The hottest buzzword in the business intelligence (BI) space today is "portal." The enterprise portal and tangential markets are taking off as businesses understand the value of integrating information across the enterprise and as vendors shift from claiming OLAP capabilities to claiming portal capabilities. In fact, the ubiquitous access to data warehouses for many is portals, not desktop OLAP. In general, enterprise portals are costly and challenging to implement; but once fully deployed, they are as large or larger than any other enterprise application.

What is the real value of an enterprise portal? Is it access to weather or sports scores? Probably not. What more executives are realizing is that the advantage is in sharing pertinent business information across departmental boundaries, integrating the company business intelligence so that all users can share a common view of the business. How can this be accomplished?

From a technology standpoint, enterprise portals work by taking customer requests, such as data or news queries, in XML and HTML and (usually) having the HTTP Web server locate the appropriate section of code that works with the storage format of the data requested. Storage formats include documents, applications and human resources (through online collaboration). Requests are rendered through personal or community pages. Mostly parallel searches mean a user can multitask across several requests and data formats at once. HTTP connection pooling supports simultaneous connections from multiple users.

It has been widely accepted for years that no single BI tool meets the needs of the entire organization, even in enterprise data warehouse environments. The breadth of access requirements in a mature environment is just too large. The use of multiple tools is the standard. The challenge, therefore, becomes how to seamlessly integrate a wide variety of BI tools and maintain the technology as well as the environment. Tool versions change, features are added and users are added – posing a huge challenge to a fragmented BI/enterprise portal integration.

To date, the answer to the BI question for enterprise portals has been fragmented, at best. For the most part, enterprise portals offer components to integrate information across technology platforms. An environment might look something like that shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Enterprise Portal

Vendors from many market segments, not just business intelligence vendors, are offering portal products. Many of these portals are optimized for the market as known by the vendor. This also means those vendors who work both the BI and portal spaces usually provide portal capabilities to just their BI tool.

The level of integration of the components is of great importance. Most frequently, application integration is accomplished at the report execution level only. Little of the core BI functionality is supported. Furthermore, as BI software vendors go through their upgrade cycles, so must the portal. This frequently presents challenges for a portal that is not BI focused.

However, is it realistic to relegate business intelligence to a subcomponent of an enterprise portal by providing rich access to only one tool? Additionally, is it realistic to pass the user to the BI tool as soon as it is detected that the query needs data from that tool? If business intelligence is the mechanism to access cleansed enterprise historical data, interactive access with all the business intelligence data in the enterprise is not possible in these scenarios.

What analysts are saying and what executives are slowly beginning to understand is that integrating BI within a portal is necessary to pull these systems together. Such systems must walk the fine line between integrating into and maintaining technical independence from an enterprise portal, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Enterprise Portal with Business Intelligence Integration

Enterprise Integrated Business Intelligence

Enterprise integrated business intelligence (EIBI) provides interaction with enterprise- wide business intelligence data. It is the integration of the data access layer. This approach to portals has many advantages:

Enterprise Data Warehouse Emulation: While doing little to solve the back-end data integration challenge, data warehouse emulation is achieved by providing one- screen, one-portal access to a variety of BI subdomains across the enterprise. Shops that have significant investment in a variety of BI environments, including a variety of BI tools, can use EIBI to emulate a single-access environment for the users.

This use of EIBI ties together these environments, including those with multiple data mart back ends and multiple data access tool front ends. For example, one tool/mart can generate the threshold value for product reordering, which is done through another tool/mart/business process, linked together with EIBI.

Parallel Runs during Migration: Some BI tool upgrades are much more intense than others, particularly lately as vendors have made drastic headline-grabbing architectural upgrades. Parallel production runs help ensure that there is no drop-off in user functionality or performance, especially for those shops that undertake an aggressive upgrade strategy, desire the new capabilities of the tool or are participating in financial incentive programs to move quickly into the new release.

This use of EIBI also applies when migrating from one BI tool to another and also when a company is undergoing data mart consolidation and needs to bridge users to the new environment.

However, parallel runs are not easy. Many shops are hamstrung with less than adequate test/development environments, especially for data access. EIBI provides users with windows to their "old" and "new" environments, allowing for side-by-side testing and confirmation of the environment of the new version.

Transfer of Data Access Skills: With a common navigation interface across BI architectures, users are not prohibited from using a BI tool just because they only learned the interface of another tool. By standardizing navigation across BI architectures regardless of the tool that was used to build the initial interface, data consumers can access all data without laborious logging off and on to multiple tool systems and learning each of the interfaces unless detailed work is required.

Integrated Usage Tracking: Understanding the relative order of tool usage across an enterprise is becoming more and more interesting as shops consolidate tools in order to deepen their exploitation of a few robust tools as opposed to having a cursory utilization of many. Integrated usage tracking across an enterprise BI environment provides the information necessary to understand usage patterns and make informed decisions affecting the BI environment.

Data Access Personalization: EIBI allows users to create a customized list of reports and ad hoc access environments that are personally interesting. Again, this is unencumbered by the data access tools used in the development. The environments can then be organized by function (such as finance or marketing) and job responsibilities, not by BI tools. Likewise, analytics can be personalized.

Single Sign-On: Single sign-on to the enterprise BI environment – all of it, not just the environment of a single tool – helps administrators manage the users.

Serve Analytics to the Enterprise Portal: EIBI serves cross-tool BI-generated analytics to the enterprise portal. The enterprise portal can then process the BI analytics with its robust enterprise capabilities. In this way, EIBI works with the enterprise portal.

Fit into Enterprise Portal: No longer an afterthought of the enterprise portal, EIBI fits into its enterprise big brother by providing rich BI capabilities to accompany the rich non-BI enterprise capabilities of enterprise portals. EIBI can be one or more windows within the enterprise portal.

Enterprise Reporting: With EIBI, applications can access data and metrics across the enterprise and compile enterprise reports regardless of what tool generates the contributing report. This allows executives to tap into a wide cross-section of organizational development for their information.

Wide Data Deployment: Data is interesting company-wide. For example, key performance indicators (KPIs) drawn from research and development define the pipeline and what will be marketed. Finance ties into everything, and everybody needs finance data. Sales and marketing are firmly tied together. Each department may have its own set of databases, but all need to see some measure of each other's data. KPIs are an example of this need to cross database boundaries for data, but the need to share data is prevalent throughout the enterprise.

Integration of Structured and Unstructured Content: This integration generates a business environment that supports workflow based on information unconstrained by its type or tool and linked by meta data. The focus can then be kept on business process, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Integration of Structured and Unstructured Content

Most organizations deploying portals emphasize one content type over all others. If that content type is BI – even with its limited capabilities for news, e-mail and company collateral – EIBI may be considered the enterprise portal in some environments. Deployment is less risky and time-consuming with an EIBI than an enterprise portal, and it provides focused access to the critical data of the organization – the business intelligence data.

There are few vendors who are embracing BI as the dominant content type although many end user companies have attempted to build their own custom-coded EIBI. Infowise Solutions is one such vendor, with their InSite product that ties together these functions of EIBI with the varied BI data stores across an enterprise.

The value of portals lies in their ability to share, highlight and personalize pertinent business information across the company. For most organizations, BI is the keeper of the data necessary for this strategy. Therefore, any portal strategy should leverage and integrate BI across the enterprise. As more and more businesses realize the need for business intelligence in the portal, look for increased demands to incorporate EIBI into portal solutions. There is, or soon will be, a new market focused on this intersection and the innovation that it provides an enterprise.

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