The big players have fought back with their own self-service products: Microsoft's PowerPivot, SAP's BusinessObjects Explorer, IBM's Cognos Express and Information Builders' WebFocus Visual Discovery. Pure-play BI vendors such as Targit, MicroStrategy and SAS Institute also have self-service offerings.
However, prospective enterprise buyers should be aware that all self-service tools are not created equal. One of the key differentiators is ease of use, according to Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson. While most BI vendors claim to have user-friendly and intuitive applications and tools, "what's intuitive to a BI professional is not necessarily intuitive to, say, a marketing analyst," he points out.
End users with limited BI expertise need tools that prompt and guide them through basic BI tasks, as well as customizable report and dashboard templates, he adds.
Other key features include Web portals for sharing information and natural-language interfaces for queries and searches.
Power users such as business analysts, on the other hand, want sophisticated BI tools, such as in-database analytics, that give them the flexibility to drill deep down into databases and create their own views and queries on the fly, but without having to deal with the technicalities of the underlying data infrastructure -- which would require IT assistance.
Cost is another major differentiator. Companies that already have a leading BI vendor's platform in place can usually add a self-service front end with minimal effort and cost, according to Forrester analyst Jim Kobielus.
Major BI vendors like IBM Cognos, SAP and Oracle offer entry-level products geared to companies with limited budgets and basic BI needs.
Microsoft's BI software -- based on SQL Server, SharePoint and Office -- is another low-cost option for small and midsize companies.
Some large organizations are turning to open-source BI platforms such as the BEE Project, Jaspersoft, Pentaho and SpagoBI. However, be aware that "open source does not always equal free software [and] you will get what you pay for," Evelson says. Some open-source BI products should be labeled "some assembly required," because the various components aren't fully integrated, he says.
Further, some open-source suites lack features and functions needed by large organizations, including robust and integrated security, scalability tools like load balancing, and connectivity to popular data sources, Evelson adds.
Finally, consider outsourcing. Software-as-a-service offerings are now available from some BI vendors, including Tibco (Silver Spotfire), PivotLink and SAP BusinessObjects (Crystalreports.com). In addition to cutting capital and IT staff costs, SaaS offerings enable a business to easily extend the reach of its BI system to remote end users, and to business partners, via the Web.
Horwitt, a freelance reporter and former Computerworld senior editor, is based in Waban, Mass. Contact her at email@example.com.