Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tech: The future of Business Intelligence

In yet another Business Intelligence consolidation, Microsoft is buying ProClarity (see ITToolbox's report). ProClarity makes front-end, visualisation tools for use with Microsoft technology. This buyout makes sense, but it will no doubt scare other BI vendors - as does everything Microsoft does in their space, no doubt.

My feeling has been that the major BI products have been converging for some time, in terms of both look-and-feel and functionality. Apart from Microsoft, who has always had the muscle to go it alone. Yet this should scare the vendors more than most. Traditionally, Microsoft's solutions haven't really been solutions: they've been technology, which then needs to be implemented. Typically, Microsoft recommend one of their partners to actually design and implement a solution, which entails a fair bit of coding and tailoring. Sometimes a customer will have their own team of Microsoft programmers - with SQL Server 2005, .NET-based development plus the customer's inhouse database resources will normally suffice. However, the implementation will certainly take time and resources.

With the takeover of ProClarity, Microsoft will now have a better front-end - ie something more presentable for the customer, something that should take less time and resource to implement - albeit probably with increased training requirements.

I've said consolidation is good; it helps technology converge, and clears the field somewhat. I may be in the minority on this, as a Data Warehouse Institute poll has a majority of opinions saying it's bad for customers. But DMReview has a more sanguine view that simply points out the need to be aware of impending upheavals as mergers take hold.

For my money, we don't need a rash of competing technologies requiring evaluating customers to get their heads around a disparate range of tools. Ideally, we're moving towards more intuitive paradigms that don't require expert training, and convergence helps this. To date, though, convergence is going to snag on Microsoft vs everyone else. Indeed, we should expect more vertical consolidation (Microsoft+ProClarity, Hyperion+Brio) than horizontal (Business Objects+Crystal), simply because standalone BI vendors will need to seek shelter within an umbrella solution, rather than Business Intelligence in isolation. Why would customers really want the pain of selecting a database tool, then ETL, then BI, performance management, etc. At least Microsoft has that right.

I think the era of standalone BI vendors rising above niche markets is drawing to a close.

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