A Bumblebee for BI–Now That’s Just ‘Smart’
August 26, 2008 Alex Woodie
Domino got one (the original “Bumblebee”). JD Edwards, Linux, and the high availability vendors got theirs, too. We’re talking about dedicated System i hardware–or appliances, if you will. So why isn’t there a pre-integrated i OS bundle for business intelligence, one of the fastest growing application segments in IT? For whatever reason, that’s about to change, thanks to a group of IBM business partners in Southern California, who have teamed up to create the “Smart i.”
The idea of a dedicated server is not new at IBM, which has offered various flavors of the Power Systems server geared for different workloads since the original AS/400s rolled off the line in 1988. In the first few years, IBM differentiated between AS/400s geared toward server or workstation workloads, and in the late 1990s, it rolled out the original Dedicated Server for Domino, which quickly became known as the Bumblebee due to its distinctive yellow stripe. (A standard AS/400, you will remember, had a red stripe.)
A Bumblebee for WebSphere Application Server followed. And pretty soon, IBM was selling all sorts of dedicated servers for ERP apps. Included on that list were applications from Intentia (now part of Lawson), International Business Systems (incredibly, still independent), and JD Edwards (now part of Oracle). There were also Bumblebees specifically for backing up other AS/400s, Bumblebees for running high availability software from Vision Solutions and others (which Vision now owns), and even a Bumblebee for Linux.
But not once was there a Bumblebee for business intelligence (BI) workloads on the AS/400 line of servers. Today’s dedicated server offerings from IBM are more marketing deals than anything else. The yellow stripes are gone–everybody, including System p and System x box users, gets the same black chassis. Considering the ease with which marketing deals come and go, one would think a BI bundle would have been put together at some point. But it hasn’t.
The problem is that the System i is not widely regarded as a first-rate BI platform, according to Pete Elliot, director of marketing for Key Information Systems, a Woodland Hills, California, IBM reseller. Elliot says the System i has been losing out to other BI platforms, most notably Microsoft SQL Server, and IBM has done little to dissuade that trend.
“For years, the iSeries community has suffered from the fact that a lot of data has been going off the iSeries,” Elliot says. “Why not put data back onto the iSeries? Why not show the community that they don’t have to be second fiddle. It’s a hell of a technology. Why not expand the definition? This is the first opportunity, strategically, to really make a business case for putting data back on the iSeries, which I think would maintain viability of the iSeries, and underscore its importance.”
A Bumblebee for BI
To put data–not to mention growing BI workloads–back on the platform, Key has partnered with two other Southern California companies, including Systech USA, a systems integrator that focuses on business intelligence, and Talend, developer of an open source extract, transform, and load (ETL) tool . With the financial backing of IBM, these companies have put together their own Bumblebee offering for business intelligence, called the Smart i Appliance.
The core underlying application powering the Smart i appliance is DB2 Web Query, the new graphical BI reporting and analysis tool (based on software from Information Builders) that IBM launched in 2007. Also included in Smart i is Talend Open Studio, an open source ETL tool that gained support for DB2/400 and i OS with versions 2.2, which was rolled out last October. Smart i will be offered on System i Model 515 Express or Power Systems 520 hardware with 350 GB of storage, and start at about $50,000.
But the secret sauce that will make Smart i work, is the two-week “Quick Start” program. As part of this program, the vendor will install the Smart i appliance, create the Talend processes, create a data mart using proven data models, develop the first two reports in DB2 Web Query, and train the users on the basics of the system.
The vendors admit that, for roughly the same cost, users could go out and buy a new System i or Power Systems machine, license DB2 Web Query, and then download Talend to get free ETL capability.
But that wouldn’t equal what the partners have done with the Smart i appliance, says Al Saavedra of Systech USA. “I guess you could put it together yourself, but there are learning curves that aren’t for the faint of heart,” he says. “We didn’t just slap it together. We’ve put a lot of thought into it.”
Saavedra, who has decades of experience building BI and data warehouses for some of the largest Fortune 500 companies, says that experience enables the vendors to know where to look for data that should be in the data warehouse; how to organize the data warehouse; and how to tune the hardware to function well for a data warehouse. That experience also tells him DB2 Web Query requires its own machine; running it on an existing production machine would have a deleterious affect on performance and security.
The BI Sweet Spot
DB2 Web Query doesn’t have the most enterprise-strength features, compared to the Cognos or BusinessObjects or MicroStrategies of the world, Saavedra says. But for the average small to mid size AS/400 shop that’s getting by on green-screen Query/400 reports, DB2 Web Query is more than adequate for the job. “It’s not the most feature-rich BI environment. But for 80 percent of the companies, it’s more than enough,” he says.
Upper echelon BI environments–including those based on the notoriously expensive Oracle databases–are geared toward big companies that have large amounts of heteroegenous data, and want to do “all kinds of fancy computations” on it, Saavedra says. “But if you’re not ready to spend over half a million dollars in analytics, then you should look at Smart i to start and grow, because it can grow up pretty good too,” he says.
When it officially launches, Smart i will compete with the other native i OS business intelligence tools, of which there are just a handful. It will also compete with the legacy Query/400 installed base. But the biggest target will be Microsoft SQL Server and its integrated suite of BI services. Compared to Oracle, SQL Server is reasonably priced and runs on cheap Wintel iron. And because it’s Windows-based, that lends a certain amount of familiarity to users.
Key and Systech USA are also hoping to capitalize on the familiarity factor with Smart i. “It’s not for everybody,” Saavedra says. “But if you are an iSeries shop, like the architecture, and are looking to implement business intelligence–and here comes Smart i, which does everything you need it to do for a competitive price and you don’t have to learn a whole new architecture–why not give it a shot?”
The toughest part may be convincing System i shops that investing in BI can help grow their businesses or make them more profitable. Many companies these days are investing in BI, which resulted in the market growing 13 percent last year to $5.1 billion, according to recent numbers from Gartner.
But it would appear that little of this money is being spent on System i solutions. “As you know that’s the legacy of the iSeries community: They don’t want to overspend for things. They want to have value,” Elliot says. “We wanted to prove a couple of things. First, that the AS/400 was particularly well-suited to be an analytical server. And we also wanted to prove that a modest business intelligence appliance could be had, with training, services, and support, for around $50,000.”
This article has been corrected. Systech USA was erroneously referred to as Systech, which is the parent company. IT Jungle regrets the error.