Beyond average intelligence?

After nearly four years of promises, roadmaps, mergers, fireworks and fusion, the polygamous marriage between business intelligence applications and service oriented architecture (SOA) is starting to bear fruit.

Ask any analytics vendor what their Web services strategy is today and all will respond their suites and or core applications are fully SOA enabled. Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion, Information Builders and SAS (not to mention a plethora of smaller toolmakers) have all come to the SOA party with enabled releases or overhauls; hardly a surprise as most spent the last five years using the same technology as a means to an end to drill their customers' heavily siloed data.

However, while the BI set may be providing enterprises with more lucid, timely and accurate performance indicators, the struggle to implement SOA at both an architectural and applications level is still profoundly confronting for most IT managers.

Australian director of IT research for analyst firm Ovum Christine Axton says many vendors are talking big about the endgame of SOA, but falling short on the reality of integrating platforms and applications to expose them to Web services.

"It has definitely been hyped... you buy the enablement and then find out it has to be integrated. [Integration] is far harder to achieve than most businesses anticipate," Axton says.

Axton also warns that part of the problem is many vendors are now under big pressure to notch up sales and don't always come clean about how much work really has to be done to get the new SOA paradigm up and running.

"Vendors are saying it's easy, it's what you really need, but it is not a small step," she says, adding that IT shops which must change component methodologies frequently encounter difficulty in facing the sheer scale and complexity of SOA integrations. The problem is particularly bad with legacy systems.

Back to the factory

Such struggles have not gone unnoticed among the veterans of business intelligence and analytics software providors. Having have spent the last 20 years taming voluminous outputs of enterprise systems with pure maths, the business intelligence survivors of the recent merger and acquisition frenzy have now amassed colossal banks of integration tools for welding all manner of legacy applications and code bases together.

Indeed while vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and Siebel have been buying-in analytics capability for their SOA offerings - quarrelling about standards along the way - 30-year BI veterans like Information Builders and SAS are busy licensing out their horde of adaptors and translators.

"We've been SOA-focused for years. It's really more about getting the two parts of the business - business intelligence and integration - together," says Information Builders' Australian director of sales Elizabeth Whitelock of the great SOA push.

Whitelock adds that of Information Builders' 280-odd adaptors, which range from mainframe databases such as Model204 to .Net products and through all conceivable forms of Unix, most wind up wearing another software vendor's badge.

"SAP has re-badged 37 of our adaptors. We've opened an adaptor factory in Germany for that," she says, hastening to add that the same integration tools are definitely available to enterprises direct from Information Builders cellar door.

"We can do it a lot quicker, after all we make the goddamn things," says Whitelock, frankly admitting her company is repositioning from a back-end analytics toolmaker to a full SOA application integration middleware players.

Whitelock also says her main competitors (in the SOA integration space) are not other vendors, but enterprises that resort to self-coding to get SOA integration happening.

Host for a day

Over at fellow BI veteran SAS, which also has a healthy sideline selling translators and adaptors, the future of BI has taken a slightly different twist. Like Information Builders, SAS nailed its colours to the SOA mast early and is currently promoting the capabilities of its latest BI suite release, SAS9 Enterprise Intelligence Platform.

But having been confronted by clients who bite off more infrastructure challenge than they can chew, especially on the data warehousing front, SAS is now also actively toying with the concept of hosted analytics and warehousing, calling the adventure IntelliVisor.

The concept is relatively simple: enterprises need data warehouses, but frequently bungle the large infrastructure demands associated with sorting their data. This is particularly prevalent in enterprises figuring out what data is needed and what isn't in the case of mergers and acquisitions. Risks include underestimating server performance requirements, or worse still, buying in excess capacity to find it sits bone idle for months at a time.

"We effectively build [hosted] warehouses for people...with the seasonality [demand fluctuations] built in," says SAS senior research and development director Dr John Brocklebank. He stresses the solution is still strictly experimental, but carries a service level agreement regardless.

Yet he is more chipper about what hosted services can achieve - as a concept - in terms of getting computation-intensive analytics right the first time around. This includes access to far greater scalability and the sort of raw processing grunt which is needed when bedding down data requirements, rather than on a day-to-day basis.

"It means we can deliver quicker. We also do a lot of [data] cleaning with the ASP model with DataFlux," says Brocklebank, noting that cost associated with purifying outputs of merged systems and applications is still one of the biggest bugbears customers face.

Despite the advantages hosted BI offers, Brocklebank remains cautious about where it will take SAS, insisting the company will stick to its analytics development core and has no current plans to offer the hosted service in Australia.

Privacy is another concern; SAS is taking the unusual step of specifically asking its customers not to use the service for sensitive data including personal identifier information.

"We don't want to get into those issues. We're very cautious," he says.

Cautious or not, the rest of the vendor community will be very closely watching what the two oldest and most wizened, privately-held intelligence vendors will be planning after the SOA goldrush.

Their survival may just depend on it.

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