Business intelligence buyers face tough decisions

Mark Brunelli, News Director


They could go with a major business applications vendor like Oracle, SAP or Microsoft; a BI specialist like Business Objects, MicroStrategy or Cognos; or they could look to database management system (DBMS) vendors like Sybase and -- again -- Microsoft and Oracle, many of which are building BI functionality directly into database software these days.

The variety of choices can be overwhelming. But in the end, BI experts say, making the right BI decision means knowing where your company has been and having a clear understanding of where it's going.

For firms that already have a major investment in Oracle's DBMS or business applications, making the jump to Oracle BI probably isn't that much of a stretch. The same can be said for firms heavily invested in SAP. But companies that require more flexibility over the long haul might want to consider a BI specialist, according to Michael Schiff, principal of MAS Strategies, a BI and data warehousing consultancy.

"Part of it is a function of where you are today. But if you go with a BI specialist, there's a good chance that their technology is transferable and you can use it no matter where you go," Schiff said. "That's why these guys stay in business -- they're interoperable with everyone."

IT software buyers trying to pick a BI vendor should first take a look at their own firm's infrastructure. If they're using a whole lot of different technologies from different vendors, then a vendor-agnostic specialist could be the way to go, Schiff said.

Alternatively, firms that are satisfied with the software and support they get from Oracle, SAP or Microsoft might be best off standardizing, he said. In that case, he added, be sure to let big vendors know that your firm is "seriously considering" going with a BI specialist. It's a good negotiating tactic that could lead to a better deal and save money.

More information on business intelligence:

Special Report: Getting down to business intelligence

Expensive data warehouses not always necessary for BI

The case for Business Objects

Of all the BI specialists out there, Schiff says he's most impressed with Business Objects because of its wide variety of software and services. He says he also likes the company because it has done a good job of integrating the spoils of its acquisition strategy in recent years -- a strategy that included the 2003 purchase of Crystal Reports, a very well-known provider of enterprise reporting software.

"I used to joke that Crystal Reports is the most ubiquitous BI product out there with the exception of the spreadsheet," Schiff said.

When looking at any BI specialist, he said, it's important to make sure that it offers a broad spectrum of products and that it has the ability to adapt to changing needs.

"You gotta be careful when you look at BI specialists that are basically in niche markets," he said.

Getting to know Oracle BI

Oracle has expanded its BI offerings considerably in recent years. In 2005, the company divorced its BI offerings from its application server product and began offering them as standalone packages. In early 2006, Oracle Discoverer and is optimized for Oracle database and business applications. According to the company, Discoverer is a query, reporting, analysis and Web-publishing tool that lets users gain access to information held in data marts, data warehouses, online transaction processing systems and Oracle E-Business Suite.

BI Publisher, also known as Oracle XML Publisher, is available as part of Enterprise Edition or as a standalone product. Oracle says the software provides a central architecture for customers with complex, distributed environments and which need to deliver information to employees, customers and business partners in multiple formats.

Oracle's Real-Time Decisions software -- the fruit of its acquisition of Sigma Dynamics back in August -- can be used in conjunction with Oracle Fusion Middleware and its other BI offerings to analyze data and make decisions related to customer relationship management (CRM). The software, which Oracle used in its Siebel Real-Time Decisions product prior to the acquisition of Sigma, is essentially a high-performance transactional server that delivers real-time decisions and recommendations based on customer interactions and business processes.

What Sigma brings to the table

Oracle's purchase of Sigma Dynamics was a smooth move strategically speaking, according to Sheryl Kingstone, a CRM software expert and analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group.

Once Oracle's Fusion Middleware suite is complete, offering customers a more componentized and interoperable set of applications, Sigma's software will have the ability to make decisions based not only on information that resides within the CRM system but in back-office applications such as order management, finance and billing as well.

"Sigma Dynamics adds a layer of intelligence to [Oracle's] CRM analytics," Kingstone said. "It has the ability to normalize data so that you're not siloed within one area of expertise, and you're actually using information based on a holistic view of the business."

Companies weighing the many BI options before them should remember one axiom, according to Kingstone.

"It's really all about complexity and [finding a] single source of the truth," she said.

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