Ten years ago, who would have predicted that consumers would be the driving force in application development? The Web is making consumers a powerful agent of change. Consumer-facing applications put pressure on businesses that sell products and services on the Web because if a business doesn't provide the goods or services that consumers expect – in the way that they expect it - they will go elsewhere.

With the ability to customize products and orders, conduct research about products and even read pages of books before buying them, consumers have a lot of control when making purchasing decisions. If they are not satisfied, they can move from one business to another with the click of a mouse.

This amazing consumer power mandates that applications on the Web have dynamic contents, with rich visualization and extreme interactivity. These key capabilities can appropriately be referred to as rich Internet applications.

Once people become accustomed to consumer-facing RIAs in business-to-consumer interactions (B2C) , they expect the same everywhere. These expectations for RIAs apply to interactions between businesses (B2B) and between employers and employees (B2E).

Human resources are one of the biggest capital expenditures within an organization, and keeping employees content with their work experience is one of the biggest challenges there is. Providing them with a Web environment according to their expectations is one aspect of contentment. Retaining qualified employees translates into saving a substantial amount of money. Providing RIAs in the workplace is a crucial aspect of running a successful business. That is business intelligence.

In order to provide dynamic, interactive access with rich visualization and RIAs, B2C, B2B and B2E applications will require a robust back-end server. Initially, few users may access these applications, but that number will increase once people find out that  the applications help them make better decisions faster. Success usually breeds success.

As a result, the server architecture has to be able to scale, in a matter of seconds, to support comprehensive data access, securely and reliably, potentially for thousands of users at the same time. Scalability is increasingly an important feature for the architecture of BI products, because when BI applications really take off, you don’t want success to make you fail.

Consumers Drive BI Trends

While a high percentage of consumers today are using the Internet to buy goods, it is company developers who create the consumer-facing applications and the back-office applications. According to Forrester Research (see references), "To get the most from their workforces, firms should design employee-facing tools and look for opportunities to leverage RIA's specific capabilities to improve usability."

The most successful consumer-facing interfaces are now appearing behind company firewalls, in the form of employee-facing interfaces. And employees have the ability to make the capabilities of these user interfaces even richer and more sophisticated for BI systems. This trend of sophisticated, attractive interfaces will, in turn, result in even richer interfaces for suppliers, partners and everyone else communicating via the Internet with the organization.

Another set of applications that are positively affected by this trend are back-office applications, such as those that track product/service delivery, revenue generation, revenue collection, etc. Today, with organizations increasingly geographically dispersed, employees must be able to communicate effectively. The intranet development environment is becoming just as important as the extranet self-service applications that serve consumers.

The collaborative workforce is made up of consumers and employees who have joined virtual communities. In the near future, the majority of work performed by employees will be collaborative rather than independent. BI needs an architecture that enables these employees/developers and consumers to work together to rapidly develop relevant, usable data views.

In order to accomplish this, BI will have to support “open” technology architectures for collaborative approaches to software development. The software developers need robust information access, integration and delivery capabilities. And consumer technologies have to be integrated into the enterprise computing environments. As explained before, it is consumers who are driving BI trends.

Intranet-based BI and performance management applications help enterprises run more effectively and efficiently. Extranet-based self-service applications improve customer loyalty. In order to achieve both of these benefits, most of the applications have to be developed using extranet/intranet/Web as the main platform. Consumer-oriented software is already mostly Web-based. Now, enterprise software and the majority of BI applications must also be Web-based. That means most applications have to be running effectively inside and outside the firewall.

RIAs typically transfer the processing required for the user interface to the Web client, keeping the bulk of the data (i.e., maintaining the “state of the program,” etc.) back on the application server. According to Forrester Research, RIAs are well-suited for financial services interactions that are complex, rely on graphics and models, and require data from multiple sources. Patterns that already exist in the data have to be presented visually by the Web-based extranet/intranet applications.

Data Virtualization and Consumerization of IT

Can BI technology handle the mass quantities of disparate data stored by businesses? BI needs to recognize the data and make it easily accessible to consumers, who have, in turn, become office workers. Virtualization refers to accessing disparate data stored in different places and formats. The software should have the appropriate architecture to access disparate data without knowing the actual location or type of data. This is a feature of cloud computing. (Please see my column “Who in the World Doesn’t Want to Reach for the Clouds?”)  

The "consumerization" of IT refers to the impact that technologies, products and approaches designed for consumer use have on developers, technology providers and enterprises. Supporting virtualization, commoditization and consumerization of these IT resources requires the capability of distributing these resources.

 

Virtualization, Commoditization and Consumerization

One way for BI to enable user self-sufficiency is by providing interactive content through a service-oriented architecture. SOA provides the IT infrastructure with different applications to exchange data and participate in business processes. SOA separates functions into distinct units (services), which can be distributed over a network and can be combined and reused to create business applications. These services communicate with each other by passing data from one service to another or by coordinating an activity between two or more services. SOA concepts are built upon older concepts of distributed computing and modular programming. This is called virtualization of IT resources and is cloud computing in a nutshell.

With the virtualization of IT resources, customers, employees and suppliers don't need to know the location of the data as long as they have quick access to it, preferably via the Internet. Data is becoming a commodity because of the tools that are used to access it. It is affordable for people to buy computers, quality laptops are cheap, and storage in gigabytes is inexpensive. Additionally, Internet access providers are vying for customers by supplying less expensive high-speed bandwidth for pennies. People receive approximately the same quality of hardware and Internet access no matter which vendor they select. That is commoditization: delivering solutions to thousands of consumers.

With the use of SOA, BI can support dashboards, spreadsheets, predictive analytics and any other features that will enable people to make better, faster decisions. But thus far with B2E applications, BI only caters to a group of limited users, known as power users. BI has to look beyond the power users - it needs to be scalable to address the needs of the thousands of other users within organizations. Scalability is also a necessity for technology users and consumers with B2C applications.

BI Delivery Model, Scalability and Performance Management

BI was never meant for the front end only. BI was intended to bring data, which is on back-end servers, in palatable form to the front end. The BI delivery model provides content that will communicate to its constituents – consumers, employees, partners and suppliers. These people, who were once considered separate groups with different needs, are now considered as one conglomerate with similar information requirements.

Depending on the size and complexity of the Web application, the computer environment may handle anywhere from hundreds to thousands of concurrent users. The number of concurrent connections to the Web servers will ultimately have a direct impact on the website's performance. In order to maintain a high performance level, scalability objectives must address the following questions:

  1. What is the response time of a single user's transaction?
  2. What will the response time be when the number of concurrent users of the Web servers increases?

Other than scalability, BI must support both consumer-facing online channels and back-office operational performance management applications. In order to support high-performance RIAs, it is necessary to build applications to incorporate rich, robust production reporting, interactive reporting and ad hoc information access functionality.
The consumers and the business processes of organizations are driving the future of BI environments. Running queries and reports has become a commodity. In order to accomplish all of this, we have to look at content management. Only companies with BI capabilities to develop B2C, B2B and B2E RIAs can be successful in the BI environment of today and of tomorrow.

Content Management

Today, businesses are using portals and content management for collabo¬ration. Enterprise portals offer an easy, informal way to centralize and share information. They help users make better business decisions, regardless of where the data they need to make those decisions resides. This requires comprehensive search capabilities and the ability to manage large volumes of information across a great number of data stores. The content has to be looked at from creation, through delivery and reuse.

Content manage¬ment tools add consistency to man¬agement practices. A BI strategy must include a content or information architecture that addresses the need to store content for easy access — through multiple channels and departments. Figure 1 illustrates content management capabilities.

Consumers are driving many changes for application development overall, and this extends to BI. Increasingly, organizations will need to become familiar with a new set of capabilities in order to create the rich, visual and interactive Web-based BI applications that users will increasingly demand and that will result in better data-driven decision-making. In order to accomplish this, every environment wants to be big, strong and fast.

References
Ron Rogowski, "Rich Internet Applications: Not Just for Customers," Forrester Research, March 1, 2007.
Ron Rogowski, Bruce D. Temkin, Steven Geller, "Financial Institutions Need Rich Internet Apps: Rich Internet Applications Better Enable Complex Financial Interactions," Forrester Research, September 26, 2007.

 

This is the latest installment of a series of articles by Shaku Atre. To read the other articles, click on the titles that follow: "Who in the World Uses Only Words and Numbers in Reports?"; "Who in the World Wants to Stay Locked Up?"; "Who in the World Doesn't Want to Reach for the Clouds?"; "Who in the World Wouldn’t Want a Collaborative BI Architecture?"; "Who in the World Wants More Data?"; "Who in the World Needs a Data Warehouse?"; "Who in the World Wouldn't Want to Evaluate BI Products?"; "Who in the World Needs a Hard Drive?"; and "Who in the World Wants to Just Be Structured?"

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