Smart i Business Intelligence Solution Debuts in Los Angeles

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Initial installation of the low-cost BI solution based on DB2 Web Query running on IBM i is ready for user-acceptance testing.


The first installation of Smart i, a new and bold business intelligence utilization of a Power System server running IBM i, has just been completed in Los Angeles and is now undergoing final user-acceptance testing. The degree to which these early adopters feel comfortable working with the DB2 Web Query-based solution could affect sales of IBM i Power Systems servers for years to come.


No fewer than five companies have been working closely together for nearly a year to bring the creative yet cost-effective solution to market, and the final product will be marketed as a business intelligence appliance to companies that appreciate the System i architecture, feel comfortable with its security features, and don't want to increase their head count just because they wish to launch a full-fledged data warehouse or data mart solution.


"The great thing about DB2 Web Query in my opinion," says Doug Mack, product marketing manager, Power Systems Marketing, IBM Systems and Technology Group, "is that it allows us to really leverage features in DB2." Notes Mack: "If you can push some of the processing logic of the query into DB2--and let the database engine do what it's good at--we can significantly improve performance."


Performance and security are must-haves when you're building a data warehouse, and the new Smart i Appliance allows users to retain both. Moving data off the production machine and keeping it safe where only authorized users can view it can start the ball rolling toward building a data warehouse that department-level users can actually utilize. That 80 percent of early data warehouse efforts ended in failure is only one of the factors that prompted Key Information Systems' Pete Elliot to conceive of Smart i, an appliance and training solution based on the System i and Power Systems platforms that gets users up and running with a data warehouse in a matter of weeks, helps them with training in building complex reports and queries, and gives them a start at earning a return on their investment practically before the ink is dry on the signed purchase order. Elliot notes that the slogan Key has come up with to describe Smart i is, "business intelligence that works."


"The business intelligence community has been geared toward providing users who need a car with a kit, then telling them to build the car themselves," says Elliot. "You want a car? So here are the parts, go make the car. What we're basically saying is you don't have to build your own car. We have cars available for you that are already pre-built--and we'll even teach you how to drive it!"


The first car off the assembly line is being claimed by the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), a widely-known IBM shop in Los Angeles that has boldly and successfully implemented a number of new solutions for the System i, including the IBM-3Com Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phone system that Chief Information Officer Roxanne Reynolds-Lair says works flawlessly and is one she wouldn't trade for any other solution--telco-based or otherwise. The latest implementation of an early-adopter i solution--the Smart i business intelligence appliance--appears to be working out extremely well for FIDM, IBM, and the Business Partners who are bringing Smart i to market.


But the road to a working business intelligence solution is never strewn with roses, and the IT team at FIDM has been working hard with another partner in the project, Systech Solutions of Glendale, California, a firm that specializes in business intelligence solutions and training and is known in the industry for its "quick-start" BI implementations.


"What we are delivering at FIDM is a state-of-the-art data warehouse," says Systech's Al Saavedra. "We are the only people implementing DB2 Web Query as a business intelligence front-end rather than just a replacement for IBM's Query/400 reporting tool." The FIDM and Systech teams have been rebuilding the company's nearly two dozen complex reports to run under DB2 Web Query after numerous attempts and months of work with a collection of Microsoft-based SQL Server database products that produced limited results. The company was at a decision point anyway because its prior BI vendor, which also supplies its financial package, was updating its application from the ground up, and the associated BI solution and its integrated Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) middleware was starting to lag behind the herd due to advancing age.


"We would have had to rewrite all our custom reports no matter what we did," says Reynolds-Lair. "The Smart i solution made good business sense and represented an opportunity to take advantage of something that we were comfortable with--the i platform," she said. Reynolds-Lair noted the college's director of data management, Lora Wright, a longtime IBM i user, reported that she was able to use the tools that were familiar to her when the Smart i solution was implemented.


"She was able to use DB2, she's very familiar with the System i and the built-in security and log, and she felt that was a key point in making all of this happen," said Reynolds-Lair. "There is the same structure for security on the data mart tables as there is on our transactional system." The other appealing aspect to the install is that she could still use Query/400 for simple tasks.


FIDM was at a point where it wanted to apply business intelligence techniques to data other than just financial--such as for marketing and analysis of what constitutes a successful student experience and for help determining from where the next wave of students might be coming. The school and its four campuses have 7,500 enrolled students catered to by some 500 faculty members and an equal number of support staff. The institution is enthusiastically endorsed by a network of 35,000 alumni who have passed through its doors before joining the fashion, merchandising, and entertainment industries. There's a ton of data to answer questions administrators struggle with on a daily basis...if only IT could extract it from the DB2 databases where it's all conveniently--or perhaps "inconveniently" is more accurate--stored. The sliding economy made finding answers to administrators' long-held questions of pressing importance.


"I think Smart i makes sense," says Reynolds-Lair. "I think it's going to be a very good and viable product for the market. Using something you're familiar order to help your business be successful can affect the bottom line; it can help you keep your job, help you keep the rest of your team, and help make it into next year."


The decision to run the Smart i solution on a separate piece of hardware rather than in a partition is one that FIDM is comfortable with, though Reynolds-Lair believes either option might be acceptable, depending on the individual circumstances and business. FIDM chose the entry-level Power 520 Express box for its Smart i appliance and data mart. As Key's Elliot explains, you not only get the data mart off the production system to enhance performance, but also have advantages when it comes to licensing the software since it's running on a smaller machine. The whole solution--including IBM hardware, software from IBM and Talend (whose open-source solution handles the ETL functions), Systech training, and report building--begins at just under $50,000, Elliot says. Most business intelligence solutions don't put it all together in an integrated appliance and then offer training on top of that, so the price is an eye-catcher. Larger companies may choose to deploy the solution on a larger-model Power Systems server.


Key is the primary driver behind marketing the solution, so it falls within its realm to also support it. To that end, customers will have a single 800 number to call for any hardware, software, user, or training issues, and Key's call center personnel will route the call to the appropriate support expert. The company, based in Woodland Hills, California, will for the first year market the solution on the West Coast but plans to roll it out to the rest of the country and the world as anticipated momentum for the solution builds. IBM also will support the solution, according to Mack.


"We're supporting Key and their initiative," says Mack. "IBM will continue to market DB2 and DB2 Web Query for business intelligence for i customers, and we will continue to support our DB2 Web Query ecosystem partners like Key and others."


Mack also revealed that IBM's support of the FIDM installation extended to IBM Lab Services being involved to make sure that the Power System server and IBM i DB2 database were tuned properly to get the best performance possible. "They are really top-notch practitioners around query optimization, and if you're not fully leveraging DB2 capabilities, it's like driving a race car at 10 miles an hour," says Mack.


While Smart i has yet to be promoted heavily by any of the involved companies pending the final outcome of the FIDM installation, initial inquiries from Key's informal guerilla marketing have produced a surprisingly resonant chorus of interested i users. Elliot quietly wonders if the product is going to mirror the television ad where the college-aged entrepreneurs see their Web site business hesitantly start up before taking off at a pace at which they couldn't possibly keep up.


"We obviously wouldn't rule it out, but we're not planning on selling Smart i to people who have never seen a System i before," says Saavedra. He sees the solution as being ideal for medium-sized companies that already are familiar with the IBM i platform. Larger companies are likely to have a larger, more robust, and inherently more expensive solution in place.


"If you have a System i, and you understand why it's good and reliable, why it doesn't require a database administrator, and why it's easy to use, then you're a candidate for Smart i," says Saavedra. "If you've been painfully immersed in the Microsoft environment for your applications, and you've gotten used to it, and you know what it is, and all your IT people are trained on it, then go with a Microsoft solution."


For FIDM, being an early adopter of the unique solution unquestionably leaves the school looking smart under the Smart i.