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Volume Analytics:
Stay Platform Sane - Aim for Several

online columnist Guy Creese     Column published in DMReview.com
October 20, 2005
  By Guy Creese

Since my last two columns were about the future impact of new technologies (Microsoft's Vista and IBM's UIMA), I thought this month I'd dive back into current, messy, reality.

A persistent pitch of vendors is to standardize on their platform. According to Business Objects, Cognos, Microsoft, Oracle, SAS - name a major vendor - all you have to do is toss out their competitors' products, move to their software and your life will be blissful. You can sit back, eat bonbons and relax, due to minimal integration work, a standardized user interface and lower training costs. (I may exaggerate a little in my characterization of their messages, but not by much.)

They have a point - running a shop using 25 different and overlapping BI tools often fosters confusion, slows development and leads to multiple answers to the same question. However, they take it too far. While standardizing on a single platform would fill their coffers, I contend it that aiming for platform purity is an impossible task. The better strategy is to aim for a couple of platforms - or "good enough."

Platform Purity is Impossible and Not Desirable

Let's perform a thought experiment. Assume, for the sake of argument, that on January 1 you convert your company to a completely Oracle shop. Everyone is trained, Oracle does what you want, etc. Everything is humming along. What happens in today's messy world? Within nine months, the business managers running the company disregard your hard-fought battle for IT purity and buy another company that uses DB2, and you're back to a heterogeneous environment again.

However - once again for the sake of argument - let's assume that your Oracle world does remain in place. Do you really want to limit your business by using only one vendor and be restricted to its technology capabilities? Let's be realistic - Oracle shops buy Teradata warehouses all the time because Oracle can't always scale to handle certain analytical problems. Oracle continues to display its operational heritage, while Teradata notes that business intelligence is its focus.

Simplify by Avoiding Duplication and Incenting Users to Move

This brings me to my next point, which is that while a certain amount of non-overlapping multiplicity is good, sheer duplication is bad. Companies often end up using multiple platforms or software packages because they inherited them, and ultimately sheer inertia took over. Don't be surprised if someone in your company is still using software that was officially sunset five years ago and whose functionality is readily available in other in-house software.

Shutting down such outliers is the first step to slimming down the number of packages. However, there's an art to it. Some managers just stroll in and announce, "Deinstall that and use this. This is the company standard. Get with the program!" The user probably hasn't switched because the change seemed too daunting. You can win a friend and ally by taking that into account and arranging for training and hand-holding in the early days.

In short, you foster user movement by paying for the switching costs. You take the hit, rather than the business unit, because you're the one gaining the greater simplicity and lower support costs. The business user can still get his job done, and you've made your life easier - you both win.

Tolerate a Couple of Platforms to Avoid Dealing with Many

Once you've slimmed down the platform count by picking off outliers in ones and twos, the next step is to prevent further proliferation. And in fact, this is where supporting multiple platforms can often make your life easier. Rogue divisions and departments often install "non-official" software because the mandated solution doesn't do what they want. So listen to their needs and give them a relief valve.

For example, I reported to a very savvy IT manager a number of years ago when I worked in the international division of a large multinational. While the U.S. division was being anal retentive and announcing that only a certain financial package (offering general ledger, accounts payable and accounts receivable) would be supported in the U.S., Bill recognized that such uniformity would be a disaster in his international division. For example, Australia, Germany and the U.K. were all large subsidiaries with good-sized IT staffs, while Italy made do with about three people in the entire subsidiary; one of which did backups in the off hours. Consequently, Bill had us support three different financial packages, each one geared to a different level of subsidiary sophistication. When a new subsidiary came on board, Bill had no trouble getting them to adopt one of the three, because their needs were catered to.

The intelligence of Bill's approach was that while Bill realized supporting three made the headquarters' job a bit more complicated than it would be if we supported just one, the variety of the offerings is what kept us from having to support six or eight solutions over time.

In Short, Houseclean but Don't Go Overboard

A little software housecleaning is good from time to time. But don't succumb to vendor blandishments that you should standardize on one reporting platform or one database platform. In other words, don't even strive for platform perfection, as it's well nigh impossible. Instead, narrow things down when you can, and incent people to use the variety of offerings that you do support. Your life will be simpler, and their lives will be simpler as well.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence and Strategic Intelligence.

Guy Creese is an analyst with the Burton Group, covering content management and search. Creese has worked in the high tech industry for 25 years, at both Fortune 500 companies and small startups, in positions ranging from programmer to product manager to customer support engineer.  He can be reached at gcreese@burtongroup.com.

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