With the scope and features of business intelligence applications hitting new stratospheric heights of splendiferousness, are simple query tool products being left behind? Apparently not just yet.
Sometimes you just don't want all the glitz. While one of the messages our whole culture seems to be delivering is one of "biggest is best," there are still situations when simple solutions are all that's needed. One of the best illustrations of that idea may be database query tools.
Even though many of these data-retrieval utilities are now embedded in applications that offer levels of complexity ranging from report generation and distribution tools to business predictive-analytics suites, sometimes all you really need right now is a factoid or two to get on with the task at hand. Not that all those other bells and whistles aren't frequently useful, of course, but sometimes it's also good to focus on the basics.
Some Query Tool Vendors Agree
When posed the question of whether or not query tools are fading in importance compared to more feature-rich business intelligence (BI) apps, literally two out of three query tool vendors consulted agree.
Bill Langston, director of product marketing at New Generation Software, is one who agrees query tools still have their place. "In the larger companies you see BI capabilities [in demand], but in the typical small-to-medium companies that are the heart of the i market, query tools are still the primary tool," he reports. "There's a lot of buzz about [IBM's] Watson and such, but it hasn't trickled down to the smaller companies. The vast majority of users just want to query data and pull it into a spreadsheet."
Tom Huntington, vice president of technical services at Help/Systems, echoes Langston. "We just had a record year with SEQUEL [Help/Systems' query tool]. We're finding that many companies that have bought into large-scale BI products are [having] issues with security, latency, and complexity that have kept their end users from really using these products. It's amazing how many companies still use IBM-based green-screen query because [their] large-scale BI product is too complicated."
At Least One Doesn't
Marcel Sarrasin, product manager at ExcelSystems Software Development, which handles product support for BCD International's Clover Query and other products, is more equivocal. "There's a place for both [product types]. The pure query tool is fading for non-technical end users. Programmers will use SQL to pull a quick fact or total, especially if it's a query they don't plan to run over and over. But the end user that used [to rely on] Query/400 [increasingly wants] to get results over the Web in a graphical interface or put them into a spreadsheet. Having all the function in a BI tool reduces the need for something ad hoc, even though it may require more technical knowledge on the part of the end user."
Do Query Tools Have a Future?
When asked if query tools still have a future as a product type in a market where they must complete with full-featured BI, all three vendor representatives agreed that they do, although they differed on what role query tools will take.
"I think the markets are going to be more and more spread out, from tools that do one thing up to business analytics apps and so forth. There will be more and more players with wider and wider capabilities," predicts Langston.
"We see a very good future for SEQUEL, since it is easy to use and helps customers with their immediate needs of getting data from IBM i securely and in formats that are easily adaptable to today's market," Huntington notes.
"Query tools will be more for programmers [looking] for quick answers," Sarrasin forecasts. "We'll see some use of them for mass updates or deletes of records or one-time uses on test files for a specific statistic or sum."
If query tools have a future, then what changes might we see in them over the next couple of years?
"We see customers wanting more and more consolidation of data from other platforms with IBM i," Huntington relates. "The other areas of concern are easy access for end users through dashboards, and security."
"We see interest in people moving apps and data to hosted systems," Langston points out. "Understanding how to leverage reporting and BI in that environment will be important."
"If [the product type] is going to remain a query tool, it will morph into low-level BI," Sarrasin foresees. "Otherwise, people will [at least] be creating Web interfaces over them."
Vendor Advice on Buying a Query Tool
What advice would these vendors offer to a prospective customer looking for a query tool product?
"Be clear on who the real end users are going to be," advises Sarrasin. "[Consider] how the users will access the tool. Does it have a Web interface, easy access, and is there a way to manage queries? People getting real-time info is what people need to drive business decisions."
"Test-drive the product and [have] not only a developer looking at it but also have your end users and the managers involved," Huntington recommends.
"Look for things that let you eventually take on more capability as you need it, and look for products that can help you use existing capabilities," Langston suggests. "Leverage in-house people skills."
Query Tools and the i Market
Below is a profile of all the basic query tool products that are available for the IBM i market. All of them share certain characteristics. They all run natively on the i (although descriptions note if they don't run under the i/OS). All are either query tools first and foremost or else they have a query tool embedded in them. All extract information at least from DB2 databases on i servers, and most can also extract information (or have add-on products that help them) from databases on other platforms as well. Nearly all have added features that let users export data in a variety of formats, display data in a variety of ways, and plug the data into report writers and, often, other applications. If you're looking for a query tool to help you keep track of important data, the most important differentiator will be the ways in which the data a tool can retrieve for you can be used in ways that best fit the way your enterprise does business.
Please note that the brief summaries used here in no way cover all the features each software product provides. You should consult the links provided for each product and contact the associated vendors for a more complete idea of what each query product has to offer.
And as always when looking for products or services, be sure to check the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide.
Database Query Tools for IBM i
Clover is a Web-based tool that lets users design and run queries and reports via a browser. The product also includes query templates and SQL wizards that let even nontechnical users edit database records and generate reports, executive dashboards, and MS Excel spreadsheets.
Monarch for EZ-Pickin's is a query tool for mining existing reports, thereby letting users view and distribute data from reports generated on virtually any platform. The utility lets users build such aids to understanding as charts, graphs, summary reports, and customized tables.
Cyberquery is an ad hoc production query and reporting system that runs under AIX, other forms of UNIX, and Windows. It can interact with virtually any database system, including non-relational ones, making it particularly useful in mixed-platform environments. An optional accelerator add-on helps increase query performance.
Dharma/SQL offers a fully functional SQL interface to a wide range of database protocols, including SQL-92, ODBC 3.5, .NET 3.5, JDK 1.6, and JDBC 4. The product interfaces with the Dharma Integrator, an application integration hub that lets users tie data queries to a wide range of application programs.
DB2 Web Query for IBM i lets end users generate queries, reports, and dashboard-style outputs from IBM i database information via a browser. Based on Information Builders' WebFOCUS product line, DB2 Web Query is a replacement for IBM's traditional Query/400 product and offers database adapters, report-authoring features, and a developer workbench for creating complex or reusable query programs.
WebFOCUS InfoAssist is a subordinate product of Information Builders' WebFOCUS business intelligence suite. InfoAssist provides database query and ad hoc reporting assistance for end users, enabling creation of anything from simple queries to complex reports, dashboards, and charts with a variety of possible output formats.
InTuator is a database query product that lets users extract information from IBM i databases and applications. Its features include multidimensional data drilling, chart analysis, the ability to link across application areas, the ability to export results to MS Office applications, and a portable mode that lets users perform data analysis even when not connected to the host server.
Surveyor/400 is both a query tool for end users and a database maintenance tool for developers. Its query functions include the ability to query, display, and edit database records with a graphical file editor, as well as the ability to enter, run, and test SQL statements. Other features include the ability to download data to MS Excel, organize files into user groups, and access databases on multiple machines with a few mouse clicks.
New Generation Software
NGS-IQ is a business intelligence suite that includes query capabilities as well as a wide range of report and other output options for gathered data. The suite's query and reporting component, IQ Server, includes a runtime Web interface, hyperlinks in output reports, simplified file joins, wildcard file searches, and email and other report-distribution options. A separately licensed IQ Connexion module gives users access to databases on platforms other than IBM i servers.
ProData Computer Services
DBU functions as a query tool for end users while also providing numerous database editing and maintenance features for developers and database administrators. Its query functions enable complex SQL searches, data exports to comma-delimited and XML files, and numerous on-screen formatting options for displaying data results.
RDB Connect provides access to off-platform databases for all IBM i high-level languages. It enables execution of any SQL query by IBM i applications on non-i databases, import and export of data to and from IBM i servers, and synchronization of data across platforms.
SQL/Pro breaks SQL statements down into English-like commands that even non-technical users can understand, enabling them to query, print, and alter data at will. SQL/Pro supports queries of up to 32,750 characters, generates error messages for poorly constructed queries, and offers F4 prompting to help novices build queries.
Sequel Software, a Help/Systems company
SEQUEL is a query tool and report generator that offers a Windows-based GUI for end users, a drag-and-drop interface for building queries, optionally predefined JOIN criteria and other features that let even novices build meaningful queries, data distribution via email and Web using a variety of MS Office and other file formats, and extensive built-in reporting options.
StarQuery is a suite of data-access and manipulation tools that includes the ability to query several databases simultaneously, lets end users add fields and conditions needed to report specifications, and enables use of ad-hoc or standard queries.
StarQuery Web provides the same query and reporting features in a version that is accessible via browser.