Evaluating Business Intelligence Options for Software developers


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(AP) Increasingly application developers are required to include
flexible and extensible reporting options within their core product
sets. This is not only being driven by CIO's, who rank Business
Intelligence in the top 3 of priorities, but also their end users -
the business users who are becoming more BI savvy, and whose
expectations are growing. The essential BI elements sought after by
end users in any integrated BI solution include:
1. Dashboards
2. Ad Hoc Reporting Functionality
3. Ease of use
And all of this needs to be web based too!

For the software vendor Business intelligence as a business function
continues to evolve from being primarily a downstream, after the fact
application silo, into a value-added, integrated component of packaged
and custom applications. This in conjunction with greater awareness
of BI is driving software vendors to deliver a comprehensive BI
solution as a module of their solutions. For the vendor this means
that they can either develop a solution from scratch in-house or
integrate a 3rd party BI package into their product suite.

In the past application developers have traditionally gone the in-
house development route to meet their BI needs. The benefits of In-
house BI development is a reporting solution 100% integrated into the
core product, hence the usability, look/feel and navigation will be
consistent with the core application.

The in-house option is fraught with difficulty however. For the
vendor, with a speciality in a functional space, they do not have the
time, expertise, resources, budget to build an enterprise quality
reporting solution, In house design/builds also risk lengthy delays,
design and construction complications and final product results that
miss the expectation of the design phase - not to mention the sales /
marketing teams. The engineering time associated with these delays
and cancellations are very expensive and lead to opportunity costs of
missed sales and revenue potential of a rapid go to market model. The
trend for developers is now to reduce coding time and where code
effort is needed to dedicate that time/effort to the core
functionality. To do this developers must fill the gaps in function
with other vendors products, be that commercial or open source
options.

Speed to market and leading BI capability are the prime drivers for
the selection of an embeddable BI solution. With embeddable being the
key point here. In delivering a BI module to their clients the
software vendors needs to search out a solution that can be highly
integrated into their existing solution and sold as a seamlessly
integrated module. After-all in the customers eyes they are
purchasing an additional module from their vendor and do not want to
deal with the complexity of a 3rd party.

The 3rd party integration option faces the difficulty of searching out
other vendors products that achieve the required functionality, yet
also integrate into the core products. Developers can try to pursue a
tight integration or failing that they must bridge the two
applications suites in a manner that does not confuse the end user.
Bridged software can work well, but the end user will need to deal
with two sets of navigation and differences in look/feel. For Business
intelligence, most solutions are designed for stand alone usage, such
that any attempts to embed them can be uneven. For example BI products
such as Crystal and Microsoft Reporting services which are easier to
embed, still suffer the legacy of the GUI world - they require client
side software to be distributed to enable access.

Time and budget are always the constraining factors in the development
and go to market cycle, so the business and architectural decisions in
choosing any 3rd party business intelligence tool must include:
1. Its ability to be integrated quickly to save develop time,
2. Its high level of stability and functionality to minimize on going
product support ; and
3. a cost sensible solution to allow customers to make easy buy
decisions. If your core solution is currently selling for $100.00 per
seat, it will not make sense to choose a BI add on that will drive
that cost to $500.00 per seat. The BI module has to be inline with
your pricing model..

In choosing a solution based on commercial aspects a "total cost of
development" evaluation framework is required by which a vendor can
anticipate their design results and minimize financial risk. This
framework embodies a cost-based analysis of factors that include:
* The total time to market,
* the cost of development,
* development tool cost,
* maintenance and support costs; and
* The cost of runtime licenses.
This is essential in making any solution choice be it opens source or
commercial.

One of the main choices in choosing a 3rd party BI solution is whether
to go open source or a commercially supported solution. The
commercial solution (or paid for open source) has dedicated
professional development/releases and a commercially focussed company
backing it or alternately one could look to an open source product,
that is free to use, with a potentially inconsistent code base,
uncertain development timelines, limited documentation, possible
integration issues, but again at the end of the day is free. In
Business Intelligence, open source projects like BIRT, Jasper or
Pentaho offer developers products developed and maintained by strong
communities. However, if integration and ongoing support costs are too
great or not definable, then the developer may well be better off
going with a commercial option.

Commercial options for software vendors include Crystal Reports,
Pentaho (Enterprise), Jasper (Enterprise), Microsoft Reporting
Services, and Yellowfin. Tier 1 products such as Cognos and Business
Objects have been excluded since their highly priced commercial models
and minimal integration options exclude them for the majority of
software vendors as viable options.

Most software developers want to develop applications that are:
1. Platform independent to enhance their market potential. This means
they are transportable across database technologies and OPSYS
platforms. If this is the goal then BI platforms that lock a vendor
into a platform must be excluded - for example Microsoft Reporting
services which is to restrictive with DB options.
2. Browser based - so their BI solution must deploy with zero client
footprint.
3. Integrated Security - so a highly flexible security framework is
required. Many solutions only provide role based security and not
data level security - which tends to be the core of most transactional
application.

Crystal Reports was once the embedded reporting solution of choice.
However, changes in ownership, and licensing, and the lack of
reasonably priced ad hoc have had a huge impact on the embedded
Crystal Market with Vendors looking elsewhere.

In terms of a product with a unique licensing model and functionality
that is suited to the software vendor on solution stands out -
Yellowfin. Yellowfin offers a pure browser based solution built on
Java for n'platform support. Not only does it include its own drag
and drop report writer but also supports BIRT and Jasper for added
flexibility. The most interesting aspect though is the pricing
model. Unlike traditional licensing schemes Yellowfin works with each
of its partners to set and share the revenue generated by the end
customer. This approach is different and its main benefit appears to
be simplicity and profitability for both Yellowfin and the software
developer. Yellowfin also has arguably the best dashboard concept and
usability for business end users.
As a browser based solution designed from the ground up to be
integrated into 3rd party applications it is unique. It offers
dashboards, ad hoc ROLAP and MOLAP reporting, analytical functionality
and a comprehensive meta-data layer.

JasperSoft and Pentaho both claim to be the most downloaded open
source business intelligence software, and have very similar BI
stacks. Their Suites are comprised of an interactive reporting
server, graphical and ad hoc report design interfaces, OLAP, analysis,
an ETL tool for data integration. Both offers an Enterprise version,
which we assume is commercially packaged, installable, supported and
documented. However, the licensing cost for the enterprise variant
brings the cost of either option on par with tier 1 competitors such
as Business Objects leaving little in terms of value added
differentiation.

The choice for software vendors in embedded BI solutions is not an
easy one. There are a multitude of options available to them.
However, the main considerations need to be one that has the right
level of functionality, is affordable; is easy to embed and most of
all easy to use by their end users. The BI component of any
application needs to be considered a core marketing tool - after all
the sizzle created by a dashboard can be the difference between a sale
or not.
 
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