Web 2.0 Business Intelligence: IBM i, Windows, or Both?

Business Intelligence
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Achieve an impressive ROI using i-based reporting and BI software to connect users to the latest Web 2.0 technology.


Editor's Note: This article is a distillation of the Webcast "Migrating from IBM Query/400?" which is available free from the MC Press Webcast Center. It also covers information from the white paper "Replacing Query/400: Understanding Your Options," also available free from the MC Press White Paper Center.


 Recent IBM announcements and acquisitions in the business intelligence (BI) market might lead you to think your company must be one of the few not yet embracing predictive analytics, data warehousing, or cloud computing for BI. In reality, most mid-size companies today rely on a mix of queries, reports, file transfers, temporary databases, and spreadsheets to help them make business decisions and share information.


IBM i customers have never lacked for software to help with reporting and BI, but until recent years, most of these tools offered the industrial-strength function and security well-suited to production report writing but lacked the presentation features, graphical development environment, heterogeneous database access, and variety of output options called for by business users. Combine that with a Windows-centric end-user community excited about collaboration software like Microsoft SharePoint, an IBM i support staff focused on maintaining the online transaction processing (OLTP) workload, and the widespread dependence on Microsoft Excel for analysis, and it's easy to see why many otherwise loyal supporters of the IBM i opt to hand off responsibility for reporting and BI to their Microsoft Windows and SQL Server team. Interestingly enough, the tendency to take this approach to reporting and BI is arguably most prevalent at customer sites with a larger than average IT support staff and a good appreciation for the strengths of the IBM i environment.


Cost savings is commonly cited as a justification for managing reporting and BI from Windows, but the performance and scalability improvements delivered by IBM through its current Power Systems, and soon Power7 technology, means most customers today have significant unused capacity in the IBM i environment. The cost of Microsoft Office, SQL Server Standard or Enterprise, SharePoint Server Enterprise, and other Windows data management tools, while competitive, is not trivial.


Many organizations begin their journey to Windows-based reporting and BI by transferring their data from DB2 to SQL Server each night or weekend. Relying on a nightly data transfer typically works until management asks for access to real-time data to monitor manufacturing processes, shipping, inventory, and other business factors. In many organizations, the IT department thinks it is doing its job by making sure the nightly data transfer is running, but the business users have long ago stopped using the data because it lacks the timeliness and reliability required for decision-making. Those undocumented, manually created spreadsheets continue to proliferate.


If you've taken this step, by the time you realize you need to provide real-time access to DB2 from SQL Server, you're almost certain to need to add a Windows server and licenses of SQL Server Standard or Enterprise. You probably also need an experienced staff member or consultant to sort out the connectivity, performance, and security considerations. Many companies don't realize they have never effectively established IBM i object-level security over their database until they give users access to the IBM i from an application that connects to DB2 via ODBC or OLE DB. At this point, someone will suggest hiring a database administrator.


Customers without the expertise to navigate these pathways generally stick with proven, but very limited and outdated, IBM i–based tools like IBM Query/400. Unfortunately, staying competitive by using software designed for the needs of the 1980s isn't easy.


At least part of the problem rests with IBM marketing, which promotes BI in the i environment by emphasizing long-term cost of ownership, scalability, and advanced DB2 performance features like encoded vector indexing and materialized query tables. While technically impressive, these benefits don't often resonate quite like simple cost-of-acquisition comparisons with the executives who make investment decisions. In addition, with BI software, technical arguments usually take a back seat to ease of use, which can usually be translated into "Does it look and work like the other software on my desktop?" IBM attempted to address this problem by offering DB2 Web Query as an upgrade path for Query/400, but as a Java-based Web application, it can pose performance problems when run on the smaller P5 and P10 IBM i configurations frequently used by the customers most likely to still depend on Query/400. Many of these customers are just as eager as large enterprises to leverage Web 2.0 collaboration solutions, but they need modern, IBM i-based tools that can connect them to that world without compromising the easy setup, database integration, security, and performance that attracted them to the IBM i environment.


The reporting and BI software required by these organizations must provide developers with a modern, drag-and-drop, point-and-click user interface that puts a Windows or Web-trained user at ease, supports extensive Web page and HTML report design features, and facilitates the delivery of real-time and static reports, dashboards, and multi-dimensional models to the Web browser, Windows desktop, and SmartPhones while consuming a minimum of CPW. The software must be able to deliver output in various formats to a wide range of popular email clients and Web browsers and easily integrate that output into collaboration software such as SharePoint Server Enterprise, where business users can customize and restructure it to meet their needs. Fortunately, today you don't need to move your data out of DB2 or look beyond the IBM i environment for solutions that meet these requirements. To see a demonstration of the one available from New Generation Software, Inc. (NGS), look for "Migrating from IBM Query/400?" in the MC Press Webcast Center.


Reporting and BI projects are supposed to be about providing fast, timely, secure access to current and historical data and delivering it in ways people can use. A company running its primary business applications on the IBM i operating system and supporting a large community of Windows, Web, and SmartPhone users can achieve an impressive return on investment by using today's best IBM i-based reporting and BI software to connect those users to the latest Web 2.0 technology.


You can download the Webcast "Migrating from IBM Query/400?" free from the MC Press Webcast Center and the white paper "Replacing Query/400: Understanding Your Options" from the MC Press White Paper Center.