InfoManager Provides Another Option for System i OLAP
July 10, 2007 Alex Woodie
InfoManager is quite possibly the biggest System i business intelligence software vendor that you’ve never heard of. With about 300 customers around the world, the company has been quietly building a collection of business intelligence tools around its core online analytical processing (OLAP) engine, which runs on i5/OS, and a customer base to go along with it. Over the next few months, InfoManager plans updates to its Web-based dashboard, and is eyeing a Java rewrite for its OLAP engine.
InfoManager was founded 18 years ago in Finland, where the company served a growing base of customers using the AS/400, including a good number of auto dealerships. In 2000, the Finnish founders brought the business intelligence product line to the United States and established a regional headquarters in Dallas, Texas.
In 2004, InfoManager was acquired by United Rentals, a publicly traded company in the heavy equipment rental business (and also InfoManager’s biggest customer), and its headquarters was moved to Indianapolis, Indiana. Today, the company supports about 250 System i-using customers in Europe and about 50 in the U.S., including such notable international names as IBM, Canon, Electrolux, ICI, Lloyds Bank, Reebok, Toyota, Virgin Megastore, and Volvo (and you thought the i5/OS server was just for small and mid size businesses).
What do these companies do with InfoManager? In short, they use it to give executives and managers the capability to drill down into the actual transactional data to find the root cause of business trends.
OLAP Means Power
With a fully outfitted data warehouse at their disposal, relatively non-technical users can navigate through dimensions of space and time to find answers to questions like “Why did North American sales decrease during the fourth quarter?” The answer, delivered via dynamically drawn HTML charts, PDF reports, or Excel pivot tables, could potentially be “Largely because the sales rep for that product suffered a significant decrease in productivity.”
“Uses range all over the map,” says Scott Higgins, director of sales for InfoManager. “What ends up driving this type of installation is a CEO or executive level manager has a need and can’t afford latency. When he asks for it, he needs it.”
Without a multidimensional database at their disposal, getting answers to a CEO’s questions would normally entail getting IT to write queries, loading the results into Excel, and then reformatting it for his consumption. With a correctly configured multidimensional database online and available for use, however, the data can be pulled up nearly instantaneously, and delivered in the CEO’s format of choice.
Beware the Dashboard
“Traditional query does a good job of answering basic operational questions, such as how much of product A did we sell last month,” Higgins says. “Business intelligence lets you dig deeper and provide insight into how things got to where they are, not just what they are. If you’re making decisions, it’s helpful to know where you are today, but you have to take the next steps, through predictive analytics, to find out where are you going to go tomorrow.”
The current rage in the business intelligence software market is the Web-based dashboard interface, which uses all sorts of clever gauges and color-coordinated “traffic-lights” to communicate the state of business at a moment in time. While they have their uses–and there is a Web-based dashboard available in the InfoManager suite–they are not delivering on the true needs of executives, Higgins says.
“A dashboard provides a way of presenting a company’s key business information, from all the places they keep it, in one summary view. That’s the starting point,” Higgins says. “But that’s the problem with dashboards. One third of executives, even though they asked for a dashboard, they’re not hooked up to a true business intelligence solution. The dashboard tells them where they are today, but when they ask, ‘How did we get here, what happened?’ they’re not going to find easy answers.”
OLAP is the key technology enabling users to get down and dirty with the data, Higgins says. “Drilling down without a business intelligence solution is difficult. They’re going to lean on IT staff to do specialized queries. That’s the whole point of a business intelligence solution with a multidimensional view–if something catches their eye, they can drill down after it,” he says.
With the InfoManager suite, users can look at their data from upwards of 10 different dimensions. This enables time-constrained executives to see business events, as they live in the numbers, from every side.
The InfoManager Suite
InfoManager consists of several components. At the heart of the suite is the InfoManager Server, an OLAP server that stores copies of production data in multidimensional tables, and also organizes the metadata needed to keep the cubes on track and well-defined. The company also offers InfoManager Relational Data Warehouse (RDW), a two-dimensional database for storing large amounts of data or very detailed transactions. While the OLAP engine runs on i5/OS, the system can process data from any platform.
Users have a choice of two interfaces, including InfoManager WebAdviser, a Web-based front-end to the OLAP or RDW data store that’s based on Microsoft Active Server Pages (ASP) technology, and InfoManager Adviser, an advanced Windows-based front-end that is used to define and view graphs and reports generated from InfoManager Server or InfoManager RDW. Alternatively, users can interact with OLAP data in Excel using InfoManager Analyst, which also supports pivot tables. The company also sells a pair of design tools, including the Chart Generator and the Dashboard Designer, that are designed to work with the fat-client Adviser component. However, most users are opting for the WebAdviser product these days, company officials say.
Sitting between the OLAP Server and the Adviser and WebAdviser clients is InfoManager Broker, a Windows Server-based middleware component designed to provide efficient transfer of metadata between the client and server components. Residing on the same Windows Server as Broker is InfoManager Messenger, which is in charge of e-mailing reports according to a regular schedule, or as the result of certain trigger actions defined by the user.
In older versions of the product, data was loaded into the OLAP or RDW servers with InfoManager Collector, an extract, transform, and load (ETL) tool that featured the familiar 5250 green-screen interface. However, in InfoManager 7.0, which shipped April 2006, Collector’s functionality was incorporated into the core InfoManager Server product.
By mid summer, InfoManager will be ready to release WebAdvisor 3.0, a complete rewrite of its Web-based client interface, says Chris Kennedy, who works as a consultant with InfoManager. “This is the initial release being rewritten in Java,” Kennedy says. “The next big phase after WebAdvisor 3.0 is to rewrite the back end.” While the plan is to rewrite InfoManager OLAP using Java, it won’t entirely eliminate InfoManager’s RPG heritage, Kennedy says.
Higgins says many of InfoManager’s most recent customers are small and mid size businesses–the System i’s sweet spot, but by no means the only segment of the marketplace in which it plays. “If they’re not the largest player in their space, they have to be more strategic to compete,” he says. “Many customers are using business intelligence to get the upper hand.”
InfoManager implementations typically range from $60,000 to $150,000, which includes 100 or more hours of installation and training services from InfoManager technicians. After the initial installation, there are no restrictions on the size of the data warehouse InfoManager customers can run or the number of users attached to it.
For more information, visit www.infomanagerinc.com.