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Cloud-based business intelligence making a difference for fast movers

Cloud-based business intelligence delivers results like those from an enterprise BI system, but it allows businesses a chance to spin up results faster for less money.

Just how much ketchup is a restaurant using? Is it time to offer the crab-cake special? These are the kinds of questions successful restaurant managers have to ask. Being able to get answers quickly and easily can make all the difference in the highly demanding restaurant business, where the margin between success and failure is often thinner than a slice of carpaccio.

Distribution Market Advantage (DMA) in Schaumburg, Ill., is seeking to help its restaurant customers by dishing up a helping of cloud-based business intelligence (BI). For Jim Szatkowski, vice president of technical and data services at the marketing cooperative for food distributors, a cloud-based solution was a much better choice than an on-site system, which would have required a costly and time-consuming project to get up and running.

"Supply chain professionals at member companies can look at their spend. They may want to negotiate a new deal with a supplier. They may want to know much ketchup they have consumed," Szatkowski said. "When a restaurant provides a limited-time offer, the manager needs to know that the featured product is available throughout the campaign. We provide visibility daily into product movement. They can see what's available at all times."

A cloud-based BI application made sense to DMA because, despite the organization's size and national scope -- 11 regional independent food distributors and $3 billion in member sales, Szatkowski had no appetite for a complex and expensive BI project. "We wanted to stay focused on food-service distribution."

After examining several cloud BI services, Szatkowski chose a cloud-based BI application from PivotLink Corp. San Francisco-based PivotLink is one of a number of small vendors (among them, Oco Inc. in Waltham, Mass.; Birst Inc. in San Francisco; and Indicee Inc. in Vancouver, B.C.) offering these applications.

Cloud-based business intelligence can be implemented quickly

Being able to get a BI application up and running quickly was critical to Imperva Inc., an Internet security appliances vendor headquartered in Redwood Shores, Calif. "Rather than treat business intelligence as a big-bang process that would take time and cost a lot of money to roll out, we have launched bite-size projects that take weeks versus months to roll out," CIO Grant McCormick said. He is using a cloud-based BI application from GoodData Corp. in San Francisco.

"GoodData allows us to approach BI in a targeted manner, and deliver point solutions to those people who need them. Each unique project taps into a new set of data, and goes to a new set of users. We pay as we go. I much prefer spending money that way," said McCormick said.

Rather than treat business intelligence as a big-bang process that would take time and cost a lot of money … we have launched bite-size projects that take weeks versus months to roll out.

Grant McCormick, CIO, Imperva Inc.

Imperva is rolling out a cloud-based finance and ERP system, and has several projects in the works that rely on GoodData technology. In one application, the vendor has created a commission summary statement as a GoodData dashboard for each of its 150 salespeople. Another application enables managers to measure results against plan. Still another project is a competitive dashboard that pulls data from both an on-premises system and cloud sources.

BI for the masses

The cloud also is bringing the blessings of BI to nonprofit organizations, which in many cases have lacked the resources for such sophisticated applications until now. Convio Inc. in Austin, Texas, provides marketing services including cloud-based BI applications to nonprofit organizations.

"One of the things we like about the cloud architecture is the notion of elasticity. That's important in BI applications. The ability to scale up and down quickly helps save money. That's very important to nonprofits," said Convio Chief Technology Officer Dave Hart. "We're able to create affordable solutions. And we're bringing technology to nonprofits that was previously unavailable to them."

Convio's BI application will integrate, the Platform-as-a-Service, or PaaS, offering from Inc., with Convio servers and with servers in the Amazon Web Services Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2, service. "The application makes sure data is stored in the most appropriate place. It features single sign-on so the user is not aware of where the data is coming from," Hart said.

Viral adoption, global reach of cloud-based business intelligence

The ease with which a cloud application can be accessed and paid for is enticing some business users to bypass their corporate IT department. "That is one of the most hidden trends and the most interesting," said Boris Evelson, analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Managers are jumping the gun because waiting to get results from a corporate BI application might cause them to miss an opportunity.

Still, enterprises shouldn't replace traditional BI applications with ad hoc cloud BI applications, Evelson cautioned. "If it's a mission-critical back-office application, you can't really afford to let it out of your company. That's probably not a good candidate for BI in the cloud."

Even so, if an organization operates globally, a cloud-based application can deliver better performance worldwide than a premises-based application can.

"If we went with client/server, we would have had to choose where to set up the server," Imperva's McCormick said. His company's corporate headquarters is in California, and its engineering offices are in Israel, so performance could have varied greatly between the two locations. With a cloud-based service, however, performance is acceptable in Israel, even though the cloud provider is in the U.S., he said.

Stan Gibson is a Boston-based contributing writer. Let us know what you think about the story; email

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