Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Modern Magic

Recently the 2013 Gartner Magic Quadrant came out for Business Intelligence and Analytics. I'm not going to get into the subtle nuances of what makes a Gartner Magic Quadrant "magic", but if you've heard of a vendor, chances are they are on here. If that vendor is fortunate enough to be in the upper right, chances are they are a safe bet, and if they are in some other area you'd better be buying them for a very specific use case.

Courtesy Alteryx.
My first thought after looking at this was that this quadrant doesn't make anyone look all that magic. To wit...
  • 40+% of those rated are "leaders". One can only imagine how populous the "followers" box must be.
  • 90+% of those rated are in half of the categories. Not exactly exploring the studio space on this graph, huh?
  • There hasn't been a visionary in the business intelligence space since 2009 (there were 2 back then). Seems like a real growth opportunity.
Thus far the only purpose this visualization serves is reminding me of the old adage that "half of all doctors are below average." The good news is that this heavy clustering in the upper right and lower left is nothing new.
2012 courtesy of Tableau.

2011 courtesy of The Dashboard Spy.
This brings up the the more interesting point, which is the the addition of "Analytics" to this year's criteria. It seems fairly obvious from looking at the last few years' worth of quadrants that this was just a concession by Gartner that Tibco and Tableau could no longer be shut out of the leaders quadrant even though they don't fit the model of a traditional BI software provider. Theoretically this means that Gartner has finally given a nod to a meaningful change in the market. Pessimistically it sounds like they realized their model was broken and this was the easiest way to cover up that people were buying too much software that wasn't in the Magic Quadrant's most magic quadrant.

This does leave us with a rather interesting situation where solutions that were formerly considered departmental (tools like Tableau, Qlikview, and Tibco) might now be tasked with meeting enterprise needs. Clearly the price tag is attractive, but I have a feeling that all of the same reasons keeping large enterprises from going to the cloud (maturity, FUD, and the difficulties in extending and customizing solutions) are going to keep these smaller vendors serving marketing or HR while Cognos and BusinessObjects present the majority of data within most organizations.

In the end, I think Gartner's Magic Quadrant continues to serve the purpose it always has, which is a security blanket for those in procurement who won't buy any software that isn't at least mentioned. Only time will tell if that security blanket is getting a little thread-bare now that a vendors presence on here could mean they could be a safe bet for a large enterprise solution, a small or medium-sized enterprise solution, or even a departmental solution.

For an SAP-specific slant, please check out Dallas Marks's thoughts.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Semantic Argument

This post was inspired by a Video Report Card for SAP Analytics I was fortunate to be able to participate in with Jon Reed (the sponsor) and included John Appleby, Derek Loranca, and Clint Vosloo. No one paid me anything for that. :)

The last two years have seen a flurry of activity from the Analytics team at SAP. A lot of things that were promised were delivered. New tools like Visual Intelligence, Predictive Analysis? Check.  Xcelsius roadmap (including the new Design Studio)? Check. BI4 stability? Getting checkier by the day. Are their some concerns still left with these items? Sure, but we are certainly better off on these fronts than we were a year ago.

The bigger problem with the current state of the portfolio is a burgeoning list of Semantic Layers for the SAP Analytics tool set (see around 17:19 of the video). We have the Universe (the one that SAP paid €4.8 billion for in 2007 and temporarily referred to as the Common Semantic Layer in BI4 until they realized it wasn't), we have the BW semantic layer, and we have the HANA semantic layer, and none of them talk to each other particularly well (or at least best practice is that they shouldn't).*

Certainly there are some advantages to allow these three semantic layers to continuing growing in their own directions. Innovation that applies to only one data source can be sped up because it doesn't have to worry about integrating with the others. Performance can be optimized because only one source system with its particular constraints must be considered. Unfortunately I don't think that begins to outweigh the disadvantages for both customers and SAP itself.

The disadvantages for customers apply to both legacy SAP and classic BusinessObjects customers. The two key issues I see are the slowing of innovation across the portfolio and the extra work required to maintain multiple semantic layers. Even if SAP wanted to invest for all three data sources (HANA, BW, Universe) simultaneously, it just wouldn't make sense. Investing every minor semantic layer change in each system to work with all of the reporting tools in the portfolio would be absolute murder, not to mention that any change to a reporting tool would need to be run back through three different sets of semantic layer developers to ensure integration. This creates a lot of points of failure at a time when stability has been recognized as a serious source of concern for customers.

If this three-headed monster continues, it also follows that the Total Cost of Ownership of any such system is going to balloon for customers. If the BusinessObjects platform has more things running under the covers that means more or at least bigger patches which means you'll need more administration time, more testing time, and more end user communication and training. And that's just if you employ one of these tools. If you've got more than one semantic layer running you'll need to have experts in each, or one very thinly stretched expert (who will be constantly looking for another job). This also means more training for users, more confusion, and a real loss of goodwill from users who now have to understand connecting to multiple data sources in a  reporting tool rather than just understanding how the Universe works and going from there.

BW isn't either.

Multiple options exist. SAP could continue investing in all three, but that is problematic because of the reasons published above. Encouraging customers to run all of their HANA data through BW has some potential, but it seems that takes away a lot of the benefits of HANA without a lot of benefit from BW. They could invest heavily in HANA semantics and offer fantastic pricing, although that still won't solve the enormous amounts of data that are not and will never be stored in-memory that still need accessed (not to mention the loss of goodwill from legacy BusinessObjects customers whose only solution is buying new software).

In the end the best solution is simple albeit not easy: make HANA and BW work properly through the Information Design Tool (IDT - the successor to the pre-BI4 Universe Designer). I know this wouldn't be easy, but I'm not sure why we have to actively encourage people to avoid the using the IDT when connecting to BW or HANA data sources. Perfect the "common" semantic layer for any data source, and every reporting tool downstream would be able to innovate on features and not just play catch up on connectivity. It would have been better to do this before the release of BI4, spending the million man hours on perfecting the semantic layer with slight tweaks to the reporting tools. I realize that exploding pie charts with sound sell software, but software that is easy to use and cheap to maintain sells itself.

* It's worth noting that we also have legacy .UNV files (from the old Universe Designer and new Universe Design Tool), Analysis Views (for OLAP), Crystal Reports Business Views (which are deprecated but have no migration option). 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ducks on the water

Inspired a little by Kurt Bilafer's mantra of "you don't need to get all of your ducks in a row, you just need to get some ducks on the water" I shared a post on the Decision Factor blog about which subject areas to start with in a new BI implementation.
Please note, I'm not suggesting reporting off of these guys.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Picking your friends in high and low places

I dropped another post on the Decision Factor blog today about who to engage in your organization on a BI project. I actually think a lot of these same points apply to any IT project, but audience blah, blah, blah.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Success in BI

Just wrote a post on the Decision Factor blog. Go check it out.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Culling the Catalog

Not that long ago (OK, that long ago) the BusinessObjects portfolio consisted of just one tool. In the last 10 or so years, that portfolio has become a bit... bloated (it's OK for me to use that word in the same way it's OK for a flight attendant to call another flight attendant "the stewardess word"). While the robust growth of the product count was justified before (BusinessObjects buying Crystal Decisions was HUGELY important and obviously SAP buying BusinessObjects was the right move in that market), SAP has begun to show that it shouldn't continue to support the full breadth of its home-grown and acquired business intelligence catalog.

The first hint at this culling of the herd was the release of Crystal Reports for Enterprise (CRE) with it's BI4 platform update. This new tool looked exactly like Webi and Crystal had a baby and got the best DNA from each parent. The second, and more obvious signal is the eventual convergence of Xcelsius into the Zen product. With these releases SAP has signaled that they recognize just throwing half the product sheet out isn't good enough and that they need to step back and see what customers actually need NOW, not what they needed years ago.

So what do customers want/need? I think SAP has nailed this spot on by focusing on functions and users rather than tools.

  • The core of BI consists of canned reports, currently serviced predominantly by Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence (Webi). CRE is clearly a first stab at converging those two toolsets into something that can be developed by developers in (hopefully) a block or line format with pixel-perfect visualizations from any data source and deliverable in any number of places.
  • Self-service BI used to be the domain of Web Intelligence but quite frankly, it just isn't easy enough to use for most users. Unless you are a power user and live and breath the stuff, you don't want to generate a query and format a report. You want to see something more like Explorer, where you search for "Paris leather sales" and it spits you out a number. Power users want to go deeper, but they also want a more consumer-like experience, and Visual Intelligence (or Visi, part of the Explorer family) is going to make those people very happy. For those power-power users, SAP is also adding Predictive Analysis, something it can tightly integrate with its portfolio and not have to pass money down the line because they're just licensing another vendor's technology.
  • Finally, there are BI applications, which go beyond just delivering data into something featuring more interactivity and extensibility than we've been able to provide before. If Zen can meet its somewhat lofty goals while still allowing non-developers to develop (as Xcelsius does), then I can buy into bringing all of those use cases under one umbrella.
Some of you will (rightly) point out that I've opened a blog about "thinning" the BusinessObjects portfolio by listing 4 new products (CRE, Visi, Predictive Analysis ,and Zen) but that really had to happen. Overextending tools like Webi (which started as self-service and evolved into canned reports) is what got us in this mess in the first place. SAP is basically reinventing their portfolio to solve current problems without tossing aside the investments so many of us have already made into a specific tool.

Are there still open questions? Sure. Where does Exploration Views fit in (for my money, it is squarely between Core BI and Self-Service BI)? How do they invest in the future without letting their current tools die on the vine (as many have accused Xcelsius of doing)? How do they make sure they don't bet on the wrong horse (something something iPads and Flash)? When are they going to get the mobile piece right (they are getting closer but aren't quite there all the way across the platform)? When will Deski actually be blighted from the face of the earth (not soon enough)?

I know some are confused by the direction SAP is taking its BI portfolio, but I think this is just because most people simply haven't bought into SAP's new commitment to renewal. We aren't used to an enterprise vendor willing to invest so heavily into a completely new direction. Will this new direction give them some new license sales in the short term? Sure, but I don't think enough to offset the cost to develop it (most people with Explorer licenses don't even have to pay for Visi). SAP knows where they need to be in order to lead the market in 10 years, and they're willing to buy into that vision early.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SAP as a Platform (SaaP?)

If you were wondering why I hadn't posted my thoughts on last week's ASUG Annual Conference/SAPPHIRE  Now, it's because I gave them over at ASUGNews.

Thanks so much to Tom Wailgum for looking past all of the swear words in my first draft and removing this link from the Ricky Bobby quote (NSFW)