Update: SAP rolls out SaaS BI suite

New suite combines all SAP's SaaS BI products and has a data-visualization tool that lets inexperienced users easily analyze business data

SAP made a major new push into on-demand BI (business intelligence) Wednesday, announcing a new suite that combines all of SAP's SaaS (software as a service) BI products and is aimed at "casual" users who are "underserved" by other products.

Users won't need prior training to start working with the suite, thanks to built-in guides that walk them through the various processes, according to SAP.

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One key component is the BusinessObjects Explorer data-visualization and exploration tool, which allows inexperienced users to intuitively and easily search through and analyze business data from a variety of sources, according to SAP.

Users can also create reports and share them with people inside or outside their company in a secure manner, SAP said. The vendor also said the suite will be able to tap data from on-demand CRM (customer relationship management) vendor Salesforce.com.

SAP will use a scalable pricing model based on the amount of usage. Further details weren't immediately available.

Partners will play a key role in selling the new suite to customers. SaaS BI vendor Oco will offer versions tuned for various industries and lines of business to large enterprises and upper-midmarket companies. The suite will also be sold via SAP's PartnerEdge program later this year.

In addition, SAP will sell the suite directly to customers.

The product is available now in English, with added language support, including French, Japanese, Spanish and German, scheduled for the second quarter.

It will be available in a limited Personal Edition at no charge; a midrange Essential Edition; and a high-end Advanced Edition. Pricing details will be released soon, according to SAP. While the three-tier approach will be preserved across all countries, prices will be "calculated locally based on local conversions."

SAP will be updating the suite monthly with help from "baked-in" user feedback, said David Meyer, senior vice president. Users can submit ideas for new features and others can cast votes in response to the proposals.

The product launch means changes for users of SAP's crystalreports.com Web reporting service, as it will be rolled into the combined suite.

Any cost ramifications for those customers will become clear once the pricing model has been finalized, said Meyer. SAP has been working closely with crystalreports.com users to ensure a smooth transition, said Marge Breya, executive vice president.

Wednesday's announcement ties into ongoing market trends. Analyst firm IDC recently predicted the SaaS BI market will grow much more quickly in coming years than on-premises BI and analytics software sales, although it will remain fairly small.

A wide array of smaller companies such as PivotLink and Birst are fueling that growth, winning deals with smaller customers that are leery of the cost and complexity of an on-premises BI installation, as well as with large companies that want to give rank-and-file business users BI capabilities faster and cheaper.

With the new suite, SAP is hoping to keep its installed base close to home. In a statement, it stressed the benefits of a single-vendor approach to on-premises and SaaS BI, versus taking "a patchwork approach" to deployment.

At the same time, SAP is emphasizing the suite's ability to work with other systems. A customer quoted in a press release issued Wednesday noted her company is "a big Oracle shop on the back end" and also uses Salesforce.com.

But the burning issue around SaaS BI has more to do with its intended audience, rather than those bread-and-butter IT issues.

Business users, versus specialized data analysts working in small teams, are the primary target of SaaS BI offerings today, according to Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson.

At the same time, "IT is concerned about this since it may jeopardize standards, controls, create risk, etc.," Evelson said via e-mail. "It's an interesting dynamic. IT's been asking for end-user self-service BI tools for decades, and now that we got it (as in BI SaaS), they are very much concerned."

SAP is no doubt aware of this. During a conference call Wednesday, executives emphasized the security features SAP has built into the suite.

At the same time, SAP hopes that one day some 70 percent to 80 percent of users within a company have access to BI tools, according to Breya.

"Very few people believe they have the right information at the right time to make the right decisions in their workspace," she said.

This story was updated on February 24, 2010.