BI Saas Vendors Are Not Created Equal

Boris Evelson By Boris Evelson

As many of my readers know, for years I’ve been quite skeptical about non-mainstream BI solutions, such as BI SaaS. Security, control, operational risk, data, metadata and application integration are just some of the requirements for enterprise BI that are still on my watch list as potential reasons to be weary about BI SaaS. However, I am also a very pragmatic analyst and truly believe that nothing but supply and demand drive the markets.  And I am now, slowly but surely, beginning to believe there couldn’t be a better case for demand for BI SaaS especially after findings from one of the project that I am currently conducting.

I recently talked to a few dozen non-IT professionals (specifically in front office roles, such as sales and marketing) across multiple industries, regions and company sizes. Guess how many of them fully or partially relied on IT for their day to day operational and strategic information needs? BIG FAT ZERO!!! This finding was a huge surprise to me – yes, I did expect to find something like less then 50% reliance on IT, but I surely did not expect to find 0%.

It is truly amazing that after 30 or so years of BI software, services and solutions vendors and internal IT organizations making a strong push and a case for BI, they are still not even making a dent in the front offices. What are the reasons? Among many others, sales and marketing folks that I interviewed are citing being low on IT priority list (why???), IT not speaking their language, high cost, inflexibility of company standard BI solutions, lag times to roll something out – and the list goes on and on and on.

So what’s a sales or a marketing professional to do? Fortunately, they do have options. I am sure you all know what their option #1 is. Yes, you guessed it – Excel. But while Excel remains and will continue to remain for the foreseeable future #1 BI tool, it does have lots of limitations, and all of the business folks I talked to are looking for something that has more pre-built BI solutions, can handle gigabytes (and eventually terabytes) of data, and is more Web 2.0 and collaborative than Excel. Many BI SaaS vendors indeed provide just that.

Is BI SaaS a panacea to all these issues and challenges? Absolutely not. My concerns cited at the beginning of this blog still need to be addressed. Chief among them is the financial viability and long term survivability of BI SaaS vendors, since most of them are tiny, startup companies. So how do you short list a BI SaaS company and mitigate your risks?

First consider some soft differentiations. While these are hard to verify, and may or may not directly correlate and contribute to ultimate vendor success, these are a good starting point (or ending point, to put the final touches on your evaluation) to begin shortlisting your BI SaaS choices:

  • VC backing. Is the firm backed by a VC with good track record in information management space?
  • Profitability or loss run rate. Is the business profitable or is the loss rate manageable, predictable and adequately financed till the planned break even / profitability goal?
  • recommendation. Does (or another major vendor on whose platform, data source, etc analytics are based) provide favorable or unfavorable recommendation?
  • Management team. Does the management team have a good track record with successful startups and solid BI experience?

Next, proceed to evaluating hard facts. These have to be easily verifiable, and will most probably directly contributes to the ultimate success of a vendor:

Architecture and technology

  • Multitentant architecture. Is the architecture truly multitentant or is SaaS offering really an ASP/MSP under the covers ? In other words, can a customer swipe a credit card and get provisioned instantly without a necessity for any manual intervention, setup, etc? This, by the way, is the main reason why I often exclude mainstream BI vendors from BI SaaS category – but I welcome their challenge to this point.
  • In the cloud infrastructure. Is the vendor in the business of supporting servers and DBMS, or is all infrastructure hosted by in the cloud vendors like Amazon or Google? Can the vendor concentrate its efforts 100% on functionality and not infrastructure?
  • dependency. Is the software offering 100% dependent on a single data source? Does the vendor have anything else to fall back on should that one single dependency not work out? Some other typical sources include Netsuite, Quickbooks online, clickstream data from Google, payroll data from Paychex, and others.
  • Fixed or flexible data model. Does the vendor provide a very industry or functionally specific data mode, vs. can you build your own data model or both?
  • Metadata. Does the tool give you capability to import/export metadata so that business and technical metadata can be integrated and reused with other enterprise applications?
  • Data integration. Does the vendor provide simple (flat file) import mechanism, SQL or MDX based import or a full blown ETL procedural/scripting language? Does the vendor automatically infer  and build a star scheema or requires you to do the target data modelling?
  • APIs, Web Services. Can product functionality be modified, exposed and reused in other applications via APIs or Web Services?
  • 11 styles of BI. Does the vendor provide BI functionality to support all 11 styles of BI (8, such as reporting, querying, OLAP, dashboards, etc are listed in my recent BI Wave)?
  • Architectural secret sauce. Since any SaaS business is in danger of becoming commoditized does a vendor have a “secret sauce”, a protectable IP that truly differentiates them?


  • Are customer references available? From customers in production (not POCs or prototypes)? What is the total number of verifiable customer logos in production? How diverse is this verifiable customer base by industry, enterprise size, function?


  • Set up services. Does the vendor offer software and application setup services?
  • Integration services. Does the vendor offer broader data integration services?
  • Management consulting services. Does the vendor offer strategic, management consulting-type advisory services?

Hopefully, this checklist is comprehensive and practical enough to help you shortlist a BI SaaS vendor that fits your business needs and is less then likely to fail in the near future. However! You still need to mitigate the risk by

  • Backing up your own data
  • Having a BI SaaS vendor Plan B.  Keep track of the other BI SaaS vendors - and be ready to have one of them pick up the business if your current BI SaaS vendor fails.
  • Having a commitment from (or the other appropriate ERP vendor) to support your SaaS analytics in case your BI SaaS vendor fails
  • Having your internal IT resources stand by and have a plan and a periodic fire drill on how to take over and migrate your data into the enterprise BI solution

Now that I re-read my blog – I am thinking, why not actually poll all current BI SaaS vendors and have them fill out the above questionnaire and turn it into a research doc? I think I will do just that shortly. The current list that I have includes:

Adaptive Planning

Am I missing anyone?


re: BI Saas Vendors Are Not Created Equal

you're missing Indicee!

re: BI Saas Vendors Are Not Created Equal

Boris: Great post! Include Zoho Reports to your list.Our parent company Zoho Corp (formerly AdventNet Inc) was started in 1996, we have been profitable every year since inception and we haven't taken any venture money.We are announcing the pricing plans for Zoho Reports shortly. Will keep in touch with you.

re: BI Saas Vendors Are Not Created Equal

What about LogiXML?

re: BI Saas Vendors Are Not Created Equal

Boris, this is a great post. It is encouraging to have a BI veteran like yourself weigh in on the SaaS model.You raise legitimate questions and provide a useful framework for enterprise buyers evaluating any vendor, SaaS BI included. PivotLink is participating in your survey by providing detailed responses to each of the survey questions you have outlined.Your observation about sales and marketing professionals being underserved is legitimate and echoes what we hear from professionals across every functional area, from mid-sized organizations to the largest multinationals. We also hear it from HR professionals, merchandising managers, service managers, as well as billing, collection and financial analysts.There are countless use case examples of PivotLink customers integrating operational data that comes from both internal applications and databases, but also from external sources such as Salesforce, NetSuite, and other SaaS and outsourced data processing entities.We increasingly partner with IT organizations that have established data warehouses and data marts but need options to increase user self-service and reduce the backlog of reporting and analysis requests from their user communities.The skepticism surrounding a new and fast-growing segment in an established market is understandable and the questions you ask and answer will be an invaluable tool for decision makers. Alternatively we should look at the opposite side of the coin and ask, “Why haven’t existing BI approaches been able to satisfy customer needs for timely and accurate information?” What gap in the BI continuum gives SaaS vendors the opportunity to flourish now?Let’s open up the discussion. What value does any of the investment made in BI, either on premise or off, provide if we don’t empower end users to access the information required for daily decision-making? This is a business intelligence and business analytics question, not an on premise vs. off premise question or architectural debate. It is not an ASP, MSP or multitenant question, or is it about public or private cloud computing. In fact, the “on premise or SaaS BI” is rarely a unilateral black or white decision; most of our customers operate in a hybrid environment.Today’s CIO and line of business managers need options. Complex BI platforms that promise to deliver every available feature developed over the last 20 years inevitably increase the cost and complexity of an implementation. Overly complex solutions have hindered, not helped, the wide spread adoption of BI tools.We do very much appreciate the opportunity to provide the SaaS BI point of view and provide a deeper understanding of our business model through our separate response to your research study.You’ve also inspired us to continue the discussion and break down a few of your questions (i.e. VC backing, profitability) for customers and partners on our blog

re: BI Saas Vendors Are Not Created Equal

Most of these BI SAAS vendors all offer the same thing: reports and dashboards. I believe the next BI wave is coming, and that it will involve a totally different level of analytics. Here is one company in my home state (WA) which offers a new type of BI: You advice to take frequent backups is excellent. I follow the startup scene very closely, and many BI companies are failing right now. Only a handful were classy enough to warn their users well in advance and let them download their data.