Web services is for business intelligence, too

Philip Russom, Consulting Analyst

Information Delivery and Analytics
Web services is for business intelligence, too

For a couple of years now, we've been barraged with messages from the press, analysts, vendors, and others about possible useful applications of Web services. Almost all of these messages envision Web services in a transactional world, sometimes as a medium for application integration. No doubt, Web services has a great potentiality in those realms. But this ignores one of the most practical applications of Web services, namely: the delivery of reports and analytic services via the Web and other distributed environments.

So, why would you want business intelligence (BI) functions delivered via Web services?

Business scenarios for BI Web services

Imagine your company supplies material to a large manufacturing company, and you have a service-level agreement (SLA) to provide just-in-time inventory. The manufacturer's IT department has exposed its BI platform as a Web service, so you point your browser at a certain URL, enter a user ID and password, then receive reports about standing inventory. Metrics represented in the reports alert you to stores low on inventory. The reports are interactive, so you drill into historic data, comparing today's fluctuation in stock levels with corresponding days in other weeks or months. All this helps you understand your customer, and how to maintain inventory in accordance

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with your SLA.

BI web services can enable many other business scenarios:

An electric utility company exposes its BI platform, so commercial and industrial customers can better understand their power consumption and related costs.

A financial services company provides BI Web services, so auditors and regulators have an appropriate level of visibility into the company's dealings.

A brokerage supports BI Web services so institutional investors can analyze (in a multidimensional way) the performance of financial instruments executed through the brokerage.

Beyond the BI extranet

You may have noticed that many corporations are achieving the above-listed scenarios today through the use of BI extranets. By comparison, BI Web services exhibit a technological advantage, and so may drive the next evolution of BI extranets. Simply put, today's BI extranets require pre-established point-to-point connections, whereas BI Web services can enable multiple corporations to communicate BI information through common, centralized directory services, using standard program-to-program protocols. For companies that share BI information, BI Web services promise to enable an elegant, fast, and easily repeatable integration experience.

At least, that's the theory. The reality is that the roles of WSDL and UDDI are well-understood in the context of Web services for transactional applications and application integration. Yet, their roles in BI applications are still under debate. Consequently, corporations using BI Web services today are mostly doing so in a point-to-point fashion as a first step. As the relevance of WSDL and UDDI to BI Web services becomes better understood, corporations will, no doubt, adopt centralized directory services to get the full benefit of easily integrated and repeatable BI Web services.

The SOAPification of BI

This whole discussion assumes that the BI platform you've adopted is capable of supporting Web services. You can achieve this by SOAPifying the API of the BI platform. Basically, you blow a SOAP bubble, wrap it around a particular function call of the API, and float the bubble over the Internet to call a remote BI Web service. You might SOAPify common functions like open-report, refresh-report, and drill-on-chart.

Some BI software vendors have already created SOAP wrappers for their API function calls. This includes Business Objects, Hyperion Solutions, Informatica, and SAS Institute. Others, like MicroStrategy and Brio, continue to support APIs that customers can easily wrap with their own SOAP. But that's a lot of hand coding, so BI development environments are starting to support Web services at a high level, as in Crystal Decisions' Crystal Reports for Visual Studio .NET and HNC Software's Blaze Advisor.

Note that XML for Analysis is an upcoming open standard for BI Web services, developed by Microsoft's SQL Server team and a long list of representatives from BI vendors. The standard's specification has an aggressively broad scope, encompassing functions for query, reporting, multiple flavors of online analytic processing (OLAP), and data mining. It's too early to tell, but XML for Analysis may eventually become the lingua franca for BI Web services.

THE HURWITZ TAKE: BI Web services are not so much revolutionary as evolutionary. The ongoing "BI for the masses" movement tends to focus on users across the enterprise, but it also includes users outside the enterprise, for whom BI Web services are supremely suited. Reaching BI users outside an enterprise is mostly done today via BI extranets, which have amply proven the business case for doing so in a number of business scenarios. Web services will soon be another common enabling technology behind BI extranets. In fact, Web services is poised to take Web-based BI to the next evolutionary level, by giving BI extranets a technological elegance, easy integration, and economical repeatability they otherwise cannot achieve.

The growing need among corporations to deliver reports and analytic services via the Web and other distributed environments (as demonstrated by the proliferation of BI extranets) will soon demonstrate that Web services is not just for transactional applications and application integration. Web services is for business intelligence, too.

Copyright 2002 Hurwitz Group Inc. This article is excerpted from TrendWatch, a weekly publication of Hurwitz Group Inc. - an analyst, research, and consulting firm. To register for a free email subscription, click here.

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