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Business Intelligence:
Web Reporting Capabilities: Building Versus Buying

online columnist Jonathan Wu     Column published in DMReview.com
September 3, 2001
 
  By Jonathan Wu

Internet-based reporting capabilities are rapidly evolving. Before 1997, anyone who wanted to deploy Web-based reporting as a means of disseminating information efficiently had to use a variety of programming languages. In 1997, Brio Technologies, Business Objects and Cognos introduced their first versions of Web-based business intelligence applications. Since then other developers have also followed suit and introduced their own products.

The accessible and lower-cost architecture the Internet provides allows organizations to deliver reporting capabilities to a wide variety of geographically dispersed users, including customers, suppliers and extranet partners. The Internet and Web-based reporting capability allows individuals at all levels (both inside and outside of the organization) to access and view information. They can perform status checks, interpret data and make more efficient decisions.

Approaches to Web-Based Reporting

There are two approaches to Web-based reporting solutions: building or buying. Each approach has benefits and drawbacks, but understanding them is critical to selecting the best approach for your organization.

Building and Custom Development

Prior to 1997, the only approach to delivering enterprise-wide Web reports was by conducting individual programming for each and every report using various languages which interacted directly with a company's various information management systems. The most popular technologies used to create these reports involved Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Common Gateway Interface (CGI), Practical Extraction and Report Language (PERL), Structured Query Language (SQL) and various flavors of Java integrated with different databases or data sources. With this approach to Web- based reporting, the information technology group is responsible for developing and maintaining the reporting system while users submit requests for new reports or changes to existing ones. The technology involved in Web report development requires various skills and knowledge of:

  • The information systems used within the organization.
  • Various programming languages used to access and extract data from information systems.
  • The Web's content delivery mechanisms.

The greatest advantage of customized Web reports is that each report is completely tailored to the organization's unique requirements and can be integrated with the company's intranet or extranet. While these reports may have structured query capabilities (such as allowing the user to select various parameters) the inherent nature of the Web reports remains static within the structure. This requires involvement by the IT department to manage and address "change" requests in existing reports or new report additions.

Purchasing Web-based Business Intelligence Applications

The arrival of business intelligence applications has significantly changed the process of reporting by providing users the ability to easily access data and develop their own reports. In 1997, several vendors introduced Web-based business intelligence products. These products provided an easier mechanism to disseminate information and could incorporate more users. Unlike the full-client version, Web business intelligence applications have reporting engines that are compatible across various platforms to deliver data and information. This is due to the architecture and associated technologies of the Web: It enables Web browsers to function as the graphical user interface into the structured environment of the Internet.

While Web-based business intelligence applications require the individual or individuals responsible for configuring the application to understand Web technology, they do not need to understand an assortment of programming languages such as CGI, PERL or SQL. That's because the capability is already built into the application. As in the case with the full-client versions, Web-based business intelligence applications facilitate user access to data and enable them to develop their own reports. This alleviates the IT department from becoming the bottleneck of information requests.

A Comparison of Building verses Buying

Both custom and Web-enabled applications will provide interactive reporting capabilities. Understanding the benefits and drawbacks for each approach will help you select which one is best for your organization. Since we have developed custom solutions and configured interactive business intelligence applications, there are several items to consider when evaluating each approach.

The following is a summary of the benefits and drawbacks of each. (Note: Benefits are indicated by a "+" and drawbacks by a "-")

Items to Consider

Custom Development

Web- based BI Applications

Purchase Cost

+ No packaged application to buy, just an assembly of programming languages.

- Purchase price of the BI application and annual maintenance fees.

Development / Configuration Cost

+/- Need to have highly skilled individuals developing the solution.

+/- Need to have highly skilled individuals who know how to configure and deploy the BI application.

Maintenance Costs

- Need to have highly skilled individuals that are knowledgeable in the solution to maintain it.

+/- May be easier to maintain than custom solutions.

Enhancement Costs

- Need to have skilled individuals capable of re- programming existing reports for change requests or new reports that will need to be rebuilt.

+ These applications have rich functionality that enable users to easily build new reports or make changes to existing ones.

Integration with Intranet/Extranet

- Any functionality will need to be originally produced and maintained.

+ Most products have installed portal- like features and functionality, which can be easily integrated with an intranet/extranet.

Report Format

- Any functionality will need to be originally produced and maintained.

+ Most products have built-in support for multiple formats such as Excel, HTML or PDF.

Ad-hoc Capability

- Any functionality will need to be originally produced and maintained.

+ Very robust ad-hoc capabilities.

XML (eXtensible Markup Language)

- Any functionality will need to be originally produced and maintained.

+ Most BI vendors have (or will be adding) XML support as a basic functionality.

Summary

The ability to develop a custom solution will be dependent upon the availability of an organization's internal or external expertise. In most cases, the initial scope of a custom developed solution will be less expensive when compared to the purchase price and maintenance fees of Web-enabled business intelligence applications. However, as new or additional features and functionality are added to a custom solution, the associated cost may prove to be significantly greater than the purchase price and configuration cost of a Web-enabled business intelligence application. With either approach, maintenance is a variable of the complexity of the solution: the greater the complexity, the greater the cost.

Beyond cost considerations, custom developed solutions will have tailored features and functionality while Web-enabled business intelligence applications will offer a broad array of capabilities. The trade- off with a custom-developed solution is advanced technology and the ability to update the solution. Conversely, viable Web-enabled business intelligence vendors embrace advancements in technology because it creates new opportunities for them. With these items to consider, buying a Web-enabled business intelligence application rather than building a Web reporting solution is very compelling.

This month's column is co-authored by Shikha Verma, a consultant at BASE Consulting Group (now Knightsbridge Solutions).

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

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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