Not all BI self service capabilities are created equal

By Boris Evelson

There’s a lot of hype out there by many vendors who claim that they have tools and technologies to enable BI end user self service. Do they? When you analyze whether your BI vendor can support end user self service, consider the following types of “self service” and related BI tool requirements:

#1. Self service for average, casual users.

  • What do these users need to do?
    • Run and lightly customize canned reports and dashboards
    • Run ad hoc queries
    • Add calculated measures
    • Collaborate
    • Fulfill their BI requirements with little or no training (typically one needs search-like, not point-and-click UI for this)
  • What capabilities do they need for this?
    • Report and dashboard templates
    • Customizable prompts, sorts, filters, and ranks
    • Report, query, dashboard building wizards
    • Portal
    • Semantic layer (not all BI vendor have a rich semantic layer)
    • Prompting for columns (not all BI vendors let you do that)
    • Drill anywhere  (only BI vendors with ROLAP and multisourcing / data federation provide this capability)

#2. Self service for advanced, power users

  • What do these users need to do?
    • Perform what-if scenarios (this often requires write back, which very few BI vendors allow)
    • Add metrics, measures, and hierarchies not supported by the underlying data model (typically one needs some kind of in-memory analytics capability for this)
    • Explore based on new (not previously defined) entity relationships (typically one needs some kind of in-memory analytics capability for this)
    • Not knowing exactly what one is looking for (typically one needs search-like UI for this)
  • What capabilities do they need for this?

#3. Ability to instantly  add a new data source (unmodeled). This typically requires some kind of integrated data federation capability

#4. Ability to instantly provision new BI app (via BI SaaS or a mashup) or add storage capacity (usually this requires some kind of data virtualization, private cloud or BI SaaS)

So here’s the list categorized by whether it’s a commodity feature that most BI vendors provide vs. unique and differentiated features that only certain BI vendors offer:

Commodity

  • Report and dashboard templates
  • Customizable prompts, sorts, filters, and ranks
  • Point and click GUI
  • Report wizards
  • Mashups

 

Unique and differentiated

  • Write back
  • In-memory analytics
  • Analytics with search like UI
  • Rich semantic layer
  • Prompting for columns
  • ROLAP
  • Data federation tightly integrated with BI apps
  • BI SaaS

If your BI vendor offers most of these, then indeed, yes, they can claim to enable end user BI self service. See the full research doc here

Comments

clarification on in-memory and ROLAP

There was a great question from one of the readers asking why I included in-memory OLAP and ROLAP as part of the self service BI capabilities. Aren't these just implementation choices, was the question. No, in-memory and ROLAP are indeed much more than just implementation choices. Here’s why

#1. In-memory gives you a ability to explore and analyze WITHOUT a data model, since
- Every entity/attribute is already cross referenced in memory with all other entities and attributes
- Aggregates can be built on the fly
- Every attribute can be instantaneously reused as a fact or as a dimension
So, this means that in a traditional BI environment, when I need to report/analyze something that is not pre-built, pre-modeled in my data model, I have to request a data model change form a DBA. With in-memory model, I can just run the new query and the model is constructed on the fly. I can’t do that with disk based OLAP tools.

#2. ROLAP and “prompt for columns” give me (at least theoretically) a capability to create a single report template, and from that single template I can prompt myself for any columns and drill anywhere in my underlying DWs and DMs. With MOLAP and DOLAP I can only drill anywhere within that cube, but not drill anywhere in the entire DW (or anywhere in multiple DWs and data marts. While I’ve never seen this done to that theoretical extent, I do indeed see that the users of ROLAP (MicroStrategy and Oracle BI Server) typically require fewer canned reports.