The changing shape of the Business Intelligence marketplace: Applications vs. Platforms

I recently read the latest Gartner Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence (link) which put Microsoft as a leader.  However, what was more interesting for me than Microsoft’s success was how as an industry we see BI as a single marketplace, business requirement and vision, despite in my view it now being two separate areas: BI applications and BI platforms.

As this article will discuss in more depth we now have two communities with differing requirements, our IT departments and our business users, each with their own success criteria and their own levels of technical interest in the solution.

The early days

When I first started implementing specific BI services in about 2002 the only tools Microsoft gave us was Analysis Server in SQL Server 7 and PivotTables in Excel. We used Excel to pull data out of our cubes and let the finance team slice and dice the data on their desktops, as much as they could with a 32-bit memory address space. Everything BI related was clunky, resource intensive and second-place to the transactional systems. And while the finance team broke process by finding their own IT solution they were still slaves to the IT team when it came to getting it working.

SQL

From a marketplace perspective the solutions were predominantly from large global organisations such as Microsoft, Business Objects, Hyperion and Cognos. They involved heavyweight deployments which required partners to scope, consultants to implement, developers to develop and servers to host, just to report on data which we already had, it felt crazy in a medium sized business.

The teenage years

The next phase of the BI market development I saw was when a world of Excel add-ins matured. We used a business planning tool for Excel from a company called OutlookSoft (they were bought by SAP in 2007). These add-ins depended on their own application services which hosted their own web portals, sat on their SSAS cubes and compiled their own metadata databases in parallel. The scale of the platform was overkill for the functionality business users actually got. However, they did what the business users wanted and more importantly the business users got to steer their own boat and became less dependent on the IT department.

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The modern era

Fast-forward to 2010 and we saw a whole new generation of user-oriented BI tools returned in our Google searches. Microsoft’s PowerPivot and SSRS, and Tableau are two of the most prevalent as we enter 2011 and they show how the end user is now truly in the driving seat. Our end users want easy to use, cool and trendy applications that they understand and control. They want them to be working within an hour of installation with no coding. They want them to look nice and be controlled by a mouse rather than code. It’s these reasons that have seen PowerPivot, SSRS and Tableau become so popular.

In parallel to these end user tools we also have SSAS, SSIS, SSRS and Visual Studio to give us our BI platform. Defining success for one of these products is very different to how we’d define success for PowerPivot. They are designed to provide very different services to our end users, whether directly or more importantly in-directly.

BI

Conclusion :Applications and Platforms

So, what is my point? It still seems very strange that Gartner still group BI applications together with BI services. An end-user is unlikely to directly interact with SSAS while a Visual Studio and BIDS developer may use nothing else.

We should also consider the differences and similarities when we consider where BI is owned within a business. Do we upskill our business users to appreciate database queries, ETL processes or even MDX, or do we put business users in our IT departments where they immerse themselves of T-SQL developers day in day out? The reality has to be two business areas, one owning applications, one owning platforms, but with a common vision for success. Perhaps then we’ll be able to use the one-size-fits-all approach to BI the market is still portraying.

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