While electronic commerce providers are trying to figure out how to make a buck off the Web, many companies are deriving significant cost savings by using the Web to access data warehouses. Today, most major decision support vendors -- plus a host of startups--have shipped tools that make it easy to access and analyze corporate databases via Web browsers. Most vendors are finding there is a pent-up demand for Web decision support tools. Many customers have delayed purchasing decision support tools until a Web version of their preferred tool becomes generally available. Others are planning to use the Web as a data access medium once they depreciate their current investments in client/server decision support tools.

Web Deployments Ramp Up

A recent survey shows that most users are considering purchasing a Web-based decision support tool. In a survey of Data Warehousing Institute members, more than one-third (34 percent) said they have already deployed or are implementing a Web-based decision support tool, while more than half (59 percent) are seriously evaluating or considering deploying such a tool. The survey is based on 140 responses.

Not surprisingly, Web deployments will expand gradually over the next several years. Last year, more than one-third (35 percent) of survey respondents said that 5 percent of their desktops were using a Web decision support tool. This year, two-thirds (67 percent) of survey respondents said that between 5 percent and 50 percent of their users will be using a Web-based DSS tool.

By the year 2000, Web deployments begin to increase significantly in scope. By the new millennium, almost half of survey respondents (42 percent) said that between 50 percent and 100 percent of their desktops will use the Web to access corporate data. This includes 20 percent of respondents who said that more than 85 percent of their end users will be Web- enabled for decision support.

Why the Web?

Companies are converting DSS applications to the Web for a variety of reasons, most of which revolve either directly or indirectly around cost savings. The most predominant reason (62 percent) was the desire to provide decision support capabilities to employees that currently don't have DSS tools of any kind. Next, almost 60 percent of respondents said they purchased a Web DSS tool to reduce the costs of either installing or updating desktop software. Software upgrades are manually intensive, requiring squadrons of IT specialists to install, configure and troubleshoot users desktops.

Obviously, many companies feel constrained by the costs of deploying client/server DSS tools, and thus restrict these tools to a privileged elite--mainly business and product managers and analysts. It's clear that the Web promises to democratize decision support by making it cost effective to provide all employees, as well as customers and suppliers, access to corporate data.

The Nature of Web Analysis

The survey also suggests that most users will use the Web to perform simple kinds of data analysis. The vast majority of survey respondents (84 percent) said end users will use the Web to view static reports. This aligns with the 80/20 rule that I've postulated for some time. That is, 80 percent of users have minimal information requirements, such as viewing and filtering reports, that today can be easily satisfied via the Web. The other 20 percent--typically analysts, power users or IT personnel--want higher functionality to create queries and reports that the other 80 percent consume.

Paradoxically, the next largest group of survey respondents (70 percent) said they expected Web users to navigate OLAP cubes by drilling and pivoting the data therein. In general, OLAP tools are designed to support analysts, not general information consumers who are often overwhelmed and/or confused by an OLAP interface.

There is an easy explanation for this apparent contradiction in the functions users want to perform across the Web. In my opinion, users are saying, "I first want to see a formatted report that I've seen before and know how to interpret quickly. Then, if the data suggests that something is out of line (i.e., sales are down in the southeast), I want to be able to drill down or across to discover the source of the problem."

In other words, Web users first want to view reports, and then--only if necessary--analyze the data. Most users are content to view the same report day in, day out, ad infinitum. They don't want to struggle to interpret new reports every day. However, if an existing report raises an alarm, they want to be able to drill down into the data behind the report to address the problem.

Thus, the kind of Web decision support product that the majority of users want is a reporting tool with an OLAP cube behind it. My next column will delve deeper into this next generation decision support interface that seamlessly integrates reporting and analysis functionality. Stay tuned.

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