Information Builders Strategic Review 2016
The market for business analytics tools and platforms is a complex one. It will eventually consolidate and simplify, but for now it is fairly confusing. It does however break down into just four or five major categories – business intelligence, data mining, optimization, machine learning and artificial intelligence. The last of these may eventually turn out to be the most important – but it’s early days. Business intelligence is the most established of these, and yet this too is fragmented, including visual analytics, systems of records reporting, paginated reports and dashboards. In true style the IT industry tends to major on the latest and greatest aspect of any technology, and for BI this is currently visual analytics. Information Builders spans pretty much the full portfolio of BI technologies, and could to some extent be called the ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. A little derogatory maybe, but many businesses are not looking for a bleeding edge product – they just want a good all-rounder, and in most respects this is what Information Builders provides – along with its integration products, which will be addressed shortly.
This confusion in the BI market means businesses will often compare Information Builders with the likes of Tableau, when in reality there is almost no comparison. They address wholly different business problems. Information Builders provides solutions that are likely to be of interest to large corporations – but few others. The integration technology does address some of the typical data and process integration problems a large business might encounter, but once again its technology is not exactly state of the art (compare with TIBCO for example). The current vogue is for self-service analytics – meaning less IT and more direct access to data and tools. Governance of such an environment is clearly important, and Information Builders does major on this. However its long history means it cannot compete with the contemporary self-service tools provided by Tableau, Qlik and Spotfire for example.
In addition to the usual descriptive and diagnostic analysis provided by BI tools, Information Builders offer integration with the R data mining and statistics platform. This allows businesses to create predictive models which can be used to score data in applications such as credit scoring and fraud detection. Again, Information Builders provides a fairly vanilla capability, but it certainly isn’t on a par with the likes of Spotfire.
Large businesses looking for a broad capability, without any particularly demanding requirements, will probably be well satisfied by Information Builders product set. It can be hosted in the cloud or on-premises, and is best compared with the likes of Microstrategy, IBM Cognos, SAP Business Objects and maybe Oracle BI platforms. These might be termed legacy BI platforms, and the fact that many of them no longer appear in some of Gartner’s analysis only serves to reinforce the point.
Information Builders goes back a long way – to 1975. In its early days it provided an application language and database known as FOCUS. Obviously it has moved on and now delivers a BI platform, data mining tools, integration technology, and various applications. It is one of the world’s largest privately held technology businesses, and as such numbers are hard to come by. The latest revenue figures are from 2007 at $315 million. One can only assume that revenues are now in excess of a billion dollars annually. In 2001 it launched a wholly owned subsidiary called iWay software. This is a data and process integration product exploiting service oriented architectures (SOA).
This is the product most people are familiar with, representing most of the BI functionality we have come to expect. It supports the creation of charts and dashboards, as well as more traditional reporting, and serves a range of users, from developers through to end-user self-service capabilities. The platform is very scalable, well governed and comes with a flexible scripting language. Business users are reasonably well catered for, although a common complaint is that more sophisticated needs can only be met by reverting to code. The interface is graphical in nature with drag and drop placement of various artifacts. The platform does not distinguish itself particularly, but it does provide a good set of capabilities for everyday use. Integration with the R language means more complex forms of analysis are available – but it does of course mean users need familiarity with R. Predictive analytics is perhaps the most common use, with an ability to create scoring applications such as credit worthiness.
Since the creation of reports and visuals is wholly reliant on good quality data, Information Builders offers Omni-Gen as a platform for data integration, quality and master data management. It comes in three editions. The Integration Edition supports application and data integration capabilities. The Data Quality Edition, as the name suggests, addresses data completeness, validity, timeliness and accuracy. The Master Data Management Edition supports the creation of a single version of data truth.
No BI platform would be complete without some ability to address ‘big data’. The iWay Big Data Integrator simplifies the creation, management, and use of Hadoop-based data lakes. It provides a modern, native approach to Hadoop-based data integration and management. iWay Big Data Integrator runs on all major Hadoop distributions, ensuring high portability. It ingests and cleanses traditional, mobile, social media, sensor, and other data in batch or streams, using native Hadoop facilities. It also runs under YARN, taking advantage of native Hadoop performance and resource negotiation, and leverages the Spark processing engine, if available.
iWay Tools represent a complex set of capabilities addressing B2B integration and data integration.
The most relevant competitors for Information Builders include IBM Cognos, Microstrategy, SAP Business Objects and Oracle BI. These are platforms that will only be of interest to large organizations. SAP and Oracle BI platforms are typically used by businesses with an existing large commitment to the respective supplier – there would be no other reason to use them. Microstrategy is a more sophisticated platform, but with that comes greater complexity, and depending on configuration, greater cost. IBM Cognos is perhaps the nearest competitor, and IBM also supplies various integration technologies.
Many of the newer BI platforms are geared more toward self service BI, and as such the architecture is more suited to this need, and is not trying to be all things to all people. Tableau and QlikView (also Qlik Sense) do not come with all the process integration capabilities of Information Builders – but then again they do not need to. Spotfire is a superior alternative in our opinion, since it services self-service needs, but also extends to much more complex analytical needs, and sophisticated integration technologies.
It is worth pointing out that some of the cloud based BI platforms might also provide a good alternative – Birst being the best example. Others include GoodData and Yellowfin.
The main appeal of Information Builders’ product set is that it represents a ‘steady as you go’ general purpose set of capabilities that will satisfy the needs of many large businesses. However it will need to be augmented as businesses use more advanced methods and seek novel solutions for business advantage. As a privately owned business Information Builders can afford to think long term, rather than the usual practice of distorting the business for next quarters figures. Here is a list of additional capabilities that Information Builders may need to add to remain competitive:
- Data preparation – use of automated techniques, and particularly machine learning technologies, to ease the data preparation burden (see products such as Paxata, ClearStory, Platfora).
- Easy to use advanced analytics – while R is offered it is not exactly easy-to-use. Tableau and Spotfire offer facilities such as clustering via an easy to use interface. Information Builders needs to do the same.
- Less code – while WebFOCUS can be used without code, the threshold at which coding is necessary is often considered to be too low. It needs to be raised.
- Easier to use interface – Tableau, Qlik Sense and others lead the charge here, and Information Builders needs to catch up.
Information Builders offers a solid platform, albeit not a particularly advanced one. It really does need to invest in both the ease-of-use factor, and contemporary advanced functionality (automated data prep for example). Unless it does these things it will be increasingly viewed as a legacy BI platform, and lose out to contemporary platforms (ClearStory, QlikView, Spotfire, Birst etc). However this is a long lived and growing business, and so it seems unlikely that the management will let events overtake them. It will be interesting to see how the product matures over the next couple of years.