Better business intelligence: The search is on

When Google Inc. last week announced a new Search Appliance with the ability to search for information in a number of major enterprise software products, it drew attention to something that has been happening quietly for a while: search capabilities are an increasingly important capability for business intelligence applications.

Google said it worked with several hardware and software vendors in developing OneBox for Enterprise, a feature that allows business users to find information in enterprise software including business intelligence systems. Among those partners were Ottawa-based Cognos Inc. and SAS Institute Inc. of Cary, N.C. – both vendors that focus on the business intelligence market – and Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif., whose line of database and related software also touches on the BI space.

For Cognos, the Google announcement comes on the heels of its launch of Cognos Go, a search tool that allows users of its Cognos 8 Business Intelligence software to search the content of reports, rather than just by report titles. Now that capability will be available from within OneBox for Enterprise, said Paul Hulford, senior product marketing manager for BI at Cognos.

Cognos also announced that Go will allow IBM Corp.’s WebSphere Information Integrator OmniFind Edition to publish and index Cognos reports and other BI materials. The IBM software is the first commercial product based on the open-source Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA).

SAS customers will be able to search for BI reports and for other material related to the same topic with a single search from OneBox Enterprise, said Christine McKeon, marketing manager for BI at SAS.

If someone is looking for data on first-quarter sales, McKeon said, that person wants to see quarterly sales reports, but may also be interested in other documents that refer to first-quarter sales. “By providing search capabilities with Google, we are actually taking that information and putting it in front of the user.”

The announcement is not a bolt from the blue. “There’s been a convergence of these technologies under way for some time,” said Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research, Inc., in Boston.

Recognizing that their customers need to be able to find relevant information whether it appears in a structured report or not, BI vendors have been working to provide better access to unstructured data, said Murphy.

“We have a very similar capability to Cognos,” claimed Michael Corcoran, vice-president of corporate strategy at Information Builders Inc. in New York. In March, Information Builders announced a tool called WebFocus Intelligent Search, developed with Google, for searching structured data in corporate databases.

The best part of Information Builders’ story, Corcoran said, is its iWay subsidiary, which provides adapters for a wide range of enterprise software, allowing searches across multiple systems. “We’re going to give these search engines a much greater reach,” said Corcoran. Executives are offering more detail about the firm’s search strategy at its annual Summit conference in Orlando this week.

Paris-based Business Objects S.A. has seen a trend for “quite a while” to users seeking easier access to information without having to write queries and reports, said James Thomas, product marketing director at Business Objects’ North American operations in San Jose, Calif. That is “something we’ve been investing in for a couple of years,” he said.

Business Objects has created a built-in search engine and a repository that stores reports produced by its own software along with related material such as Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint slides, Thomas said. It has also developed the Business Objects Encyclopedia, which allows customers to store data definitions providing context for material, and a natural-language query capability called Business Objects Intelligent Question.

Murphy said SAS has been offering a “text data mining” capability for a while. But demand for such capabilities has been slow to develop, Murphy said, perhaps because the market didn’t understand them well. Murphy thinks that could change now that Google is in the picture. “The Google announcement kind of changes everything” because of the search company’s prominence, he said. “Google sort of puts it in people’s faces.”

By adding search and other capabilities that make it easier for average computer users to get at data, BI vendors hope to expand the reach of their products.

“We think it’s going to have a tremendous growth opportunity for the company,” said Corcoran.

“Our company strategy is really to try and support user adoption,” said Hulford. He added that there is a direct correlation between the number of people with access to BI in an organization and the company’s performance.

Business intelligence vendors will benefit from wider use of their products by selling more licences, Murphy said, though access to data through something like the Google Search Appliance may not mean a licence for every user. Certainly that is not the payoff for SAS, which allows an unlimited number of users for one price with its BI software, McKeon said.

“I think the way you expand the market is to provide broader access to information wherever it is,” said Thomas.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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