Business Intelligence goes all 2.0

Business Intelligence developers are giving their tools "2.0" style makeovers to make them more usable and spur greater adoption.

Attention gen X and Y business users frustrated by BI tool user interfaces that feel tired and antiquated: Hang on for the next generation of business intelligence software. A class of business intelligence tools with a new visualisation layer will look a lot more like Google, and some will let you create your own portal, among other features.

Some experts are predicting a sea change, where the leading BI software makers -- such as IBM Cognos, SAP BusinessObjects, MicroStrategy and Oracle Hyperion -- will continue to serve the business analysis gurus, but another crop of vendors will cater to everyday information workers.

"There's going to be a major shift in how BI is presented because more users want higher-quality visualisation mashups and capabilities that are common these days on websites," said Joe Bugajski, an analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group Inc.

Some of these relatively new companies include Bissantz & Co., Tableau Software Inc., BonaVista Systems and Centrifuge Systems Inc., he said. There are also companies taking advantage of BIRT and other open source endeavors to create a more interactive visual experience through mashups and other add-on capabilities.

Such BI software tools allow users to build information portals through drag-and-drop capabilities. In fact, there's even a term for it -- mashboards (instead of dashboards) -- an interface through which users can create their own information portals by dragging and dropping different information elements through the use of Ajax or Flash technology, for example.

There are also open source options from companies like Actuate, Birst Inc., Pentaho JasperSoft., with BI Suite, and Jinfonet Software, with JReport.

Behind the curtain: All-important middleware layer

Behind the user interface of many of these tools is a middleware layer that's missing from today's BI initiatives, Bugajski said. Without middleware, or a data services platform, organisations run the risk of pointing a BI tool to a data source that later changes, causing the connection between the tool and the data sources to break down.

"You really need to be more rigorous about the way the data is organised in the business, and that's where the middleware comes in," he said. "And you can use the same APIs so the front end of the BI tool looks the same to the user."

Companies playing in the data services platform space include Composite Software, Oracle's BEA with AquaLogic, Progress Software with DataXtend, Red Hat Inc. with JBoss MetaMatrix, Altova with MapForce, Ipedo with XIP, Xaware and FireStar Software, according to the Burton Group.

Gartner analyst Bill Hostmann said problems with user adoption of BI tools stem not so much from the BI software, but rather the approach to user training.

"BI tool vendors have spent years making the tools easy to use, but if a user doesn't understand things like state analysis, statistical analysis or associations rules, the tools will be useless to them," Hostmann said.

Thus, training should teach users how to analyse and format data, using a combination of information, algorithms, rules and calculations to create an accurate representation of what they are trying to analyse, he said.

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