Expanding the value of business intelligence

Collecting data is one thing, making sense of it is another. That's the task Spotfire, a company in the business intelligence space, has assigned itself. Recently, the company launched Version 7.0 of its namesake application, which adds support for XML and Web services protocols. In an interview with InfoWorld Editor in Chief Michael Vizard, company CEO Chris Ahlberg explains how XML extends the reach of business intelligence applications into workflow processes to create more value than what can be derived from glorified report writers.

What makes Spotfire different from all the other companies that have traditionally focused on this space?

Ahlberg: We've gone about business intelligence a little bit differently from most of the other analytics and business intelligence companies. We've ended up focusing on what I would like to think about as product life cycles. We deal with product development and manufacturing and the supply chain, and those types of processes in companies, whereas most of the other analytics companies tend to focus on CRM and financials. The trick is to provide a software application that is reasonably configurable so you can basically build a unique thing. If you think about what an OLAP tool like Business Objects or Cognos essentially does, it provides you a nice report. Essentially, it's glorified reporting. We can actually provide an application value that solves a task. Reports try to answer pre-conceived questions, so the IT department will set up reports or spreadsheets that people can look at, that they get delivered on a daily or a weekly or probably maybe even monthly basis. ... But people are now seeing business problems across the company in all kinds of different processes where they don't necessarily have these pre-conceived questions. They need to dive into the data, they need to be able to go explore and analyze and do root-cause analysis, understand drilldowns, and do things in ways that these classic OLAP and reporting tools can't do.

How does Spotfire work in those environments?

Ahlberg: We have built a very extensive XML architecture for pulling data from disparate data sources and done just a super job with that. So we can automatically configure an interface for somebody to look at data in a smart way. We've also made it open from a systems point of view, and made it possible for people via Web services, to hook into this application of ours at all the different levels.

Will business intelligence always be a separate product category, or over time will it be built into applications as a standard feature?

Ahlberg: The big vendors like PeopleSoft and SAP are certainly working at putting analytics into their applications. At first that got me a little bit worried. But over the last five years it's also been proven that there certainly is room for some pretty substantial companies that are doing analytics as a standalone application. You want to be able to manage potentially hundreds of analytical applications efficiently. You don't want to build an Excel spreadsheet per application. You don't want it to live inside another application. You don't necessarily want to go off and code it in C++. [What] you'd like to have is some kind of a configurable environment that very efficiently allows you to provide individualized or role-based analytics to your end-users. And the end-users want a consistent user experience when it comes to analytics. Spotfire can now provide you with that horizontal analytical interface that allows people in different departments [to] look at data in a consistent way.

What is the relationship between business intelligence applications and corporate portals?

Ahlberg: We've started talking to those vendors. We haven't actually announced anything around that yet, and to be totally honest, we haven't completed any of that work yet, but that's certainly on our radar screen and it's on the development schedule. To some extent, we're looking to see who [are] going to be the winners in that space.

So at the end of the day, what has been the biggest frustration that customers experience in this space?

Ahlberg: People have made these humongous investments in data warehousing, and in many cases the promise doesn't come to fruition. I think there will be more technologies that are not going to force you to build these kind of humongous data warehouses that are never going to come to fruition. If you can take away from some of those complexities and do that in more of an ad hoc fashion, I think that's going to be pretty exciting.

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