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SAP's business intelligence drive promotes openness

SAP has said it is serious about business intelligence software but whether companies are willing to spend money on BI software remains to be seen.

Enterprise software giant SAP has pulled together its disparate business intelligence (BI) components into a single...

suite that is fully integrated into its portal technology for the first time.

Accordingly, SAP says BI is now a "strategic pillar" of both the main company and the SAP Portals subsidiary. Key themes of the updated version of mySAP Business Intelligence are to help users make decisions based on information gleaned from any internal or external data source, and to penetrate beyond the traditional business analysts, to 'knowledge workers' and high-level executives.

Context

With the BI suite part of the supposedly quasi-independent SAP Portals subsidiary, the company says the ultimate opportunity for BI is to promote it as a truly collaborative process, whereby companies can gain access to their partners' systems and mine their data. This will let them spot patterns and trends across a range of applications, be it their CRM, ERP or SCM system, or a combination of all of them. SAP has realized that it is not able to do it alone; no matter how hard it tries, it will never be the world's only application vendor. Hence, the BI offering has been tightly packaged with mySAP Enterprise Portal, offering users the possibility to explore and share data in a more collaborative fashion.

Technology

To achieve this, SAP has made two major changes to its architecture and strategy. First, the company is tapping into a strategic deal it made with Ascential Software last April. It is offering Ascential's DataStage data integration engine as an option for version 3.0 of its SAP Business Warehouse, allowing users to access non-SAP data in addition to what's held in SAP's own applications.

"This is not like your old Business Warehouse," said Shai Agassi, CEO of SAP Portals, referring to prior versions of the product that could only handle SAP data. "It's BI for the masses."

SAP has also tuned mySAP BI to work with other data warehouses through a process it calls "open hub," allowing users to move data across warehouses and marts and distribute it to other target systems.

he user interface for achieving this level of collaboration is the mySAP Enterprise Portal, which the company dresses up as "business unification." This allows users either inside or outside the organization to access and relate information from any source, and combine it with other tools within the portal, such as knowledge management information gleaned from unstructured data such as documents and email. And since SAP is promoting "role-based" portals, it claims the development will allow new levels of users to access information and run queries and reports, all within the portal framework.

Outlook

However, SAP admits there is some way to go before mainstream companies start to use BI in a truly collaborative way. It's often difficult enough to persuade companies to share information internally, especially in functions such as sales, so how likely is it that companies will happily let suppliers, customers and other partners dial into their own systems and mine their data?

"Transparency is an interesting word, and it does need a bit more understanding about what it means to share information, but the technology is there," said Peter Grendel, head of product marketing at SAP Portals.

Is it a case of having the technology before the demand is there, then? Not so, says Grendel, claiming that combining application integration, process integration and data integration in one place (the portal) overcomes some of the previous barriers.

"The data is real, the data has a time stamp, we can help," he says.

Sales and marketing

With its new-found focus, and with its portal product strategy now in place following SAP's acquisition of TopTier last year, the company says it is in good shape to target SAP users that don't currently use its BI products. SAP currently has around 4,000 companies using its BI tools, although the vast majority of these are either users of TopTier or SAP Workplace, the portal predecessor. SAP says it will increasingly target non-SAP users and is looking for greater traction with the big five integrators and other partners.

Conclusion

Certainly, business intelligence is emerging as a key benefactor of the economic pressures, as decisions are less likely to be made on a whim, and SAP is doing itself no harm by directly tackling the proprietary issues that have hampered it in the past. But it doesn't necessarily follow that companies are willing to spend more up front to reap longer-term benefits. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if SAP can push its BI products into non-SAP users, especially since SAP is not primarily known as a BI specialist and the competitive landscape remains fierce.

HR> the451 (www.the451.com) is an analyst firm that provides timely, detailed and independent analysis of news in technology, communications and media. To evaluate the service click here.

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