Q:

Is BI reporting and reporting embedded in applications different? Are there any tools that do both or should two reporting tools be used?

A:

Les Barbusinski’s Answer: Most modern BI tool vendors provide a method (usually an SDK) for embedding the reporting and analytical functions of their tool within other applications. It’s a great way for a company to leverage its investment in its data mart or data warehouse. As an example, I recently participated in a project that developed a set of data warehouse "Web services" for a large financial services company. Each Web service function delivered either a fully rendered OLAP report or graph (formatted in HTML) or a specific metric (wrapped in XML) by making an API call to the BI application server. These Web services were used by several in-house Web portal applications to deliver business intelligence functionality and content to their users. In this particular case, the software used was the MicroStrategy SDK, but the same results could be accomplished with almost any BI vendor’s toolkit.

Scott Howard’s Answer: The results of the two should be the same; it's just the way one uses such approaches that differs. Reporting via embedded applications is a homegrown BI reporting technique where the application owner has maximum control over the reporting environment controlling what the user can and cannot do BI reporting-wise. The advantages are the control that IT gains from an operational prospective enhancing its ability to tune the operational environment to best support these specific queries. BI reporting via capable tools such as MicroStrategy, Business Objects, Brio Query and Cognos' products enhances the BI environment by giving the end user the autonomy to more easily create their own queries without IT dependency. This results in a much more flexible user environment and less work for IT's end-user query support function but can be problematic for the folks responsible for maximizing performance. Design and performance management in such an ad hoc environment is extremely challenging as it's difficult to truly anticipate system use.

Now for the second part of your question. Many BI tools not only provide for an ad hoc BI environment but provide APIs with which your own applications can call their services and run pre-established queries. Some even allow for calling their interactive facilities providing for a semi-controlled semi ad hoc application. You'll need to consult with your BI vendors to assess their own capabilities.

Joe Oates’ Answer: Yes, BI reporting and application or operational reporting are, indeed, two different things due to the difference in design philosophy.

Operational systems database designs must be able to store single transactions very quickly. Operational systems rarely support more than a single business function, usually for a single department or product line. Several operational systems may support the same common business concepts such as Customer, Product, etc. Odds are, however, that each operational system will have a completely different data structure for each of these common business concepts. So trying to report across different departments or product lines using these operational structures would be a very complicated undertaking. Additionally, analytical reports such as are common in BI would be virtually impossible to run in a reasonable time due to the number of conversions and table joins across systems.

BI solutions are designed for a completely different purpose. Instead of being concerned with storing a handful of rows in a few tables like operational systems, BI solutions must look at thousands, millions or even billions of rows in order to return an answer. Furthermore, one of the important values BI solutions have is the storage of calculated metric or key performance indicators (KPIs) so that they do not have to be calculated on the fly every time someone wants to see them in a report.

In summary, in almost all cases, different presentation tools are needed for BI than are needed for operational systems.

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