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Business intelligence vendor comparison: Gartner analyzes the big four

Analysts and attendees at the Gartner BI Summit last week dished on business intelligence vendor comparisons, discussing where Oracle Corp.'s, IBM's, SAP AG's and Microsoft's platforms show promise and fall short.

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Customers small and large are making business intelligence (BI) and corporate performance management (CPM) top priorities as they scramble to get a handle on putting the right data in the hands of users as corporate strategies shift with the economy. The latest Gartner data shows that BI/CPM investments, now a $6 billion market combined, are growing at a rate of 19% this year.

Indeed, when the economy nose-dived in fourth quarter 2008, business intelligence inquiries nearly doubled at Gartner.

"The calls increased because organizations needed to turn on a dime and rework their strategic plans based on the economy, and business intelligence and performance management is a lifeline for building business cases, improving process, improving marketing and selling and deciding what to invest in," said Colleen Graham, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, during a presentation at the Gartner Business Intelligence Summit, held in National Harbor, Md.

So it's no surprise that the software heavyweights -- IBM, Oracle, SAP and Microsoft -- are investing heavily in business intelligence and performance management technologies through acquisitions and internal development efforts.

In an effort to capture new customers and lock in existing ones, these vendors are working across their stacks, tying together business intelligence, business applications, business process management, analytics and corporate performance management, among other areas.

ERP vendors Oracle and SAP are building BI and business process functionality into their business applications and acquiring companies with CPM suites. Oracle bought Hyperion and SAP purchased SRC Software and OutlookSoft.

Microsoft is also building a BI/CPM stack with the acquisition of ProClarity, which became PerformancePoint Server. The latest news from Microsoft is that PerformancePoint is being embedded into the next version of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server. The software company is also developing a free self-service analytic client, code-named Gemini, which will live in the Microsoft Excel environment. This will be available in first quarter 2010, when Office 14 is due, said Michael Tejedor, senior product manager at Microsoft.

IBM, for its part, has Cognos, InfoSphere, DB2, OmniFind and WebSphere.

How BI vendors stack up

To help decipher where these vendors stand in their efforts to become the business intelligence and corporate performance management platform of choice, Gartner ranked the four vendors against each other across the following categories:

  • Business intelligence
  • Corporate performance management
  • Packaged applications
  • Data integration
  • Content management
  • Modeling/meta data
  • Business activity monitoring
  • Content analytics

Gartner also factored related capabilities into its business intelligence vendor comparison, including:

  • Application server
  • Portal
  • Search
  • Business applications
  • Collaboration
  • Business process management
  • BI/CPM interoperability

The comparison did not include pure-play, standalone BI vendors such as Information Builders Inc., SAS Institute Inc. or Informatica Corp. in the analysis.

The findings:

  • IBM shows promise in such areas as content analysis and packaged analytical applications and received a "strong positive" ranking for its application server, portal and data integration capabilities, Gartner said.

    "There are no big gaps, other than they do not offer business applications, but IBM gives you an open and flexible application-enabling infrastructure so you're able to work with any business application," said James Richardson, a research director at Gartner.

  • Microsoft received positive marks for SQL Server and building analytics, scorecards and dashboards into SharePoint, and shows promise in corporate performance management and data integration, Gartner said. A recent move to do away with the planning and financial components and embed PerformancePoint Server in SharePoint may be considered a gap in strategy, said Neil Chandler, a Gartner research director.

    "A few pieces of the puzzle are missing now, but with SharePoint, SQL Server, Madison [a data warehouse appliance bought from DATAllegro that is now part of SQL Server] and Gemini, Microsoft is building BI for the masses that is good enough and at the right price for the masses," Chandler said.

  • SAP is taking positive steps with business intelligence and corporate performance management interoperability, and in the areas of application server and modeling/meta data, but it received cautionary marks for its lack of business activity monitoring, content analytics and database offerings.

    "SAP has a firm strategy on the BusinessObjects side, and they're also extending performance management into operations in areas like IT management and supply chain," said John Van Decker, research vice president at Gartner, adding that SAP is the poster child for consolidation in the BI/CPM space with such acquisitions as BusinessObjects, SRC Software and OulookSoft.

  • Oracle's database engine received high marks (the majority of attendees have its DBMS running), as did its packaged analytical applications and Hyperion/Siebel integration. Collaboration is not a strong suit, however, said Donald Feinberg, a Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst. "That [negative rating] should change by next month, when SAP releases a new collaboration product," he said.

What users care about in their BI tools

Quite a few attendees added their own two cents to the business intelligence vendor comparison during the presentation. One asked Microsoft to address the problem of connecting multiple data sources -- now. Another wanted SAP to step up support for BusinessObjects, which he believed has dipped considerably.

In hard times it's seductive not to build out your infrastructure and look for a quick fix, but then you run into scalability and flexibility issues later on.

The obstacles that Tracy Peay, business application support specialist at Richmond, Va.-based Luck Stone Corp., faces with BI tools is pretty straightforward. Luck Stone has several BI tools, but users find them hard to use; they can't easily extract the data they need in a timely way, for example, she said.

"We need tools that are user-friendly," she said. "Our users don't like the BI GUIs. We also need to be able to integrate with a lot of different data sources/databases, which you can't do right now."

But the biggest goal for Luck Stone, an architectural stone and tennis court supplier, is flexibility. "In hard times it's seductive not to build out your infrastructure and look for a quick fix, but then you run into scalability and flexibility issues later on for things like complex queries."

And no, in the end she doesn't want to be locked into one vendor, although the promise of simplicity is tempting.

Her sentiment was shared by Chad Erman, business intelligence lead at Houston-based Southwestern Energy Co.

"On one hand, I think it's great to have a stack that's integrated and you have one seamless solution," he said. "But then I quickly change my mind to our company needs and how they need to remain flexible. There's a lot of added benefits to having separate components."

Regardless of which vendors he works with, Erman doesn't want to lose negotiating power, or get locked into one platform. That's one of the reasons why his company is approaching BI with a bolt-on, flexible component strategy.

"Sometimes with the mega vendors, [in general] that's the only leg you have to stand on … being able to say, 'Well, we have this vendor versus that vendor,' but if it's all in one and [the vendor] knows that, you lose all your power," Erman said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, Senior News Writer.

This was first published in March 2009

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