Business intelligence (BI) is one area of technology investment that has weathered the downturn in the economy better than most. With the emphasis placed heavily on managing and controlling corporate performance by exploiting data, the BI value proposition has been relatively enthusiastically received by IT decision-makers.
Ottawa, Canada-based BI software vendor Cognos, along with a few of its competitors, is certainly seeing the benefits of having switched the focus of its data query, analysis and reporting tools from previous business imperatives such as customer relationship management and B2B analytics to ‘corporate performance management’. “Corporate performance management is about alignment, making sure everyone – throughout the organisation – is singing from the same song-sheet,” CEO Ron Zambonini told users at the company’s UK user conference in September 2002.
According to the company’s revenue figures for the first six months of fiscal 2003 (ended August 31, 2002), this strategy appears to have worked. Cognos reported a healthy 11% increase in revenues over the same period in 2002. And unlike many software companies that have been forced to fall back on services to sustain revenue levels, Cognos’ revenue growth was driven by strong licence sales, up 12% to $104.9 million.
What could drive revenue even faster is a new approach to addressing one of the major headaches encountered by BI projects – the integration of BI tools with multiple data sources and applications. The key to that is web services. According to Zambonini, Cognos has leveraged the integration capabilities of web services standards and protocols to open up its BI, analysis and reporting suite, EP Series 7, to more applications and users. Cognos Web Services, launched in August 2002, is a toolkit for software developers that the company claims will enable them to build quicker, easier integration of business intelligence with other corporate applications such as finance, call centre and manufacturing applications.
“If you don’t want to go through one of our [pre-built] interfaces you can get at your applications through [web services-based], industry standard-based application programming interfaces (APIs),” explains Don Campbell, the company’s vice president of product innovation and technology. “It means you can add little nuggets of business intelligence to whatever corporate applications you want.” An employee portal, for example, could incorporate pieces of application logic from Cognos’ PowerPlay online analytical processing tool so users could call up relevant daily sales figures as a web service.
However, Philip Russom, an analyst at research company Giga Information Group, warns that while Cognos web services overcomes many integration issues, organisations will still face a considerable coding effort in building the links. “Creating web services for business intelligence is not for the feint of heart,” says Russom in a research note. “Users considering Cognos Web Services should expect to write a lot of code manually.”
Furthermore, Cognos is by no means the first in BI to introduce web services functionality to its products. Since the end of 2001, Actuate Software, Business Objects, DataMirror, Hyperion, Information Builders and SAS Institute have all launched some kind of support for web services in their products.
However, this should not hinder Cognos prospects in web services, according to Russom at Giga. “There’s really no need to rush,” he says. “Although interest among BI users is rising, demand for real-world implementations of BI web services is today very low. Cognos and other vendors still have at least 12 months to complete their web services offerings.”
Looking further out though, investing time and effort to build web services interfaces should pay off. Although Campbell expects partners and resellers to be the first to use the developer toolkit, end user interest will escalate as web services becomes more widespread as an application development and deployment approach within and between organisations.
“Web services will be the next step in the deployment of extranets because they allow applications to talk automatically to one another. The need to discover information is what BI’s all about,” he says.
And if Cognos can convince its users and prospects that the coding involved in building web services interfaces to its products is worth the effort, the company should stay in that elite group of vendors capable of riding out the recession.