infrastructure -- which would require IT assistance.

Cost is another major differentiator, particularly in these troubled times. (See related sidebar, "The costs of BI" .) Companies that already have a leading BI vendor's platform in place can usually add a self-service front end with minimal effort and cost, according to Jim Kobielus, a senior analyst at Forrester.

Major BI vendors like IBM Cognos, SAP and Oracle offer entry-level products geared to companies with limited budgets and basic BI needs.

Microsoft's BI platform -- which is based on SQL Server, SharePoint and Office -- is another popular low-cost option for small and medium-sized companies.

Larger organizations are turning to open-source BI platforms including the BEE project , Jaspersoft , Pentaho , and SpagoBI . However, business decision-makers should be aware that "open source does not always equal free software [and] you will get what you pay for," Evelson says. Some open-source BI products should be labeled "some assembly required," because the various components aren't fully integrated, he says.

Further, some open source suites lack features and functions needed by large-scale operations, including GUI-based administration, robust and integrated security , scalability tools like load balancing and connectivity to popular data sources, Evelson adds.

Finally, consider outsourcing . A number of established BI vendors now have SaaS offerings , including Tibco (Silver Spotfire), IBM (Pivotlink), and SAP BusinessObjects (Crystalreports.com). In addition to cutting capital and IT staff costs, cloud -based offerings enable a business to easily extend the reach of its BI system to remote end users, as well as business partners, via the Web.

[Next: Self-service BI is catching on .]

Read more about bi and analytics in Computerworld's BI and Analytics Topic Center.

This story, "The state of BI tools" was originally published by Computerworld.

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