Leaning On Microsoft For BI

Sep 28, 2004 (11:09 AM EDT)

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Ryan Beck & Co., a brokerage firm based in Jersey City, N.J., has gone into production with a BI analytics application cobbled together with Microsoft tools, most of which came out of the box with Microsoft's SQL Server 2000 suite. Ryan Beck is a small firm -- its entire IT department consists of 40 people, and its budget is "not in the millions, that's for sure," says Mike Sukovich, the firm's vice president of data warehousing. But Microsoft's inexpensive BI gear seems to be doing the trick, at this early stage in its deployment, at least.

Earlier, Ryan Beck tried a BI demo from ProClarity on the recommendation of one of its business partners. Sukovich supervised the demo. "It had more elaborate visualizations than Microsoft, it did a more sophisticated slice-and-dice. But we were able to meet all the requirements of departments with what we already had in place. I won't say it's as pretty or as fancy, but it's certainly as functional." He says the ProClarity software would have cost Ryan Beck between $30,000 and $50,000 for "only five or six seats." With Microsoft, on the other hand, all of the costs were included under Ryan Beck's SQL license.

Sukovich says he also had a look at BI offerings from Cognos, Business Objects and IBM. And again, cost was the primary issue. "To purchase any of the big guys' business intelligence suites was basically impossible for me to push through budget."

To create Ryan Beck's BI application, Sukovich used Microsoft's FoxPro development system and the OLAP engine that comes with SQL. The dashboards are hosted on Microsoft's Sharepoint portal. Some of those dashboards can be displayed with zero footprint, but a lot of it remains in Excel. Microsoft's strategy is "kind of strange," Sukovich says, noting that Microsoft has no overarching trade name for its BI offering. "I think a lot of it they released because of market pressures," Sukovich says. "But, with that said, the stuff is exceptionally stable."

Other than budget considerations, Ryan Beck's decision to go with Microsoft-based BI dates back to when the firm, then known as Gruntal & Co., was acquired by the smaller Ryan Beck in 2000. Gruntal, for which Sukovich worked, had been using a Sybase database running on equipment from Sun Microsystems.

But because Ryan Beck used a Microsoft server app, and its culture was more familiar with that, the merged company wanted to stick with what the acquiring firm knew best. Some in the IT department of Gruntal were unhappy with that decision. "They were Sybase zealots," says Sukovich. "It almost gets into a kind of religious war. But I'm more concerned about end results. The end users are happy, and so am I." At one point, just after the merger, Sukovich says he experimented with Sybase running on Linux with Intel hardware. "That worked phenomenally well on our development system," he says. Ryan Beck's hardware is now a pure Intel cluster with Itaninum CPUs.

Certain elements of the backend remain the same, most notably an Ascential DataStage data warehouse, originally purchased through Sybase in 2000. At the time, the firm had no centralized data storage, and matters were chaotic. From the firm's outsourced clearing-house, hundreds of megabytes of stock trading and market information got dumped every night into multiple places. Each department throughout the firm did its own processing of that data. The result: no numbers matched. Accounting and payroll and management, for instance, would each have a different figure for total commission brought in by a broker on a particular client's account.

With the backend fully in place and the dust finally settled on the merger, Ryan Beck IT was finally free to explore BI options this year. The dashboards are pretty basic at this point, showing a dozen or so key metrics, including expenses and revenue by branch, by product and by geographic area. At this point, too, only executives receive the dashboards. Ad hoc queries are generally handled with a spreadsheet out of FoxPro, though sometimes the firm uses analytics from Crystal Reports. Turnaround time on a typical ad hoc query is fairly quick, usually 24 hours, Sukovich says.

The goal now is to fine-tune the BI application with feedback from the firm's end users, who at this point cannot build OLAP cubes on their own. "If they want data captured, they need to come back to us," says Sukovich. "Ideally, we'd like to have a catalog, an analysis gallery, so someone can go out and pick and choose what they want to look at and drop it into their dashboard." He says IT will be able to accomplish this with the current Microsoft platform. "We just haven't got there yet."