IBM Cognos BI Review Summary
IBM Cognos is a large, sprawling suite of products that will address every conceivable business intelligence requirement. Whether it does it with flair and efficiency is another matter. The platform will only be of interest to large corporations who have well established needs for production reporting, planning, budgeting, forecasting and what-if analysis. It does all these things very well, but the new age of self-service data visualization and exploration seems to be of secondary importance to Cognos. IBM’s leading data visualization technology tends to be associated with its big data products. This is not to say that Cognos does not address data visualization, but it’s definitely not as light on its feet as products such as Tableau and Qlik Sense.
Of course a large part of the Cognos suite comes in the form of TM1 – the planning, forecasting and budgeting applications and tools. Again, a facility of this magnitude will only be of interest to the largest businesses, with a substantial OLAP engine at the heart of the product.
Mobile support is good, with native applications for iPad, iPhone and Android devices. These provide a great deal of functionality, and are not just report and dashboard viewing apps. They work offline too if needed, with processing of local downloaded data sets.
Cognos comes in three flavors. Cognos Insight is a desktop platform for individual use, and it can play its part as a workstation in a larger Cognos deployment. I cannot imagine that anyone would use Cognos Insight as a stand-alone tool outside Cognos Enterprise (although they probably do!). Cognos Express is positioned as a platform for departments and medium size businesses, and can be extended with various add-ons. Cognos Enterprise is the full deployment and comes with a sophisticated architecture.
I have to admit that it is hard to get excited about IBM Cognos, with images of Victorian buildings full of accountants thumping away on calculators. Yes, it’s a little bit unfair to position it this way, but Cognos needs to reinvent itself if it is to appeal to the new mood for democratized, self-service business intelligence.
If an organization is heavily invested in IBM technologies then Cognos is certainly one alternative. But there is a shift taking place in the way businesses use business intelligence technologies, and Cognos is lagging to some extent.
There are a lot of user interfaces in Cognos – too many to mention in fact. Business users are presented with a drag and drop interface for report and dashboard authoring, and other interfaces exist for the TM1 forecasting, planning and budgeting applications. These come with with various ‘guides’ and wizards to assist new users (and maybe not so new users). Full report authoring is supported on mobile devices via the appropriate apps, and IBM Cognos Analysis for Excel provides an Excel interface to the TM1 applications as an option.
The data visualization capabilities are perfectly adequate for most BI needs, although the bright new things (BrightInsights for example) have not made their way into the Cognos product set (although they could be used separately).
IBM Cognos Versions
There is in reality any number of IBM Cognos versions, since there is a large number of extensions. However three core platforms are marketed:
IBM Cognos Insight is positioned as an individual workstation. It will do everything from report authoring and dashboard creation, through to acting as a contribution client to Cognos TM1 – the planning application. It will also support what-if scenario planning, and can be seen as a workstation in a larger IBM Cognos deployment.
IBM Cognos Express is pitched at medium sized businesses or departments in larger businesses. It too supports self-service reporting, dashboards and query, and can be extended to accommodate planning, budgeting and forecasting applications.
IBM Cognos Enterprise comes with a sophisticated architecture, governance, management and data management capabilities. It is the ‘full-Monty’ and can be extended and integrated with other IBM products such as SPSS for predictive analytics. It comes with Cognos Active report – a self contained environment that works offline. The permutations of capability here are endless – and probably expensive.
This is an area where Cognos excels. Security is taken very seriously and native apps for iPhone, iPad and Android devices are available. They provide full functionality, and allow users to author as well as view. Various features make the user experience easier, such as loading reports page by page – so users don’t have to wait for the full download. Reports and dashboards can be manipulated and viewed offline and sent by email if desired. While this functionality is very rich, other suppliers (Qlik for example) do most of this in the browser environment, and many contemporary tools are built ground up for HTML5 use.
IBM Cognos TM1
That IBM Cognos is pitched at large corporations is well demonstrated by its TM1 platform. This is a set of tools and infrastructure for planning, forecasting, analysis, score-carding, budgeting, and large scale what-if planning. It comes with a guided modeling experience so users can quickly get up to speed, and Cognos Performance Blueprints – ready made templates to solve a number of business problems. Features include metrics management and the ability to expand into predictive analytics using IBM SPSS.
A thin web based client can be used for centralized planning, and at the heart of the product is the Cognos Analytic Server – an OLAP engine with a distributed architecture for massive scaling (if needed).
Cognos Platform provides the underlying architecture and caters for scalability, governance, security, capacity planning, authorization and all the things that are needed for an enterprise deployment. Various extensions can enhance the platform including Dynamic Cubes for in-memory analytics. The platform can access almost any data source and many tools are provided to manage, organize and provide access to data. Cognos Data Manager is an ETL tool for the construction of data warehouses and a large array of other tools make sure users get the data they need and have permission to access.
If what has been described above fits your needs exactly then there is no competition. It is the planning capability that attracts many organizations, although obviously there are other planning tools available. Here is a short list of platforms that might be considered as alternatives to IBM Cognos:
Microstrategy probably comes nearest in terms of reporting capability and large enterprise deployment capability. It also comes with advanced analytics and a very scalable architecture. Like Cognos it is probably going to be expensive.
Qlik Sense is primarily a self-service data visualization and exploration platform, but it does come with good scalability, and the best data discovery capability of any tool. It does not address production reporting, but there are many tools that will perform that particular task. Excellent mobile support.
Birst is a cloud based BI platform that can also be deployed as an on-premises appliance. It does most of the things Cognos does, but without the planning apps. It too has good mobile support and sophisticated data management capability.
Other alternatives include SAP and Oracle, but this could be viewed as jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, since both these platforms imply at least some buy-in to the larger product portfolio offered by these companies.