Despite the evolution in data management over the past 20 years, the tension between IT and business users is still difficult to reconcile. IT wants data control and centralization; business users want the ability to quickly explore and analyze data on their own. The end result is business data treated like a precious object that IT guards and business users can look at but not touch.

One thing remains clear: business intelligence, the ability to analyze and report on key business data, is critical. Most companies today understand the value of the data in their organization but struggle to empower the organization to derive real business value from it. Reconciling the data management battle between IT and business users would go a long way to unleash the business value of information. But how does a company get there?

When IT Control Binds the Business User

Even when BI capabilities are available, users from all parts of an organization continue to request greater levels of insight and data access. This is particularly true of business analysts, operational managers and professionals in data-centric departments like finance and marketing. However, due to the limitations of traditional BI tools, IT has faced tough challenges in meeting user needs.

With traditional BI tools, IT has to source, cleanse and integrate operational data; it then models and stages it for reporting and analytical databases. They then have to provide centralized, unified and controlled BI applications to report and analyze the information. To maintain this closed-loop process and to ensure that users of the technology avoid delivering contradictory, irreconcilable reporting and analysis, IT must put restrictions in place – restrictions that unfortunately create boundaries.

Specifically, traditional BI architectures involve multiple steps to transform raw data into a user-friendly report or dashboard. A single change at any level of the information stack can result in an expanding cascade of changes at higher levels. For example, one small change to a single data source may result in a few changes to ETL and data cleansing jobs, which then results in changes to other data stores. It’s a vicious cycle that gives most IT departments a bad case of heartburn and inhibits business users from initiating a new BI project or an update to an old one.

The challenges presented by the traditional BI tools have left users to their own methods, such as Excel spreadsheets, to bridge the gap. Or, business users are left without any analysis – relying on business intuition.

Giving IT and Business What they Need - A Sandbox

The BI sandbox has recently emerged as a way for IT to solve the influx of requests for access to enterprise data, while allaying their concerns about data management and security. According to industry analyst firm Forrester Research, a sandbox is defined as a “data exploration environment where a power user can analyze production, clean data with near complete freedom to modify data models, enrich data sets and run the analysis whenever necessary, without much dependency on IT and production environment restrictions.” BI sandboxes provide a new way to liberate the business user to explore data without jeopardizing the original data source. They provide a safe haven for users to explore enterprise data, combine it with local and external data, and then analyze and report on it.

While the sandbox concept sounds ideal, reality can still exert some limitations. Sandboxes are often built from traditional BI architectures and require IT to manually map source data, create definitions, map to tables and then map to the data warehouse production environment. This repeats with each new BI initiative.

In addition to the complex and manual processes often required to build a sandbox, IT sometimes faces the challenge of the renegade data mart in which tidbits of outdated or inaccurate data can proliferate throughout the organization. While IT departments have successfully deployed BI sandboxes, the manual processes involved and the fear of renegade data marts has inhibited the successful reach of sandboxes.

Next-Gen BI

New methods give users access to powerful business visualization and reporting, while satisfying IT’s need for security and control. Software as a service BI can enable the easy and rapid creation of sandboxes for data exploration.

SaaS BI vendors offering a complete and comprehensive solution can satisfy the IT and business user requirements for BI sandboxes. For IT, a comprehensive solution provides an integrated offering of all of the necessary BI components, such as ETL, data warehousing, data analysis and reporting. A unified metadata model ensures consistency across the entire BI stack and eliminates the need to consolidate and maintain metadata. The built-in ETL and data warehousing functionality means that users can tap into a clean, managed source of enterprise data and create a sandbox on the fly for ad hoc analysis. With on-demand BI, the entire ETL and data warehouse processes are automated with intelligent source data analysis, data extraction, loading and transformation to automatically create staging and warehouse tables. The end result is that IT can quickly set up BI sandboxes based on data that IT can control. The sandboxes themselves can also be centrally managed, so that end users have access to the appropriate amount of information, and IT is confident in the data’s integrity and security. A SaaS solution can complement an existing BI solution, while requiring significantly less maintenance and support than traditional BI. This means that there are no conflicts with existing IT investments and the solution requires a minimal amount of IT’s time and attention.

For the business user, sandboxes delivered via SaaS BI can provide a level of business visibility and insight to drive business forward. Dashboards allow users to manage the key metrics of the business, while ad hoc reporting allows them to explore business drivers and spot emerging trends. The flexibility of the solution allows business users to quickly adapt to changing requirements and changing lines of business inquiry.

The benefits of creating rapid sandboxes are in addition to the general benefits of SaaS BI – affordable and manageable subscription pricing, with no need to purchase additional hardware or software. Solution updates happen automatically, without intense IT involvement. Ready for IT and business users to get along? Bring on the BI sandbox.

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