SAP's BI stack and third-party tools: How does it all measure up?

The SAP BI stack has lost ground to third-party competitors over the years, but that doesn't mean companies should ditch it, writes Ethan Jewett.

Acquisitions and product launches over the last five years have made SAP's BI stack large and complex. Organizations that use individual components must decide whether to embrace a broad offering of tools that are rarely best of breed.

Adopting the full SAP BI platform certainly has advantages compared to cobbling together solutions from different business intelligence vendors. But how serious are SAP BI's stack issues, and can they be overcome? The answer is yes -- through judicious use of third-party software.

Immobile on mobile

Many of the bumps on the SAP BI road have been in the mobile area. SAP BusinessObjects Planning and Consolidation (previously Outlooksoft) was well positioned as a challenger to Hyperion in the enterprise performance management space. SAP worked to improve BPC with features required for enterprise-wide deployments and better integration with SAP's other applications. However the parallel effort to port SAP BPC to the NetWeaver platform proved problematic because of performance problems and feature redesigns. This effort, along with the integration of OutlookSoft into SAP, resulted in a slow pace of improvements to BPC.

The pace of improvement is picking up as SAP moves past integration concerns with BPC 10 and starts to address fundamental performance issues with BPC on HANA, SAP's in-memory database platform. However, the competition didn't stand still, and BPC now faces renewed competition from traditional competitors like Tagetik Software as well as cloud- and mobile-native vendors like Tidemark Systems.

In 2007, BusinessObjects Xcelsius (now "Dashboards") was a capable dashboarding product, but BusinessObjects lacked compelling offerings in OLAP reporting and the exploding area of data visualization. After acquisition, Xcelsius made only incremental improvements, missing the strategic shift to mobile and browser-based HTML5 dashboards. Partial mobile support for Dashboards was introduced only at the end of 2012.

Competitors like Tableau Software, Microstrategy and Qliktech didn't miss the mobile transition. Meanwhile, development of quality OLAP reporting on the BusinessObjects platform was delayed until the release of the BusinessObjects 4.0 platform in 2010. Credible visualization software only went into beta in 2012 in the form of SAP BusinessObjects Visual Intelligence, and it lags industry leaders like Tableau and Qliktech in terms of functionality, ease of use and mobile.

So, if SAP's BI products have lost ground to competitors over the last four or five years, what is the argument for going with SAP's complete offering? Wouldn't it be better to piece together the best products for each job? Not necessarily.

The lure of the stack

Despite these issues, there are several good arguments for SAP's complete offering. Theoretically, training is easier with a unified set of products from a single vendor. Technical integration between products should work better and SAP can use proprietary interfaces that are not available to third-party products. Competent technicians who are familiar with all the technologies being used are more common than those who know technologies from multiple companies. It may also be possible to secure better pricing when buying more software from the same vendor.

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Perhaps most importantly, SAP is a single source for information on how to put its BI stack together. Integration of different products is always difficult, and it can be very hard to predict how two products are going to work together, even if integration between the two products is technically supported. Differences in implementation of standards such as SQL and MDX can cause problems, and semantic issues are always a concern. Information from SAP on integration options between its own products may not always be clear, but it exists, is easily accessible and is usually complete and reliable. Further, when integrating two SAP products, you usually won't be the first to do so, but be wary and secure extra support from SAP if you do plan a groundbreaking integration project between two SAP products.

Three's not a crowd in SAP BI stacks

Once you've bought into a platform, it can be difficult to get out or use third-party tools for specific needs. Fortunately, in SAP's case, it's possible to integrate third-party tools through open interfaces. However, the "advantages" mentioned above can make this difficult. Technical know-how of only the chosen software stack can be one of the more problematic issues; an effort should be made to maintain knowledge of third-party technologies and monitor the advantages that they provide. Dogmatic commitment to one technology or platform is almost always harmful.

As we've seen from the current position of SAP's products in the BI industry, there are many reasons to use third-party products, even if a company has chosen to use predominantly SAP BI tools. (For instance, third-party products like RoamBI bridged the mobile gap for BusinessObjects reports while many BusinessObjects customers waited for SAP to deliver a mobile solution.) The third-party software required (if any) will vary based on need, number of users, budget and technical capabilities. Some may also look to third-party vendors because they need better mobile support than what SAP provides.

Because the need may well arise, it's advisable to recruit or train technical staff and BI solution architects that are comfortable with technologies from multiple vendors and are capable of evaluating and integrating products from different vendors or developing custom software when appropriate. This is important even if adopting a full BI stack from SAP or another vendor. Then, if or when the stack doesn't measure up, you'll be ready to meet your business' BI needs without too much disruption.

If the weaknesses in SAP's BI solution can be mitigated through third-party software and careful management, adopting more SAP BI software may be worth your while.

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