Business Intelligence First Steps

Business Intelligence is becoming a critically important tool that can allow your company to better understand your customers and suppliers, or measure the efficiency of your own internal operations. If you are new to BI, try reading our Business Intelligence Overview first. Now, it's time to start planning a new BI project. You will need to design the right BI solution for the kind of analysis you plan to do, and evaluate your existing IT infrastructure to ensure that it can support this kind of solution.

Choosing the Right BI Solution

BI tools offer functionality ranging from simple reports to drill-down analytical solutions targeted at specific industries and operational environments. When choosing a Business Intelligence solution, firms need to ask two key questions:

  1. What kind of data needs to be analyzed and where does it come from?
    Many packaged application and database vendors include some BI functionality in their core product, and if you plan to source all of your data from the same application or database, you may not need to buy additional products. However, this strategy may also limit the analytical range.
  2. Who will be doing the analysis and how do they need to receive the results?
    Historically, report or analysis requests would be sent to the IT department, which would then code and generate the report. Today, BI is on the front lines of business and the tools may well be used by executives or sales and marketing professionals. As a result, firms need to know the technical capabilities of the end user upfront.

The Business Intelligence Technology Stack

To build a Business Intelligence solution, enterprises will need to consider new investments and upgrades to current technology to build out the BI technology stack. The technology stack is designed to highlight the different layers of technology that will be affected by a BI project, all the way from the hardware hosting your data at the bottom of the stack to the portal product used to present information to users at the top. Starting from the bottom, this seven-layer stack includes:

  1. Storage and computing hardware. To implement BI, firms will need to invest or upgrade their data storage infrastructure. This includes Storage Area Networks (SAN), Network Attached Storage (NAS), Hierarchical Storage Management (HSM), and silo-style tape libraries. The trend over the next five years is for storage resources to be amalgamated into a single, policy-managed, enterprise-wide storage pool.
  2. Applications and data sources. To develop an effective BI solution, source data will need to be scrubbed and organized. The challenge is that source data can come from any number of applications, most using proprietary data formats and application-specific data structures. Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Supply Chain Management (SCM), and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, and other applications are the common sources of data. The trend over the next five years will be for applications to standardize the data format using eXtensible Markup Language (XML) schema and leverage BI specific standards like XML for Analysis.
  3. Data integration. Middleware allows different systems supporting different communication protocols, interfaces, object models, and data formats to communicate. Firms will need to invest in these "connectors" to allow data from source applications to be integrated with the BI repository. Extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) tools pull data from multiple sources, and load the data into a data warehouse. Again, the trend in data integration and Enterprise Application Integration, in general, is toward standardization through XML and web services.
  4. Relational databases and data warehouses. Firms will need a data warehouse to store and organize tactical or historical information in a relational database. Organizing data in this way allows the user to extract and assemble specific data elements from a complete dataset to perform a variety of analyses.
  5. OLAP applications and analytic engines. Online analytic processing (OLAP) applications provide a layer of separation between the storage repository and the end user's analytic application of choice. Its role is to perform special analytical functions that require high-performance processing power and more specialized analytical skills.
  6. Analytic applications. Analytic applications are the programs used to run queries against the data to perform either "slide-and-dice" analysis of historical data or more predictive analyses, often referred to as "drill-down" analysis. For example, a customer intelligence application might enable a historical analysis of customer orders and payment history. Alternatively, users could drill down to understand how changing a price might affect future sales in a specific region.
  7. Information presentation and delivery products. The results of a query can be returned to the user in a variety of ways. Many tools provide presentation through the analytic application itself and offer dashboard formats to aggregate multiple queries. Also, enterprises can purchase packaged or custom reporting products, such as Crystal Reports. An important trend in BI presentation is leveraging XML to deliver analyses through a portal or any other Internet-enabled interface, such as a personal digital assistant (PDA).

For more information on choosing the right BI solution for your company, read our Business Intelligence Overview.

Go to Bitpipe Research Guide: Business Intelligence.


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