Oracle’s High BI Bar: Managed, Multifaceted and Actionable

Oracle’s newest BI release is massive, spans multiple product categories, and raises the bar for competitors in dramatic fashion. In my prior post I focused on its rollout and competitive posture. The market has waited a long time as the reconciliation of many moving parts was accomplished – most notably the convergence of the Hyperion Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) offering and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE). Hyperion integration with its Essbase acquisition was not complete. In 2007, OBI’s newest release (10.1.3) was most notable in many eyes for its new Microsoft Office support. PeopleSoft and Siebel had been acquired some two years before that, and Master Data Management was already a topic of discussion then (2005). There was a long way to go. And analysts? Well, think of us as the kids in the back: “Are we there yet?”

Oracle has used its time, and its $3B per year investment in R&D, well. OBIEE 11g delivers a strong base for its customers to build upon, and for its own teams to continue fleshing out a very coherent vision of ready-to-consume, actionable analytics suitable for multiple roles, on multiple platforms, across the breadth of information available. Although there is much left to do, Oracle has laid out a clear path and articulated a differentiated message that offers ample reasons for anyone on other platforms to consider OBIEE, whether or not they are an Oracle customer. For this analyst, the big wins are the Common Enterprise Information Model, The Action Framework, the strong manageability focus, unified and enhanced user interaction for report and other forms of design and delivery, and BI applications.

Oracle has buried OBIEE alongside with Enterprise Performance Management on its home page as of this writing, but needs to break it out. This is a core offering, a piece of infrastructure for its customers that stands with hardware, database, middleware and applications as a defining architectural component for the companies that adopt it. Oracle has combined a unifying view of content, an action framework that connects to applications for evidence-based actions, an analytical toolkit and a wealth of communication/presentation capabilities into a holistic, extensible suite that can crowd other products aside if its sales teams and services partners show customers just how much value it provides. For this analyst, it begins with the Common Enterprise Information Model (CEIM), a semantic middleware layer similar to SAP Business Objects Universe or IBM Cognos Framework Manager, that links to and provides a model of data from a rich array of data sources, and leverages the growing capabilities of Oracle Data Integrator to bring them in. No, it’s not perfect – and Oracle still sells a lot of Informatica to its customers. That will be true for some time, even after Oracle’s acquisition of GoldenGate last year.

The key to this picture is the placement of the CEIM. In many ways, master data management is today often an afterthought to be retrospectively applied – and its associated with applications, “upstream” conceptually from BI. Oracle’s own Master Data Management Suite lives there organizationally. But as far back as 2008, Oracle was already discussing the relationship between MDM and BI in a white paper. It’s fair to say that there are still steps to take to bring the two world views together at this point, but if you think of today’s MDM as being a bit farther upstream from the diagram here (click to expand the picture), you can see how Oracle proposes to unite  its own assets. That includes the relational OLAP (ROLAP) engine, multidimensional OLAP (MOLAP) cubes based on Essbase, and the predictive analytics models that will be created using a variety of offerings, some new. It’s the place where intelligent request generation using optimized data access services will be built, where in-memory caching, workload management and calculations will reside. BI Server (built on the Siebel nQuire product, whose claim to fame was its integration across data sources), will provide data from elsewhere, and getting quality and integration right there is essential, and MDM will get that done. My take: why not store all the resulting information in one place? This unification is critical. The CEIM could erase the differences among these methods for the user, while permitting IT to pick the best architecture for the task at hand. The foundation layer it informs is responsible for security, user management and personalization as well. And as Oracle attempts to accelerate its release cycle, these commonalities will facilitate things enormously. I hope to see a unification of these two down the line, but for now, the CEIM is still enormously powerful as the foundation for all BI activities.

The power of the foundation thus built, VP of Product Management Paul Rodwick said at our analyst briefing, is that users may attach serially to data sources, not requiring a Data Warehouse to be prebuilt.  “Not all data is in there and some never will be,” he said – and I agree. Oracle believes BI Server’s native SQL or MDX and processing pushdown capability are competitive advantages; I have not dug in to do direct comparisons with competitors yet. The semantic model’s place implicitly provides governance that  lets companies more confidently allow users to create their own reports; for me, this is an interesting contrast with Microsoft’s positioning, which makes such control an afterthought associated with SharePoint, and with IBM’s, which has not bound this issue in to its product story, although it has excellent governance services and expertise internally. Oracle’s ongoing investment in”guided analytics” figures in here as well, reinforcing the notion management can mean “help” as well as “control.”

But it doesn’t stop there – I call this infrastructure because all Fusion applications to come: ERP, Finance, CRM etc. will ultimately use the CEIM. Fusion is listed with other applications in the figure, but it will get some very special boosts from this metadata unification – upstream tools won’t need redefinition, ETL, cube building, or other steps to get to the element they want, defined in a commonly understood way. Going forward, that will be a powerful argument for giving Oracle more of your infrastructure. Oracle shared some ideas with the analysts about the roadmap, but much of that was under NDA, and in any case would take at least another few blog pages to discuss.

The Action Framework – Differentiated and Bold

Oracle takes another big leap with its BI Action Framework. Those of us who have for years bemoaned how BI always focuses on what I call predicting the past, and others compare to driving with the rear view mirror, can take heart – this element provides the place where the connection from evidence to action will take place. Alerts? Great – other products have that. Sensors? Check. Initiate predefined processes and workflows within a BI context? Ahhh….now we’re getting somewhere. Inside the CEIM, unified with pointers to content, linked to resolution tracking – this is where it belongs. Navigation is facilitated, collaboration is enabled.

Oracle creates, with the Action Framework, a place to unify automated and human-driven workflows and process management. The Action framework works with BPEL, executes java methods, invokes web services and navigates to a variety of locations. It’s certainly not finished yet, but its place in the architecture is laid out, and some connections, especially those to Fusion applications, will be used soon by customers. The metadata-driven design will ensure that the defined actions will be used consistently across dashboards, Publisher, iBots (a former Siebel –not Apple! – utility used to deliver messages) and even Oracle Answers+, the newest version of the ad hoc reporting utility for Essbase.

The actions can be invoked from the new-look start page, shown here. I’ve reproduced it full-sized because there is so much detail on the page.

At a glance, many new features are visible, from the Actionable Intelligence on the left that we’re talking about here, to the social collaboration and community features like Most Popular or the direct connection to websites, scorecards and analytical tools. Note the Search bar at the top; it’s common across all the BI products, and a license for Secure Enterprise Search is included with OBIEE.

This new personalizable  landing page includes views of dashboards users can select. Note that some have maps – these support drill-through directly from the map, and on those pages where other charts appear, the charts change with selections made on the map. Oracle has NAVTEQ integration, providing geospatial information down to city level around the world (and street level for 3 cities in development now.) Custom maps can be built with the Map Viewer application, and registered within the system, for organizations that want to build visual representations of sales territories or other specialized views. I mention all this here because all of this is linked to the Action Framework – it’s another validation of the value of the CEIM.

Oracle Enterprise Manager Exploitation

Oracle’s expertise in reliability and operations is manifested in the tools it provides for operations professionals. With the expansion of its information model to encompass caching, data access services across multiple sources and user personalization, the integration of OBIEE with Enterprise Manager raises the bar enormously for the competition. It gains from the substantial investments in Fusion Middleware, a strategic thrust that proved very powerful in the past few years – and which generated a great deal of revenue, assuring its continued development.

Pluses include support for the Oracle Universal Installer, a boon to operations staff first introduced back in release 8i. Other workmanlike but vital integration efforts have led to support from the Upgrade Assistant, Oracle Patch, and support for end-to-end diagnostics – often missing in BI environments that are patched together outside a formal management framework. This is an “out-of-the-box install”, with an embedded LDAP server; integrating with Oracle Identity Manager is just a matter of a few dropdown choices. Certainly there’s still work to do: in his comprehensive post, Mark Smith of Ventana Research notes that Oracle did not offer an answer on for level 3 compliance of the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP), which is critical for government entities … should be part of every BI product used across the enterprise and the Internet because it prevents security breaches at the URL level where code based injections occur.

Mark’s point is well taken. Still, there is much to be pleased with here – participation in Oracle Platform Security Services (OPSS) could provide a point of integration for OWASP across all of Oracle’s products, and one hopes OWASP arrives soon.

Reporting, Dashboards and Scorecards

I cluster these for a reason – many vendors do some, but not others (at least not well.) Others do them all, but don’t integrate them well. Here again, the comprehensiveness of Oracle’s integration makes itself felt. The newest version of BI Publisher  marries a thin-client designer for “pixel perfect” design with industrial-class, high volume output. It becomes an endpoint, not just for analysis, but for business processes, like invoicing, that are part of the Oracle applications family – and with the integration of the catalog, it’s a natural fit. It continues to be available outside the full 11g portfolio.

The rich internet applications (RIA) metaphor is in full force here. New interactive features such as sliders provide additional levels of interaction, against both relational and multidimensional sources. (Other BI analysts are describing these in detail, so I’ll leave it to that.) And Oracle has upped its Office integration again – it was notable that there was zero Microsoft-bashing in either the analyst or public events.

Mobile? You can’t leave it out. Oracle demonstrated the iPad as a consumer – and interactive creator – of analytic deliverables, and upped the demo’s intelligence by showing how the same report could be delivered in another language with just a pick from the menu. No rewrite, no redevelopment. (And not an easy one at that – Arabic, a non-Roman character set – was used for the demo. Still, I’d have a native speaker check before production – literal translations can get you into trouble.) Support for dozens of languages – and currencies – is built in.

For me, though, the high point was the integration of business metrics (KPIs) and goals and objectives into OBIEE via Oracle Scorecard and Strategy Management. Building strategy maps, defining KPIs, – and linking results to the action framework – allows the circle to be closed, for automated analysis of performance to activate defined, policy-aware responses with or without human intervention. Oracle has put the pieces together and told the most integrated story I’ve seen.

BI Applications – the Next Thing

That really only leaves one stone unturned, I think: what about those BI Applications? They have been a significant extension to the brand – Oracle claims over 2500 customers are using these tightly integrated, highly specific products in their business processes. I’ve left them till last because while they are compatible with the 11g release and won’t be affected when it is installed, they gain nothing specifically new from it yet. Those releases are still to come. But consider their power: because so much of their value proposition comes from the pre-built, industry- and process-specific metadata they are founded on, their value will be magnified – and immediately extensible – in an OBIEE 11g shop. The figure to the left gives a sense of how much is added – click to enlarge.

Updating the BI apps is another non-trivial exercise – there are dozens of them, with the best-selling being the financial ones. And there are new portfolio assets to use for them: the HyperRoll acquisition brought some pieces that will be bound specifically in to the financial BI applications first. The apps drive a lot of Oracle and partner services revenue, and they are measured in part by their “attach rate,” which varies across application type – but it’s easy to see how much this represents a tempting “low-hanging fruit” for the sales force as more success stories pile up. The apps tend to deliver time to value very rapidly, and as they are adapted to make use of the improved guided analytics (and their customization), the value proposition will be enhanced further still.

Bottom Line – Much Done, More To Do

This lengthy discussion still leaves pieces I have not covered – and some Oracle did not get into. Many are open challenges. The collaboration environment,  built on the WebCenter Suite shows promise, but Oracle has struggled before with this – and it’s formally part of Fusion Middleware. I’m not sure of the licensing requirements. Predictive analytics, notably in the Real-Time Decisions offering, also still seems somewhat disconnected, but all indications are that it’s getting traction and closing business – and that will mean more engineering investment to bind it in more fully in the years ahead. Its potential link to the BI apps is obvious and will be pursued.

SaaS? Not here, as far as I could see. In-memory analytics? The assets are there, and there was more talk of TimesTen than I’ve heard in a while – but it’s also work in progress. Unstructured text analytics? Hardly mentioned. Ditto event processing. So Oracle has more work ahead – the target never stops moving, and Larry’s checkbook may be itching even as I write this, creating new integration tasks for the engineers to enjoy.

But there wouldn’t be enough time to talk about it all, even if it were all ready. The truth is that observers can see these pieces coming, if we squint and tilt our heads a bit. The only question is how long some of them will take. I’m betting we hear some of them discussed at Open World. Oracle is setting its sights high, and clearly won’t be satisfied with missing them.

Disclosures: Oracle is a client of IT Market Strategy

About Merv Adrian
Gartner Research VP, technology analyst and consultant, 30 years of industry experience, covering software mostly, hardware sometimes.

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