BI steps into the cloud

Panorama Software unveils analytics service that goes beyond Google Docs

Business intelligence functionality has made its way into cloud computing as Panorama Software on Thursday unwrapped PowerApps.

Calling it "analytics as a cloud-computing service," the company said PowerApps goes outside a previous deal with Google that brought analytics and reporting to Google Docs.

"When we started developing this project with Google we had to build an analytics engine, and that is essentially PowerApps. This is opening it up, via a cloud computing model, to other applications," said Oudi Antebi, vice president of strategy and marketing at Panorama. "The engine is independent of Google."

[ Read more about what cloud computing really means and some of the early experiments in cloud computing. ]

Antebi explains that while Amazon has its storage service in the cloud and Google has its Apps, Panorama is in the same game but playing an altogether different position.

Customers use PowerApps to query the hosted data and, the company said, new tools enable data upload and cube creation and management. Because PowerApps uses the MDX (Multidimensional Expression) standard OLAP language, the engine can generate answers that are rendered in Microsoft Excel, Google Apps, or customized front-end applications.

Such customers, Panorama hopes, will include enterprises that traditionally developed custom solutions using stalwart databases, such as Microsoft's SQL Server, IBM's DB2, or Oracle, according to a company spokesperson, as well as SMBs who use SaaS-model applications such as Salesforce.com or NetSuite, and ISVs eager to extend their applications with analytics.

The allure to enterprise-class customers that run applications either on-premise or via the software-as-a-service model is that PowerApps brings more robust OLAP, analytics, and reporting, along with the cloud manner of low barrier-to-entry, Antebi said. "It's a very cost-effective way of doing analytics," he added. 

David Hatch, research director for business intelligence at Aberdeen, explained that based on his research, the foremost inhibitor of BI among enterprise users is a lack of requisite skills. "This is addressed indirectly with BI in the cloud," Hatch added. "The Web browser paradigm [of such services] also helps with that."

What's more, the ability to implement a service only once eases pain on the IT side because they don’t have to continually update and maintain desktop BI applications, Hatch said.

Hatch contends that other companies, namely LogiXML, are essentially doing BI in the cloud, even if they're not calling it that.

The model has not been a popular option for analytics, however, because customers are likely to get better performance with in-house OLAP, particularly when it comes to applications run internally, according to Nigel Pendse, a consultant and author of "The BI Survey" and "The OLAP Report."

"It's different if the data is already held externally in some sort of SaaS solution such as Salesforce.com, Google Apps/Docs, etc.," Pendse explained. "In such cases, it does make sense for the OLAP engine to also be an SaaS solution."

Panorama is an open platform such that developers can create their own front end to it that hooks into either SaaS or packaged applications, Antebi said.

But whether customers can do the necessary integration and customization to run PowerApps or are better off waiting for their SaaS providers to partner with Panorama likely depends, again, on the IT staff's skill sets, Hatch added.

Indeed, the real power of BI in the cloud will be to embed it in enterprise applications that need more analytics. Antebi said that Panorama is looking to ink pacts with appropriate providers, but "it's a little too early to discuss partners."

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