Economic uncertainty is putting more emphasis on making smarter business decisions. Business intelligence tools, which can help, offer more choices than ever for System i shops.
One of the most important areas in which computing is being applied to business activity is in the realm of business intelligence (BI). From humble beginnings such as merely displaying an enterprise's financial results, BI has grown to become an exciting array of products and methods for analyzing business data and for making decisions about an enterprise's future directions, a process generally referred to as business performance management.
BI Bucks the Trend for Application Software
It's perhaps the recognition of the importance of making the best decisions from available business data that is helping BI products across all platforms defy the general trend of business caution in buying computer applications in 2008. A June industry report from Gartner, Inc. shows that overall revenue for BI, analytic, and performance-management application software rose more than 21 percent in 2008, a development that Garner Senior Analyst Dan Sommer attributes to companies in tough times wanting to "identify cost-centers, and then to more tightly align strategy with execution." In other words, figure out what your enterprise has been doing and how to do it better.
For an enterprise that uses a platform such as the IBM i, one of the strengths of which is databases, BI takes on a special importance, particularly in the current climate of economic retrenchment. If you're an enterprise in search of a new, or simply better, BI infrastructure, this overview of BI products available for the i may be of help.
Before we take a look at the available products, defining a few terms may help you sort out the general features your enterprise might find most valuable in a BI application. Dashboards are displays of information that use graphically intuitive icons such as gauges and dials. Data cleansing is the detection and removal from databases of records that are incorrect, incomplete, inconsistent, corrupt, or irrelevant. Data mining is a process of using data samples to find unrecognized patterns in that data. Data warehouses are repositories of corporate data optimized for fast retrieval, organized via a dimension-based model, and usually containing historical data (as opposed to regular transactional databases, which are updated many times daily with operational data). Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) gathers data, usually into a relational database, to support specific (usually financial) functions. Predictive analytics builds models based on data and ranks them according to user-defined criteria. Report mining extracts predefined information from reports or other sources and summarizes it.
Because of the number of BI products available for i, this article will simply categorize them in general ways rather than attempting to describe them. To assess the full range of features offered by each product, please consult the embedded links to vendor Web sites for a more complete understanding of what each product offers.
Although many enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications include BI capabilities, products of that application type won't be included here. This article also doesn't cover products that are exclusively programmer tools for building reports, dashboards, portals, and other BI accessories.
Remember: The following list is just a sampling. Other vendors may be listed in the MC Press Buyer's Guide.
Query and Reporting Tools
Generally speaking, query tools facilitate composition of structured questions against databases. The resulting information may be displayed online or incorporated into reports. Reporting tools generate paper or online documents containing business information.
BCD Software's Clover Query lets users design and run reports based on query data and display the results in a browser. BCD's EZ-Pickin's enables mining of existing reports to create interactive views and other graphical data displays. Connexica's NetSearch lets users search, analyze, and query information anywhere in an organization via a browser interface. Cyberscience's Cyberquery is an ad hoc query and production reporting system. IBM's DB2 Web Query for i is an extensible reporting solution designed specifically for DB2 databases. Joerg Carstens Software Consulting and Development's SoftRequest ReportManager provides a query and reporting system for existing applications that may not already have one. Momentum Utilities Pty. Ltd.'s OPEN/DB is a client/server reporting system for IBM i data and its supporting Jacana and Valet products that lets users design and run System i reports or report sets, respectively, from a desktop. Momentum's ValetMiner mines legacy IBM i reports for information. NewGeneration Software's Qport Office translates DB2 query information to Microsoft Office products. Planet J Corporation's WOW Multi-System Query lets users draw information from multiple-platform sources into a single result with one query, and its WOW Reports enables report development using MS Word and PDF programs. QSolve's Qi lets users generate reports and data analysis via Microsoft Excel. RJS Software's Report Delivery solutions provide multiple report-generation capabilities. SNS GmbH's iQuery.NET is a query tool and report generator built specifically for System i databases. Symtrax Corporation's StarQuery embodies the ability to query multiple data sources at once, automate report creation and distribution, and move the data to MS Excel.
Dashboards let the user (or the IT department) define certain business metrics and then provide an ongoing graphical representation of those metrics based on frequent refreshments of existing and newly entered data in company systems. IBM's Cognos Now! monitors key performance indicators and operational metrics via dashboards. New Generation Software's Business Performance Dashboard provides user-configurable dashboards. Visual Mining's NetCharts helps users generate dashboards and other visual displays from existing data.
These are products that provide specific BI-related services without the cost and features of more elaborate BI systems. Attunity's Connect provides connectivity to relational and nonrelational data on a wide variety of platforms, its Federate unifies heterogeneous data sources into a single business view, and the company's Stream product captures and reports only those changes made to enterprise data sources and transaction systems. Automation Centre's Tracker Data Warehouse is a Web-based miner for data warehouses that uses SQL Server as a back-end data store and interfaces with Crystal Reports. Dimensional Insight's InterReport is an on-demand reporting and analytics solution. Help/Systems' SEQUEL offers query and reporting tools, a report writer, business analytics, OLAP cleansing, and data distribution options. LogiXML's Logi Ad Hoc lets users build Web reports, analyze data, and create dashboards on the fly without programmer support. LANSA's LANSA Client provides query, reporting, and analysis tools for Windows and System i data via a GUI. Momentum Utilities Pty. Ltd.'s inTuator provides multidimensional analysis and charting tools for existing data. NewGeneration Software's SmartView offers an OLAP system with visualization options. SPSS's (soon to be IBM's, following IBM's recently announced purchase of SPSS) PASW Deployment Services is a platform for the deployment and management of analytic assets across an enterprise. Wynne Systems' InfoManager is a tool suite for extracting data from multiple sources, storing it in a data warehouse, and distributing it as graphical charts, reports, and dashboards.
Business Intelligence Systems
Full-blown BI systems incorporate most or all of the features of the product types mentioned so far and often go beyond that to provide such features as predictive analytics, planning and forecasting options, data integration and cleansing tools, and workflow and collaboration tools. Although usually designed with the large enterprise in mind, and generally scalable to a large number of users, BI systems can be useful to SMBs that offer a wide range of products and services to customers and therefore have a larger number of data points to consider than companies with more limited offerings.
Examples of this product type for i include BCD Software's Nexus Portal, Dimensional Insight's Diver, IBM's Cognos 8 Business Intelligence, IBS's Business Intelligence Software, Infor's SSA Corporate Performance Management, Information Builders' WebFOCUS, iWay Software's Enterprise Information Management Suite, Lawson Software's Lawson M3 Business Performance Management and Lawson S3 Business Performance Management, LogiXML's Logi 9, Manthan Systems' ARC Enterprise BI (tailored for retail), NewGeneration Software's NGS-IQ and Decision Assist products, SAP's BusinessObjects XI suite, Silvon Software's Stratum (tailored for manufacturing), and SPSS's ShowCase Suite. Each alternative offers a different combination of features, potential inputs, and information distribution options. Their relative values will vary according to your organizational needs.
Key Information Systems provides the Smart i Appliance, an IBM i Model 515 and Power System 520 with preloaded extraction software that builds a data warehouse from System i data and uses IBM's DB2 Web Query for user queries.
Coglin Mill offers RODIN Data Asset Management, a suite of products that lets enterprises build their own data warehouses and data marts. The suite includes a large assortment of tools for data extraction, cleansing, organization, and integration. Coglin Mill recommends IBM's DB2 Web Query as the BI engine.
Finding the Right Solution
With so many offerings available for System i, the real question when buying a BI product is how much of a good thing you really need. Is a query and reporting system good enough? Do you want the convenience and chrome of dashboards or other graphical displays? Is your operation big enough to justify the expense of a complete BI or data warehousing operation? While infinite knowledge is the ideal, the reality is that you'll have to balance features, convenience, and completeness with expense and time of implementation. Hopefully, this summary of BI options for System i will put you on the track of an application that suits your business needs perfectly.