Cloud BI: Going where the data lives

As more companies store data in the cloud, they're increasingly crunching the numbers there, too.

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Weinstein quickly found that some of the large, traditional BI vendors were not going to be able to roll out Athenahealth's initial project quickly enough. In addition, some were too complicated to use, potentially limiting future projects. Athenahealth considered products from both IBM and Oracle, and then moved on to the cloud BI offerings, ultimately choosing Birst.

Athenahealth didn't run into problems with having most of its data stored on-premises and not in a cloud environment. The company has over 50,000 provider clients and tracks more than 100 metrics about each one every day, Weinstein says. That data is pulled from an internal data center into a separate internal data warehouse. From there, the relevant data is uploaded to Birst.

The data uploads happen automatically, several times each day, as part of a process that the company built using tools and scripts, some of which were provided by Birst, he says. "It doesn't keep me up at night," Weinstein says of the process. He has to intervene only if there's an error. "But that is part of our standard monitoring and would be expected as part of a complex data warehouse environment."

Possible pitfalls

Millennial Media, Athenahealth and DMA (see "Early adopter") all say that using a cloud BI service meets their needs. But there are a few roadblocks that companies should look out for when considering cloud BI.

One is "cloud washing." Some vendors say they offer a cloud BI product but in fact may still require software that runs on users' computers or may offer only cloud storage, says Gartner's Tapadinhas. In that case, users may not get all the benefits of a true cloud offering, like offloading software maintenance.

A cloud BI service might also not be as flexible as an on-premises offering. "Although they are quick to deploy, in some cases cloud BI solutions don't offer enough customizations or at least not as much as we have now on-premises," Tapadinhas says.

Business

On-premises products might also offer more possibilities for integration with third party-products, he says. Good Data, for one, has made some strides to allow third-party tools to access data repositories stored with Good, but even its openness is limited, he says.

Plus, traditional BI tools typically have a broader feature set and may make a better option depending on what a company is trying to achieve, says Carsten Bange, founder and CEO of Business Application Research Center, an analyst firm that specializes in enterprise software.

There's also the chance that, like any cloud offering, a particular cloud BI service might be slow. "There are other issues, like performance and latency of cloud solutions," Tapadinhas says.

The transfer speed of data could be slow too. That could impact the reliability of the data analytics if users end up making decisions based on old data because the latest data hasn't made it to the cloud BI tool. "This could be a real bottleneck," Bange says. "Upload speeds are often not really good."

One common reason that companies give for passing up cloud BI -- concern over privacy and security, given that BI products tend to analyze a company's most important data -- actually isn't worth worrying about, some experts say. "Most cloud vendors tend to have more strict security processes and follow security certificates that are more advanced than most companies have internally," Tapadinhas says.

Whether a business goes with cloud BI or an on-premises product, Athenahealth's Weinstein offers valuable advice. Once Athenahealth implemented Birst and workers were able to quickly access useful information, they were spotting a lot more issues than they used to. The company had to figure out how to respond to the increased number of problems that it found. "Net net it's a good thing," Weinstein says. "Just be prepared for what the transparency is going to bring."

This article, "Cloud BI: Going Where the Data Lives," was originally published on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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