August 14, 2013

The two sides of BI

As is the case for most important categories of technology, discussions of BI can get confused. I’ve remarked in the past that there are numerous kinds of BI, and that the very origin of the term “business intelligence” can’t even be pinned down to the nearest century. But the most fundamental confusion of all is that business intelligence technology really is two different things, which in simplest terms may be categorized as user interface (UI) and platform* technology. And so:

*I wanted to say “server” or “server-side” instead of “platform”, as I dislike the latter word. But it’s too inaccurate, for example in the case of the original Cognos PowerPlay, and also in various thin-client scenarios.

Key aspects of BI platform technology can include:

The set of business intelligence vendors that have prospered without noteworthy platform technology is approximately {Tableau}. Candidates I omitted from that set include Spotfire (didn’t get far before being acquired by TIBCO, and perhaps not afterwards either) and Xcelsius (I’m not sure how far it got before being acquired by Business Objects).

Just as platform technology has been essential to BI innovation in the past, I think the same will remain true in the future. For example:

Bottom line: BI innovation usually depends upon serious platform technology.

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11 Responses to “The two sides of BI”

  1. Ken Chestnut on August 14th, 2013 3:23 pm

    I would categorize the two sides as: 1) BI infrastructure and 2) BI tools

    BI infrastructure is necessary but insufficient on its own.

    BI tools address different needs of different audiences (e.g., analysts, IT, scientists, end users) and complete the last mile for turning data into meaningful insight.

    Most (vendors) want to be a platform (play). The problem is that there are very few platform slots at a given prospective customer.

    Better to start off as a spoke (solving a specific problem/need) before trying to become a hub…

  2. Curt Monash on August 14th, 2013 4:32 pm


    I fear you fell right into the confusion this post was meant to combat. 🙂

    My point is that it’s tough to be a relevant tools player without building a lot of tool-specific infrastructure.

    Now, I know that you are among the marketers who believe that, even if this is true, vendors should usually shut up about the infrastructure differentiation and talk rather about the business benefits. And you know I think that you take that view a little too far. 🙂

    But my real point here is a technical one. For your tools/infrastructure distinction to match vendor reality, we’ve have to call analytic RDBMS, ETL, etc. “business intelligence infrastructure”, which I don’t think is a helpful way of phrasing things.

  3. Ken Chestnut on August 14th, 2013 7:17 pm

    Did not know you thought so low of me. 🙂

    If you are (primarily) an infrastructure vendor, you should absolutely talk about your infrastructure differentiators by all means (especially if you are in a well-defined category with clear competitors).

    Sometimes it makes sense to lead with infrastructure differentiation. Sometimes it does not. It completely depends on the audience (and the knowledge/skill of the person discussing those differentiators).

  4. Curt Monash on August 14th, 2013 7:32 pm

    Not a low opinion, Ken. Just a disagreement that has played out across more than one company. 🙂

    But at the moment I’m also a bit put out that you’re responding to my post as if you hadn’t read it. My core contention in it was that your distinction is a false dichotomy.

  5. John on August 15th, 2013 12:29 pm

    Why doesn’t Tableau Server qualify as “platform” technology?

  6. Curt Monash on August 15th, 2013 4:25 pm

    I’ve never been aware of anything differentiated on the platform side at Tableau.

  7. John on August 15th, 2013 6:09 pm

    Fair enough. So, in Tableau’s case, BI innovation is driven by the UI and supported by an undifferentiated but “good enough for most” piece of server technology?

  8. Curt Monash on August 15th, 2013 6:25 pm

    That’s my impression, although I’d change your first “by” to another preposition such as “in”. 🙂

  9. John on August 16th, 2013 8:45 am

    Do you think UI innovation is more replicable than platform innovation?

  10. Curt Monash on August 16th, 2013 6:44 pm

    It’s easier to copy, unless there’s some implementation issue that makes it hard to copy. And the implementation issue would likely fall under “platform” technology.

    That’s in the BI world. In other scenarios, the implementation issues might, for example, be in the area of OLTP application software.

  11. Visualization or navigation? | DBMS 2 : DataBase Management System Services on September 29th, 2013 7:22 pm

    […] suggested in the past, approximately, that the platform technology side of business intelligence is more significant than the user interface. That formulation, however, doesn’t exactly capture what I believe. To be more precise, […]

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