IBM Targets Mid Market with Cognos Express
September 23, 2009 Alex Woodie
IBM yesterday showed it’s serious about competing in the mid market business intelligence space with the launch of Cognos Express, a collection of analytics, reporting, and budgeting tools for groups of 100 users or less. With its in-memory OLAP capability, streamlined implementation, and Web- and Excel-based interfaces, the $12,500 offering can be used without much help from IT staffs, which will put it up against the likes of in-memory BI leader QlikTech.
IBM’s Cognos group has been working on Cognos Express since Big Blue bought the BI software vendor more than two years ago, says Ben Plummer, director of IBM’s Cognos midmarket business unit and a former Cognos employee.
“We’re very excited,” Plummer says in an interview with IT Jungle. “We started day one [after the acquisition] to build a product specifically for a mid size company, and to not take an enterprise product, repackage and re-price it, shove it in a different colored box, and send it out the door.”
Before designing the product, IBM consulted with CIOs and CEOs of 2,500 medium size organizations (which IBM defines as having from 100 to 999 employees), and asked them what they looked for in a BI tool, and three things kept bubbling to the surface, Plummer explains.
The finding may not surprise you. First, IBM found that mid market organizations didn’t have the budgets for six- or seven-digit BI product roll-outs. Second, they have limited IT staffs, and they are slammed for time. Third, they can’t afford the risk of an extended BI roll-out. “They can’t get six months into it, and have it wipe your organization out. That’s a huge problem,” says Plummer, who has witnessed his fair share of BI nightmares during his time at Applix, Cognos, and IBM.
This feedback led IBM to dust off the older TM1 in-memory OLAP database that Cognos obtained with its acquisition of Applix. On top of this core, IBM built the three Cognos Express modules: Reporter, Xcelerator, and Advisor. The modules can be used together or purchased separately for $12,500 each (an unlimited license for up to 100 users) or financed for $25 per user and up.
Cognos Express Reporter is a Web-based ad hoc query and reporting tool that can be used against an organization’s existing relational or flat-file data store, or against the Cognos Express suite’s underlying OLAP data store. Reporter comes with canned reports and dashboards–delivered in the user’s choice of Web browser, PDF, Excel, e-mail, or Web portal formats–that are easy enough for novices to learn quickly, IBM says.
Cognos Express Xcelerator effectively turns a user’s Excel spreadsheet into an interface for running advanced OLAP queries. The software lets users analyze their data and perform “what if” modeling from the comfort of Excel, which is probably what they were previously using for analyzing their numbers. There is also a Web-based interface for Xcelerator.
Cognos Express Advisor is the most advanced component of the suite, and delivers the most powerful interface to the underlying TM1 OLAP server. This software lets users slice and dice and drill down into their data. It also delivers more advanced data “visualizations” than the other two modules.
Underlying these three modules are a centralized administration and data management module, a Web portal, and (of course) the embedded TM1 in-memory OLAP server. The software runs on Windows and Unix operating systems; it is currently being tested for Linux, but IBM is not ready to sell it that way. The product can suck in data from any relational data store, including DB2/400; the software uses the same data connectors as its big brother, Cognos Enterprise, Plummer says.
In-memory databases are currently a hot item in the BI field because they are faster and easier to install and maintain. Because the data sits in memory and not on a disk, they deliver queries faster. They can also recalculate multidimensional cubes faster than traditional OLAP products. In-memory OLAP products are not known for scaling as large as their disk-based brethren, but that doesn’t matter as much to medium size companies, which don’t have as much data and are accustomed to throwing lots of cheap X64 processors and memory at their data processing problems.
The best known in-memory BI vendor today may be QlikTech, which has been growing like gangbusters lately, despite the long recession. Based in Southern California, QlikTech’s product QlikView, which runs on an in-memory associative database, has taken the BI industry by storm, and forced its larger competitors to re-think the old BI paradigm, which is dogged by hundreds or thousands of multi-million dollar BI implementations that were scrapped because they took too long to install, were difficult to use, and demanded extensive changes to existing business processes.
Plummer acknowledges QlikTech’s success, but contests the notion that QlikTech leads the in-memory BI field. “QlikTech certainly has been successful. But Applix TM1 was actually out there prior to QlikTech,” he says. In fact, the software has more than 2,000 installations over the years, including at some AS/400 shops (you might recall that SSA GT had an OEM agreement with Applix to sell TM1 into its installed base of BPCS, PRMS, and Infinium customers).
But there’s one important feature that Cognos Express has that QlikView does not, Plummer says: write-back.
“TM1 is a very powerful in-memory database, and it has something that the QlikTech data structures don’t have. You can’t write back to it. And that’s what allows it to do budgeting and planning, because you can’t do that without write back,” he says. That write-back capability exists in the Cognos Express Xcelerator and Advisor modules.
Since IBM has owned the TM1 in-memory OLAP product for more than two years, and sells it as an optional component of the Cognos Enterprise suite, you might be wondering what makes Cognos Express any different, or whether it’s just an old product with new packaging? While some of the technology in Cognos Express previously existed, IBM has done a lot of work on how it’s installed and configured, Plummer says.
“Everything you need is there and set up, a la a software appliance,” Plummer says. “So there’s not a lot of having to tweak the environment. With the enterprise product, there’s a lot of variables that you have to play with. We tried to take those variables and simplify them.”
The software employs wizards and advisors to find out what users want to do, and then configures the product for them, eliminating the need to manually configure things like data sources, security protection, database schemas, or the Web portal.
This article was corrected. QlikTech’s software is classified as an in-memory associative database, not an OLAP, or multidimensional, database. IT Jungle regrets the error.