Big Data Hype in Europe

I was recently asked to contribute to the IDG Connect blog – my article went up on the site yesterday please feel free to comment.  http://bit.ly/pL7FZS

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Business Intelligence for the Business and IT

Okay so as I write I am on the train on my way to discuss a problem that I see all too often in corporate business today.  I am travelling to talk to a group of Business Users who work for a major retail bank here in the UK.  I am trying to identify how they use data, how they connect to their data sources currently and how they use that data to complete analysis to provide useful insight to drive decision-making within the company.

As I have spoken about before on LinkedIn and other web related material one of the major hurdles to a successful Business Intelligence strategy within any company regardless of the area they are based in is the gap between IT and the BI team.   This gap is probably responsible for 90% of the failures we see with corporate BI solutions.  The dichotomy of the standpoints of IT – who want data governance and security above all, and the Business – who want result driven decision-making or Business Intelligence Right Now (BIRN)  is what is responsible for this failure rate.  It is not that the companies IT team does not want to help – or that the Business wants to go and do its own thing – it is just that no one has yet come up with a good solution to let both parties play in the same sandbox without upsetting each other.

My discussions tomorrow are aimed at discovering what the frustrations are that are felt  by the business user in a large multi national organisation and how they are currently solving their problems.  I will then back this up with a follow-up meeting with the IT stakeholders to clarify their point of view.

I believe that only with a greater understanding of how both sides think of the problem and then through a process of mutual understanding and engagement can we identify the needs of both parties and hope to develop tools to satisfy those needs.

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To the Cloud

Can the Cloud provide the processor intensive computing power and storage facilities required by a major corporation looking to replace their manpower, energy and space intensive current BI solution?  The Cloud provides an unlimited pool of computing power, memory and storage which are delivered in affordable discreet modules to the end user.  This business model which delivers unlimited scalability with very little overhead is undoubtedly appealing to the corporate finance departments of many major corporations and I believe from my experience and with careful planning can be utilised by any company.

The following considerations must however be factored into the decision to adopt BI in the cloud as an enterprise for your company:

  • Plan for the worst
  • Perform due diligence for security, backup and disaster recovery
  • Do not overlook BI Cloud pricing and contract matters
  • Evaluate the long term cost of ownership
  • Investigate license requirements
  • Consider your data transfer requirements

Many of the major vendors in the BI community are now actively seeking a presence in the Cloud BI arena, SAP BusinessObjects BI OnDemand,  Microsoft Azure and IBM Blue Insight whether they succeed or fail in their enterprises will inevitably drive the use of the Cloud for mainstream BI solutions.  I believe however that BI in the Cloud will primarily be utilised by the major corporations as a development tool to reduce overhead costs.  It represents a way for a BI application to be developed, installed and adapted to need with reduced costs and easier deployment without the need for capital investment in hardware and infrastructure space.

Pros: 

  • Cost
  • Speed of Deployment
  • Scalability
  • Ease of Access especially for Power users and Analysts

Cons: 

  • Data transfer rates – especially for data sets of a terabyte or more.
  • SaaS offerings especially need to be specially tailored for the data they are linking into.
  • The possibility that the vendor your company chooses in this start-up stage may not survive to support your long term needs.

Conclusion: 

The fact that the Cloud can support BI is not at question here the requirement is that it supports major corporation’s BI needs.  I believe that the ability to provide a pay as you compute infrastructure will provide new data warehouse storage options and provide the possibility of unlimited scalability within your corporate environment.  However these major plus points must be tempered with a realisation that BI in the cloud is still in its infancy.  Major consideration must be given to security, data transfer rates and the chosen vendors risk within the market place.  If your company can perform due diligence to satisfy themselves that these possible stumbling blocks can be offset then there is the ability for the cloud to satisfy the most demanding of companies.  I believe that the main users of cloud BI as a main source of BI for their companies will be SMEs and that larger corporations will utilise the cloud as a sandbox for pre-deployment development and testing.

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Hardware and Memory

Cheap Memory and Multi Core.  With the cost of memory at it’s lowest for years and the new developments in multi-core processors hitting the market place the way we think about building and implementing a Business Intelligence solution has changed.  The ability to run data warehouses in memory and the processing power available will allow the way data is handled not just in the business area but also in the corporate semantic layer to change.  The mega vendors will not lose their position within the corporate area because of the massive amounts of funds already invested in the solution but they must embrace the challenge of providing access to the corporate layer at the same speed that other areas of information can be accessed.  You cannot have a user accessing sales or marketing data utilizing a ‘Google’ type search system from the internet or departmental sources with all its inherent speed only to have to wait for IT to deliver matching governed product data which has been sanitized two weeks later – this is of no use and in certain businesses would be pointless.  This seismic shift in the way that information can and will be delivered in the future will ensure that businesses can gain insight in near real time into the reasons for their failure or success in the market – enabling decision change to be made quickly will ensure that companies can be more profitable in these uncertain economic times.

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Where are BI Systems, Applications and Tools heading in the next ten years?

I am very excited with all things BI at the moment, a lot of the mega vendors are tearing around in development trying to catch up with the independent vendors who have realized that the future of Business Intelligence is based upon the idea that the end users who need the insight into their businesses are the people who really need to control what, how and when BI is delivered.  These vendors are having a major impact on the BI Space – they are innovative, progressive and determined to succeed in an area which for the last ten years has seen a 90% failure rate.

The following are my picks for the requirements for future systems – at all levels of the enterprise -which will be needed to succeed in the BI space of the future:

  • In Memory Analytics that the user controls in real time
  • Simplicity of Data Search, Detection and Integration
  • Ability to connect to any and all data sources including the Corporate BI semantic layer
  • Speed, Speed and more Speed
  • Ease of use
  • Collaboration
  • Continuity and governance of corporate BI and business statistical data

More to follow:

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Self Service BI

Until very recently I have spent most of my consulting career designing and constructing tactical Business Intelligence (BI) tools for Business Users sometimes with the co-operation of the IT Department and sometimes in direct competition to them.  Because of this I have been cautious when investigating the new trend of Self Service BI which claims to provide a complete solution to the business user by providing advance visualization, data discovery and integration and visual analytics.

Sat at home one evening recently I was pondering over the problems that face both the IT Department and the Business User when searching for the truth amongst the myriad sources of information prevalent within most organizations.  In the office a request to search for information requires the business user to submit a requirement to the IT department to supply a snap shot of data the user then has to wait until this request is fulfilled before they can take the data supplied, extract the exact figures they want and then marry this data to department data to actually get to the insight that they are looking for.  Compare this with the near instantaneous results of a search request to any one of the major search suppliers on the web whilst on the internet and you can completely understand the user’s frustration.

The new swath of vendors offering to supply the answer to this problem have realized that the business users have become disappointed by the inflexibility over the last ten years of Corporate BI implementations to provide insight into their corporate data.  These new “Self Service” tools being currently offered seem to be the solution to this problem in that they combine interactive visual analytics with data integration and near instant results for even complex BI cases.  This means that the new vendors are ensuring that their sales effort is placed firmly with the Business Community in most cases to the detriment of the IT Community.

The major concern that I have with regards to these tools is governance of data or to put it another way “One Version of the Truth”.  The need for Business Intelligence Right Now (BIRN) to support critical business decisions based on insight into multiple data sources is well understood by the Business  however as they cannot verify the data once it has left the rarified air of the BI Semantic Layer they cannot guarantee it is the one version of the truth.  This is also a major problem with most if not all of the current tools on the market supplied by various vendors is that they also cannot guarantee that they have governed data as most either store the data locally or only use a snapshot.

This problem has been identified by Quest Software who currently has in development a number of tools which will aid collaboration between not just IT and the business but also between business departments utilizing the “One Version of the Truth” as the core of their systems.   Self-Service BI is not a myth, but with too many supposed “self-service” solutions are being designed (knowingly or not) for a the more technical user who sometimes identify themselves as “Data Analysts” and have far too much complexity for the normal Business Analyst (BA).  The BA has no problem with a pivot table in excel and understanding the business relationships of the data but when faced with a requirement to understand SQL or Data Architecture struggles.  Taking this into consideration Quest has designed two separate tools one for the Technical user and one for the business user.  Both are easy to use, intuitive and have the ability to integrate and analyses data from many disparate sources and then provide visualization and basic dashboard reporting their critical difference however is that they supply a secure connection to the company’s BI infrastructure to provide the governed data required to make the insight provided correct.

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Data Mashup in BI

Data mashup within Business Intelligence (BI) applications is one of the latest must have requirements that I have been asked to build into solutions that I have created for some major enterprise clients recently.  As mentioned in my last blog about the growth of NoSQL use within the BI area I believe that the mashup can be another useful tool to be added to the BI solution – but it must not be utilized to the detriment of the core principles of any BI solution.  The first types of mashup used mapping services or photo services and combined these with relational or excel data to create a visualization of the data.  In the beginning, most mashups were consumer-based, but recently the mashup has started to interest the wider enterprise.  Business mashups can combine existing internal data with external services to create new views on the data.

The problem with the clamour for the most up to date technology to be added to the BI application stack is as always the differing understanding between the business user and the developer to how they can be used.  The battle from the developer’s point of view is trying to get the people within businesses to understand what, how and where the mashup can be utilised within their organisations.  The problem from the business point of view is trying to emphasize the speed at which this development must be available to the business.  Mashups can enable nontechnical users to build dynamic views of disparate data that are personalized, context-rich, role-tailored, and ad hoc to explore this data in greater depth.  However the problem with most of the currently available BI Vendors mashup applications or plug ins is that they simply offer a numerical analysis of data via the normal OLAP cube route and then attach a search bar alongside this analysis to enable a search of separate silos of either textual, web or unstructured content to match up with the data already recovered and analysis.

The ability of a mashup to pull content from other sources is what most business users are excited about and this combined with the ability to store non structured data in a NoSQL environment which allows for rapid search and retrieval and storage of any and all linked data.  Most corporations are now requesting that BI systems have the ability to interrogate social networking sites to find out what is being said about their products – this is a perfect example of the ability of mashups to provide information that most marketing mangers and sales teams desperately need to understand to improve business productivity and sales success.  This requirement to link to all types of data also needs to be paired with the ability to interrogate all systems that are available within the corporate environment – there is no point in having a BI application which has the ability to mashup data if it cannot attach to all the clients information.  These results should also be shown not only in their normal context but in a context that is easy to understand and use for the customer.

I see mashups extending the current traditional data-driven BI solutions to incorporate traditional planned data from a normal RDBMS or OLAP cube adding in unstructured data and accessing further information from either RSS or the web utilising web services.  Most of the modern BI Solutions can solve the first two connections but to connecting to the web can require either a web service to be hand coded or the purchase of one of the specific connection applications available currently on the web.  As reported last week in the Briefing Room with Mark Madsen http://bit.ly/l0C1Cy , Quest Software are about to bring to the market a group of tools aimed at both the Data Analyst and the Business Analyst/User which will allow for the full range of mashup capability to be available on the desktop for both those in IT and those in the Business.  This can only help to improve the harmony between these two areas of the business which will in turn allow them to deliver dramatically better business results than when utilising traditional business intelligence (BI) systems.

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