Self-service BI catches on

It's all about helping business users collaborate and make faster decisions with complex information

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IXI is an Equifax company that provides risk and performance management consulting services. With its old BI system, God forbid you should want any changes to a report, says Russ Ayres, senior vice president of customer DSS solutions. These kinds of requests meant changing the data models and then getting the changes approved, which was such a slow process we couldnt react quickly to new information, he adds.

Hard-coded data structures weren't cutting it with IXI's customers, whose data needs change on a daily basis, Ayres explains.

IXI addressed these challenges with Tibco's Spotfire. IXI analysts use Spotfire to do rapid and flexible data querying across multiple data sources, Ayres says. On average, creating a new view takes a quarter of the time it used to, he adds, "so we're about four times as productive."

Taking control

Despite their enthusiasm for self-service BI, IT executives acknowledge that the ease and power that self-service BI tools bring to end users poses a very real danger.

Data governance, security and centralized monitoring and control of user interactions are critical for any BI system, but particularly for self-service systems that give less technical end users direct access to the corporate data infrastructure.

Russ Ayres
"When you give someone a loaded weapon, they can always shoot themselves," says Russ Ayres, senior vice president of customer DSS solutions at IXI. "Someone could do a broad search across a 5Tbyte database and bring a server to its knees, or worse. BI doesn't stop you from making wrong choices, it just helps you make them faster."

"Governance is where we [the IT staff] come in," says IXI's Ayres. "When you give someone a loaded weapon, they can always shoot themselves. Someone could do a broad search across a 5Tbyte database and bring a server to its knees, or worse. BI doesn't stop you from making wrong choices, it just helps you make them faster."

To avoid this problem, Ayres's team has built a layer between the user and BI tools, "so you can dance around the playground, but within limits." For example, someone might be allowed to run metrics in a data mart at some levels but not others, and not be allowed to summarize across different levels, he adds.

Most of the major BI platforms support role-based access control, through Microsoft Active Directory or any other LDAP-compliant global directory. Packages offer different degrees of granularity: for example, controlling access to a subset of data, or even specific data fields, based on a particular user group or responsibility.

SAP BusinessObjects provides role-based security down to the record level, says Baker. A salesperson can see only customers in his territory; a budget manager can see only cost centers she is responsible for. A sales vice president can view reports from anybody who reports to him.

The BusinessObjects system also provides role-based security at the application level, Baker says. "You can use the Explorer tool but can't see dashboards from these groups."

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