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The BI application consolidation challenge

Whether through departmental purchases, mergers or acquisitions, companies have a myriad of BI tools. Consolidating it is a task fraught with challenges.

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After years of piecemeal acquisitions of business intelligence (BI) applications, whether through individual departments purchasing tools on their own for the sake of expediency or through mergers and acquisitions, organizations find themselves with more than they need.

It's a situation many would like to change. And while BI vendors are rushing to proclaim themselves the true BI platform provider, making that transition is not an easy task.

According to a recent survey by the Seattle-based Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), organizations average 3.2 BI tools from different vendors and 13 BI tools altogether. They average almost three online analytical processing (OLAP) and production reporting tools, two dashboard/scorecard and query/reporting tools, and 1.5 data mining and planning/modeling tools.

"There's a real interest in moving toward a standard BI environment and replacing this hodgepodge of tools," said Wayne Eckerson, TDWI's director of research and author of the study. "Companies have decentralized a lot of decisions, plus BI is not a one-tool solution. There are many users and applications, but companies are trying to standardize on one tool."

According to the TDWI survey, 66% of organizations contacted said they were undertaking an initiative to standardize on enterprise BI, 17% said they had already done it and another 17% said they had no plans to.

It is an undertaking easier said then done. For one thing, organizations need to move toward IT centralization as a whole.

"If your organization is not moving to centralize, you're swimming upstream," Eckerson said.

Additionally, there are the inevitable political pressures that emerge within a company. People who have been using their own BI tool for an extended period of time do not want to change, even if a new application might work better.

Then there is the not insignificant matter of cost. New licenses, maintenance fees, training costs and new developers can make BI consolidation a painful experience.

"A lot of companies are adopting a go-slow approach," Eckerson said. "The best way is to enforce a standard for all new development and grandfather everything outstanding."

That means leaving existing tools in place without forcing departments to convert immediately to a new BI platform. Pressure can still be exerted, whether it's withdrawing support or not upgrading to the newer versions, Eckerson said. Eventually, software products reach an end.

The BI vendors have tried to accommodate this need by building on a standard architecture.

"They've finally found out what users need and want," Eckerson said. "The leading guys have rearchitected, so they all run on a [services oriented architecture]-based platform. They're developing BI platforms and not tools. It's a good fit."

While the open source movement is starting to make inroads into the BI market, it's still just a trickle, he added. Instead, enterprise application vendors are offering BI within their software packages, like with Germany's SAP AG's inclusion of BW for free and with Microsoft adding BI and extract transform and load tools.

But before any consolidation is done with front-end reporting tools, TDWI recommends that firms get their back office in order first.

"If you haven't fixed your back end, your BI tools won't have any impact," Eckerson said. "Do the hard stuff first, that consistent view of the business. Unless you have that it's pointless to do anything else. One mistake we see is some companies think BI is all about purchasing the BI tool and they're done. The tool is just the tip of the iceberg. It's a top-to-bottom process starting with your data. There is no one tool that meets all your user information requirements."

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