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Business Intelligence

While leading software companies tout performance management, new players zero in on ''zero latency.'' And of course it all works with Excel.

Easily the most popular and compelling technological theme among the newcomers is the notion of real time, or zero latency. Even though those terms are two of the most overused buzzwords in computing today—and every supplier means something different by them—there’s clearly something to the idea of speeding up the BI process.

Today’s typical BI setup centers around a data warehouse, a special database that stores information for the purposes of analysis, sparing a company’s production databases the strain of responding to numerous and complex queries. Data warehouses are updated by batch process every few days to as seldom as once a month, and are often cited for lack of data detail and security concerns. That’s fine for many types of broad-brush historical analysis, but if up-to-the-minute data could be analyzed and alerts sent immediately as soon as key metrics veered from the norm, that could help companies avert disaster. In manufacturing, for instance, a sudden decline in an assembly line’s hourly yield may have important ramifications up and down the supply chain, and quite likely in the CFO’s office, too. Retail banks and brokerages, meanwhile, need to watch risk exposures and prime lending rates transaction by transaction, moment by moment.

The proposed solutions to such real-time BI problems vary. A company called Appfluent Technologies, for example, has come up with what it calls a “report server,” a self-contained appliance that maintains a fresh copy of just those portions of the production database that analysts plumb with BI tools at any given moment. By monitoring the queries those BI users are posing, the appliance keeps its local copy of the data in perfect sync with the production database, yet doesn’t overtax it.

Celequest (formerly Viewceler) and Iteration Software have taken a different tack, each creating software that near-instantly performs complex analyses of incoming transaction data related to any business event and, if necessary, automatically alerts specified employees by instant message, phone, E-mail, or fax.

Earlier this year, Certive launched a product designed to help IT staff manage distributed data as if it existed in a centralized location, and lower the development and maintenance costs of analytic applications, while Juice Software developed technology that provides Microsoft Excel spreadsheets with continuous live connections to virtually any source of data.

2004: Suite Dreams

Companies have tended to buy BI products individually to solve a perceived pain point, be it a need to speed the budgeting process, generate reports, understand sales trends, or assess some specific facet of operations. Makers of BI software are retooling and expanding their offerings in the hope that companies will buy entire suites of products that, in a best-case scenario, provide a complete system for performance management. Prices for such systems can run to six and even seven figures, although a company can buy one product to solve a problem today and build over time.

Nonetheless, expect to see a more-is-better sales pitch from nearly every BI company, most of which will add products (often thanks to acquisitions) and tout the degree to which their suites are integrated. Also expect a blurring of the lines between companies that sell tools for developing BI systems and those that sell packaged applications. The time may indeed be at hand for a top-down reassessment of BI usage and strategy, lest the ad hoc buying across business units hampers potential benefits of the suite approach. Even if the budget isn’t there, a plan probably should be.

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