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Business Intelligence:
Differences Between Web and Non-Web Applications

online columnist Jonathan Wu     Column published in DMReview.com
March 9, 2000
 
  By Jonathan Wu

Over the last several years, the features and functionality of business intelligence (BI) applications have significantly evolved. This evolution includes greater ease of use, the ability to generate complex structured query language (SQL) statements and enhanced administration capabilities. In addition, users have greater access to information than ever before through the use of Web-enabled BI applications. The evolution of BI applications toward the Web has been rapid, and the features and functionality of those that are Web- enabled lag behind the non-Web versions. Each version serves a purpose, and understanding the differences is critical to aligning user needs with the appropriate technology.

Configuration and Technical Architecture

The configuration of software applications can have a signification impact on the information systems environment of an organization. Understanding how software applications work from a technical architecture perspective can help to identify potential issues as well as which configuration would be best for the users of an organization. Most BI tools currently have two widely accepted versions of the software: full client, or non-Web, and thin client, or Web- enabled, applications.

Full Client, or Non-Web, BI Applications

A full client BI application utilizes client/server architecture. In this configuration, BI software resides on a client system (i.e., the user’s computer). A full client system can operate as a standalone computer and analyze the previously obtained result sets of data. Its capabilities are robust – a fast processor for running applications, a large amount of available hard disk space for storing data files and a large amount of random access memory (RAM) for running concurrent applications.

A full client system contains the software application used to interact with a server. Once the data is obtained from the server, the full client system can calculate, summarize and format the data into a report without having to re- connect to the server again. Figure 1 depicts the components and interaction between the two systems.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Requirements / Purpose

Client

Server

Minimum Software

  1. Operating System
  2. BI application
  3. Database middleware for connectivity
  1. Operating System
  2. Relational Database Management System (RDBMS)
  3. Database middleware for connectivity

Function and Role of System

  • BI application provides users with an interface.
  • BI application generates SQL and submits the user request to server.
  • BI application provides the ability to format result set of data returned by the server.
  • RDBMS analyzes user request.
  • RDBMS performs the requested task.
  • RDBMS and database middleware send the result set of data to the client system.

A typical full client BI application is configured using a two-tier client/server architecture. In this configuration, software applications utilize the resources of both the client and the server systems to complete a given task. The client system contains the BI application which provides an interface that enables users to interact with the BI application. The server contains the RDBMS, data and other pertinent software applications. The following is an example of the interaction between a client and a server system using a BI application:

  1. The user logs onto the client system and activates the BI application.
  2. Using the BI application, the user executes a request.
    The BI application assembles the SQL statement and submits it to the server via the database middleware and network connection.
    The server receives the user request and passes it to the RDBMS application.
    The RDBMS application analyzes the SQL statement and performs the task.
    The resulting set of data is sent back to the client system via the database middleware and network connection.
    The BI application receives the result set of data, which is then available for formatting and analysis.

Thin Client, or Web-Enabled, BI Applications

A thin client BI application also utilizes client/server architecture, but it requires additional configuration of hardware. In the thin client configuration, BI software resides on a Web or application server instead, and the client system does not have to be as robust as a full client system. Figure 2 depicts the components and interaction between the different systems.

Figure 2

Figure 2
Requirements / Purpose Computer with Web Browser Web Server Application Server Database Server
Minimum Software * Operating System
* Web Browser
* Operating System
* Web Server Application
* Operating System
* BI Application
* Database middleware for connectivity
* Operating System
* Relational Database Management System (RDBMS)
* Database middleware for connectivity
Function and Role of System * Web browser provides user interface to connect to web server. * Hosts web site.
* Pass through of user requests to application server
* Pass through of information from application server.
* BI application generates and submits user request to database server via database middleware and network communication.
* BI application provides the ability to format result set of data returned by the database server.
* RDBMS analyzes user request.
* RDBMS performs the requested task.
* RDBMS and database middleware send the result set of data to the application server.

Note that some thin client BI applications may reside on the Web server, thus eliminating the need for an application server.

In a thin client configuration, software applications use the resources of the client and server systems to complete a given task. The client system contains a Web browser which enables users to interact with a Web site. The servers contain pertinent software applications and data. The following is an example of the interaction between the components between client and server systems using a BI application:

  1. The user logs onto the client system and activates a Web browser.
  2. The user then accesses a BI Web site via the Web browser. The user is then connected to a Web server that displays the user interface for the BI application.
  3. One of the many Web servers in a fail-over configuration is selected to display the user interface to the BI application.
  4. When the user executes a request, the Web server submits the request to the application server.
  5. The application server, which contains the BI application, assembles the SQL statement and submits it to the database server via the database middleware and network connection.
  6. The database server receives the user request and passes it to the RDBMS application.
  7. The RDBMS application analyzes the SQL statement and performs the task.
  8. The resulting set of data is sent back to the application server via the database middleware and network connection.
  9. The application server formats the results and generates a hypertext markup language (HTML) report.
  10. The Web server displays the HTML report the application server generated to the user via the Web browser.

Benefits of Full and Thin Client BI Applications

While the full and thin client BI applications utilize client/server architecture and provide users with the ability to gather and analyze information for decision-making purposes, each version has its benefits and drawbacks. Figure 3 summarizes some of the significant items.

Figure 3

BI Application Versions

Benefits

Drawbacks

Full Client

  • Users can use the BI application to analyze result sets of data stored locally without being connected to a network. Ideal for users with portable PCs.
  • In certain cases, the features and functionality are more robust than Thin client is.
  • Cost of labor and software/hardware maintenance and upgrades to support the BI application can be higher than Thin client.
  • Connection to a database via the BI application can only be performed on a client system that has the BI application.

Thin Client

  • Cost of labor and software/hardware maintenance and upgrades to support the BI application can be less than the Full client.
  • Deployment to users is easier and faster than the Full client.
  • Connection to a database via the BI application Web site can be performed on any client system that has a Web browser.
  • In certain cases, the features and functionality lag behind the Full client.
  • Users can not use the BI application to analyze result sets of data without being connected to the BI application Web site.

Summary

The full client BI applications have been the foundation for the thin client version. However, as technical advances continue to occur, the features and functionality of thin client BI applications will soon rival that of the full client. So, outside of the potential cost differential, the only significant differences between the two versions will be ease of deployment and off-line analysis. Considering these differences, an organization’s user community should have a significant influence on the composition of full and thin client BI applications deployed.

...............................................................................

For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI) and E-Business.

Jonathan Wu is a senior principal with Knightsbridge Solutions. He has extensive experience designing, developing and implementing information solutions for reporting, analysis and decision-making purposes. Serving Fortune 500 organizations, Knightsbridge delivers actionable and measurable business results that inform decision making, optimize IT efficiency and improve business performance. Focusing exclusively on the information management disciplines of data warehousing, data integration, information quality and business intelligence, Knightsbridge delivers practical solutions that reduce time, reduce cost and reduce risk. Wu may be reached at jwu@knightsbridge.com.



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