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There's not much that hasn't been unified, upgraded or left unchanged in SAP BusinessObjects 4.0, a major business intelligence and information management suite release announced Wednesday at a company event in New York.
Unification is the big theme, as SAP has given a formerly less-than-consistent collection of (BusinessObjects-acquired) products a more consistent look and feel, a more cohesive and complete data-integration and data modeling foundation, and a more predictable upgrade schedule.
In some areas, SAP is delivering improvements customers have long been asking for, clearing up inconsistencies and overlaps lingering from the BusinessObjects acquisition in 2007. In other respects, SAP is delivering solid, forward-looking enhancements that set customers up for an era that demands real-time access to and insight into ever-larger data stores.
The changes to the newly unified suite start with the very name of the product, with the "4.0" designation marking a synchronization of business intelligence (BI) and enterprise information management (EIM) tool sets that formerly had separate time tables. The last big BI upgrade, for example, was the "XI" release, but that nomenclature has been abandoned. Gone, too, are familiar-but-obtuse names such as "Xcelsius," now called SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards, and "Universes," the metadata modeling layer renamed the Business Layer in 4.0.
Beyond these cosmetics, BusinessObjects Dashboards (formerly Xcelsius) now has direct connectivity to the Business Layer (formerly Universe); that's one of those consistency upgrades customers have been waiting for. The Business Layer also supports data federation, a data-integration approach that's now a must-have rather than a bonus for any company with lots of data sources.
Fortunately the Business Layer changes do not introduce upgrade penalties. Customers that upgrade can continue to run the Universes developed for previous Business Objects deployments. This dual-Business-Layer capability protects investments made in existing applications and makes the prospect of an upgrade far less daunting.
In fact, SAP executives claim the move to 4.0 will be "more like an upgrade that a migration." That should be comforting to customers who went through the sometimes-painful migration to the XI platform. When the product hits general release -- as hoped for by the company's SAPPHIRE conference in May -- executives said upgrade wizards will be available to ease upgrade transition pains.
Customers who use both BusinessObjects and legacy SAP BI tools can look forward to fewer overlaps. The SAP BeX Analyzer BI interface, for example, will no longer be needed as you'll be able to expose BW data, metadata, hierarchies and calculated metrics though BusinessObjects interfaces such as Crystal Reports, Web Intelligence and Dashboarding. That's a plus for customers who would rather analyze data from all sources through a single BI tool set.
One such customer is CN, the Canadian freight railway and a longstanding user of both SAP BW and BusinessObjects. "We've been pushing SAP pretty hard on figuring out which products stay, which go and which will be blended, so this whole strategy of integration has been a key point for us," said Alan Capes, director of IT business development and strategic planning at CN, in an interview with Information Week.
By synchronizing the EIM and BI tool sets, SAP has underscored the importance of data-integration and data-management activities as the first steps to better intelligence. Indeed, many of the enhancements in 4.0 revolve around information management.
A new Information Steward application, for example, supports data quality initiatives by providing interfaces for data owners to analyze and continuously monitor the completeness, accuracy and consistency of data sources. The application provides key performance indicator scorecards that help stewards report on progress toward data quality goals.
SAP has integrated text mining and entity extraction technologies into the EIM suite, turning what used to be a separate option into standard functionality. Gained through BusinessObject's Insight acquisition, text mining and entity extraction is used to analyze unstructured data such as e-mail messages, open-ended survey questions or comments shared on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. These are building blocks for so-called sentiment analysis applications that let you decipher the collective opinions of customers, employees and other influencers.
In yet another EIM enhancement, SAP has adapted complex event processing technologies from Sybase to deliver BusinessObjects Event Insight. The application can be used to monitor dynamic data in real time and then trigger alerts or actions in response to changed or anticipated conditions.
CN plans to use Event Insight to monitor telemetry data on freight trains travelling across its vast rail network. "Fuel is our second largest cost after salaries, so we plan to use Event Insight to gain real-time visibility and insight for more efficient train handling," Capes said. As an example, an Event-Insight-powered dashboard could show CN the average speed and range-to-refueling for specific trains. It could also predict arrival times amid dynamic weather conditions or track maintenance operations.
Event Insight adds to the huge emphasis SAP had already placed on real-time insight with last year's debut of the High Performance Analytic Appliance (better known as Hana). But SAP isn't alone in delivering real-time BI. Cognos, for example, introduced real-time dashboarding with it's Cognos Now! appliance several years ago, and IBM added (non-appliance-based) platform capabilities in last year's IBM Cognos 10 release. Oracle also stepped up event monitoring and triggers in its latest BI product release.
What To Look Out For
In a behind-the-scenes upgrade aimed at improved performance, BusinessObjects 4.0 moves up to native 64-bit computing. SAP touts that as an upgrade and a benefit -- and indeed it goes hand-in-hand with in-memory computing and real-time query and analysis -- but it's also a requirement. If your data center is not yet running 64-bit servers and operating systems, you'll have to upgrade. That could be a costly upgrade, but SAP says few customers have yet to make that leap.
"When we say 64-bit is required, we're only talking about the server infrastructure," clarified Dave Weisbeck, senior vice president of BI/EIM solution management at SAP. "People can still use 32-bit hardware at the client level, but when we polled our customers, we found they are invariably already on 64-bit hardware in their data centers."
But even at the data center level, the leap to 64-bit may challenging for midsize companies. Nonetheless, plans call for the BusinessObjects Edge-Series products for small- and midsize-businesses to move to the BusinessObjects 4.0 code base by the end of 2011 (thus requiring 64-bit servers). One SAP executive said the company is exploring the possibility of some form of 32-bit support for Edge products, but 4.0 runs on 64-bit servers and operating systems. Period. Check your particulars to see if the upgrade changes your BusinessObjects licensing costs.
Rounding Out the Upgrades
There's so much going on in the 4.0 release it's impossible to cover it all in a single column, but it wouldn't be an SAP release without some nod to mobile deployment. SAP demonstrated mobile delivery of its (Flash-intensive) Dashboards (formerly Xcelsius) on the new Research In Motion Blackberry Playbook Tablet. The SAP BusinessObjects Web Intelligence interface, which doesn't use Flash, was demonstrated on an Apple iPad tablet.
As if all these new features and upgrades didn't give customers enough to think about, SAP also announced six new analytic applications on Wednesday, enhancing the family of analytic apps introduced last fall. The new products include IP Rights Analysis (for optimizing sales of intellectual property such as videos), Upstream Operations Performance Management (for energy companies), Productivity Management Application for Healthcare, Risk and Solvency Management for Insurance, Healthcare Practitioner Spend Analysis, and Planning for Public Sector.
The new apps are expected by mid 2011 and will bring the number of industry and line-of-business analytic applications to 24.
SAP packed buzz phrases like "real-time, mobile and social" into its BusinessObjects 4.0 press releases, but it's hard to boil it down to a few simple themes. Steve Lucas, general manager, Business Analytics at SAP called it "the single most important business intelligence and information management release in the history of the company."
I've heard that kind of hyperbole before, so I'll take it to be the most important BI release you're likely to see from SAP for the next three or four years.