Volume 10, Number 14 -- April 13, 2010

Information Builders Seeks to Democratize BI with WebFOCUS 8

Published: April 13, 2010

by Alex Woodie

Information Builders unveiled a new release of its flagship business intelligence platform WebFOCUS yesterday that could change how its customers view business intelligence (BI) applications and data. For starters, the company will give non-technical users access to "pseudo" ad hoc reporting tools. Customers will also get the capability to customize and share their BI apps and creations--including predictive analytics built with the newly integrated open source R engine--while new data quality tools will keep an eye out for bad data.

In previous eras, BI software was the strict domain of the board room, where business executives would pore over reports and presentations specially prepared for them by data analysts and developers. Decisions would be made based on the historical information, passed down the chain of command, and put into action by division managers.

That old concept of BI is being displaced by a new paradigm that demands BI software that is more accessible by employees throughout the organization, who can use the software to make decisions in a shorter amount of time.

This idea of pervasive and democratic BI has driven Information Builder's recent product releases, and will be on full display with WebFOCUS 8, which is slated for general availability in the fourth quarter, although some of the components of the release--such as the latest releases of the Performance Management Framework (PMF) dashboard and scorecard solution, the Master Data Management (MDM) and Data Quality Management (DQM) tools, and the Rstat predictive analytical engine--are already in use. With that said, there is a still lot of new stuff in WebFOCUS 8, particularly in the "core" components of the expansive suite, including the InfoAssist ad-hoc query tool and the BI Portal.

According to Michael Corcoran, chief marketing officer for Information Builders, the most important aspect of WebFOCUS 8 are the high levels of integration across all of the components of the suite.

For starters, Info Builders has built more integration between PMF and the core WebFOCUS components. With version 8, users will be able to drill down from PMF dashboards and scorecards right into the data and the operational reports developed with the WebFOCUS query tools. "We're moving toward a much more formal stance in getting organizations to adopt business intelligence more strategically, and we feel PMF is exactly the way to do that," he says.

WebFOCUS 8 allows internal dashboards and analytic functions to exist side-by-side with third-party gadgets and data feeds from external sources.

Users will be able to customize what they see and consume on their WebFOCUS screens, whether it's a PMF dashboard or a BI Portal interface, to a much higher degree with version 8. The new release of the BI Portal, for example, will allow users to include scorecards or dashboards created with PMF, or even include outside data services or "gadgets," such as animations, GIS applications, Web links, or data feeds within their WebFOCUS screens.

Similarly, the InfoAssist ad-hoc query tool will gain new customization and display features, including support for building rich Internet applications through support for Flex and AJAX. That will expand the product's audience beyond hard-core ad-hoc query writers to users with fewer technical skills, Corcoran says.

"I can actually build from the ad-hoc [InfoAssist] tool a fairly significant reporting application. So even though I'm not an ad-hoc tool user, I can get a lot of ad-hoc functionality," he says. "Just point and click on options, press a button, and wow I just created an ad-hoc report. It's easier than buying a book on Amazon."

It makes good business sense to give less technical users more powerful analytic and display capabilities, Corcoran says. "There's a spectrum of sophistication that ranges from true developers who can build very sophisticated complex BI applications, to power users, who can build very sophisticated reports and analyses, and people who can do predictive modeling. Then there's the analyst who can use the visualization to do a lot of hands-on, interactive data crunching. But they typically do it for other people.

"What we have done has filled the gap for the rest of the users who historically get output that those people create," he continues. "We've actually broken that rule. We gave them very usable sophisticated analysis and reporting within a very easy-to-use application environment. We're saying, some of you folks probably want a little more true ad-hoc analysis, so we're going to take some of the ad hoc tool capabilities and trim them down for you in your reporting environment. So you can be a pseudo power user, and start to move across the spectrum. Today's non-technical user could be tomorrow's power user."

That Information Builders urge to break apart old notions is evident in other parts of the WebFOCUS 8 release, including the capability to mix and match data and applications among various components of the BI suite. For example, a user who created a useful metric in PMF could share that with another user through his BI Portal interface. "You build something great, and I can pop it into my dashboard, or make it a menu option on my BI application. So it's entirely integratable across the line," Corcoran says.

While more users will gain access to more sophisticated BI capabilities with WebFOCUS 8, Information Builders has not lost sight of the fact that information must be accurate if it is to be believed. To that end, it has taken steps to crack down on poor data quality with the new MDM and DQM components.

DQM and MDM work in real time to clean, enrich, merge, and match data that arrives in WebFOCUS from data warehouses, operational systems, and third-party sources. The company claims WebFOCUS 8 is the first BI platform to incorporate data quality and MDM capabilities.

"We don't want to go back to what we used to have, which is people coming into the board room with these wonderful PowerPoint Excel spreadsheets and charts, and only to have the board members justify for the next five days where that data came from and how they got it," Corcoran says.

"To be honest, it's a cultural change," he says. "There have been a lot of misinformed people in business the last several years. And a lot of people suffered from that. I think a lot of people are much more cognizant and concerned that, when I walk into that board room, I know the data is right. I can provide proof points. I can provide validation. I can provide data lineage. Quick and dirty dashboards--that's nice. But I think that's troublesome. I think it's a prettier version of 'Excel Hell' for the next generation."

Other enhancements in WebFOCUS 8 include a new visual analytic component called Visual Discovery 8. With this release, Information Builders has moved to an in-memory, 64-bit architecture that now enables users to take a data set with millions of rows and quickly visualize the statistical outliers, which could represent business problems or opportunities.

The BI suite also gains a new release of RStat, the predictive modeling tool built on the open source R language and application environment, which Information Builders released last year. With RStat version 1.2, the company has included many of the pre-built applications that the open source community has developed for R, which should make it easier for users to consume predictive analytic applications.

The new release of RStat, which is free, is another example of how Info Builders (along with the open source software community) is helping to democratize BI.

"We're extending the use of predictive analytics from the back office, where only the top PhDs and analysts had the capability to leverage that technology, and embedding that technology so that you can deploy them to salespeople, police officers, students, and others to help them make more intelligent decisions based on models and predictive and statistical analysis," Corcoran says.

WebFOCUS runs on i/OS, z/OS, Windows, Linux, and Unix, and is the basis for IBM's DB2 Web Query product for the System i. For more information, visit www.informationbuilders.com.


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