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Next-generation BI software: It's all in the interface

Business intelligence tools developers hope to increase BI usage among employees -- especially younger ones -- by adopting the look and feel of popular consumer applications like Google.

Attention gen X and Y business users frustrated by BI tool user interfaces that feel tired and antiquated: Hang on for the next generation of business intelligence software. A class of business intelligence tools with a new visualization layer will look a lot more like Google, and some will let you create your own portal, among other features.

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Some experts are predicting a sea change, where the leading BI software makers -- such as IBM Cognos, SAP BusinessObjects, MicroStrategy Inc. and Oracle Hyperion -- will continue to serve the business analysis gurus, but another crop of vendors will cater to everyday information workers.

"There's going to be a major shift in how BI is presented because more users want higher-quality visualization mashups and capabilities that are common these days on websites," said Joe Bugajski, an analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group Inc.

Some of these relatively new companies include Bissantz & Co., Tableau Software Inc., BonaVista Systems and Centrifuge Systems Inc., he said. There are also companies taking advantage of open source endeavors to create a more interactive visual experience through mashups and other add-on capabilities.

Such BI software tools allow users to build information portals through drag-and-drop capabilities. In fact, there's even a term for it -- mashboards (instead of dashboards) -- an interface through which users can create their own information portals by dragging and dropping different information elements through the use of Ajax or Flash technology, for example.

There are also open source options from companies like Actuate Corp., , which founded and co-led the Eclipse BIRT Project; Pentaho Corp.; JasperSoft Corp., with BI Suite; and Jinfonet Software Inc., with JReport.

Behind the curtain: All-important middleware layer

Behind the user interface of many of these tools is a middleware layer that's missing from today's BI initiatives, Bugajski said. Without middleware, or a data services platform, organizations run the risk of pointing a BI tool to a data source that later changes, causing the connection between the tool and the data sources to break down.

There's going to be a major shift in how BI is presented because more users want higher-quality visualization mashups and capabilities that are common these days
on websites.

Joe Bugajski
analystBurton Group Inc.
"You really need to be more rigorous about the way the data is organized in the business, and that's where the middleware comes in," he said. "And you can use the same APIs so the front end of the BI tool looks the same to the user."

Companies playing in the data services platform space include Composite Software Inc., Oracle's BEA with AquaLogic, Progress Software Corp. with DataXtend, Red Hat Inc. with JBoss MetaMatrix, Altova Inc. with MapForce, Ipedo Inc. with XIP, Xaware Inc. and FireStar Software Inc., according to the Burton Group.

Gartner Inc. analyst Bill Hostmann said problems with user adoption of BI tools stem not so much from the BI software, but rather the approach to user training.

"BI tool vendors have spent years making the tools easy to use, but if a user doesn't understand things like state analysis, statistical analysis or associations rules, the tools will be useless to them," Hostmann said.

Thus, training should teach users how to analyze and format data, using a combination of information, algorithms, rules and calculations to create an accurate representation of what they are trying to analyze, he said.

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

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