Challenging market conditions, competitive pressures and new technologies are leading many companies to re-evaluate the way they purchase, deploy, manage and use business applications. Software buyers want applications that will leverage their existing investments. Customers demand solutions that provide quantifiable performance improvement. These forces are driving the software industry to deliver breakthrough technology, with many of these breakthroughs at the foundation layer. Service-oriented architectures (SOAs), specifically, are at the cusp of change.

Business intelligence (BI) is one software market where these changes are most rapidly adopted. The next generation of BI applications will meet the demands of a broad and diverse user group around the globe through a single architecture that leverages existing infrastructures. Further, it will bridge the gaps between relational and multidimensional sources and will use standard protocols to connect platforms, servers, information and people.

SOA Helps Make BI More User Friendly

Most available BI applications do not provide the capabilities that users now demand. Some of the limitations in many BI products include rigidity, lack of scalability and an inefficient use of resources. Developing a BI product on a modern Web services architecture can alleviate many of these problems.

Rigidity is an inability to keep pace with the changes needed for effective BI. Organizations can become locked into technology, applications and platforms that may no longer be the best choice for them. This rigidity causes an inability to implement changes in business process, roles, security and data structures in a cost-effective way. However, using an SOA, companies can create an architecture that is technology and platform agnostic, enabling IT to efficiently and cost-effectively implement change.

Scalability is the ability to increase an application's capacity or capabilities to serve a larger and more diverse user population without degrading quality of service or spending more money. Some BI solutions, including those with SOA hub architectures, create an inability to scale up or out in a linear fashion to take advantage of additional processing power (horizontal and vertical scaling) or expand existing infrastructure and skills to meet new demand. In addition, it can create an inability to sense and respond to a need for increased capacity or opportunities to share resources.

With the maturation of application server technologies and Internet standards, next-generation BI applications are Web-centric and highly distributed with no single points of failure or bottlenecks to scalability. They will harness the power of the middle tier to deliver an unprecedented quality of service at reduced cost.

Efficiency is required to meet the needs of users with different skills, preferences, source applications, language and currencies. Sometimes overlapping toolsets abound, proliferating shadow spending and higher IT maintenance costs. This can cause inconsistent reporting across the enterprise and a redundant infrastructure.

Companies can deploy Web-based applications with minimal cost and overhead. Separating the presentation layer from the application-processing layer and using Web services descriptive language (WSDL) lets them create highly tailored interfaces. Fully leveraging existing infrastructure reduces redundancies. It also allows organizations to consolidate their IT skill base, as organizations no longer need programmers to cover numerous development environments and languages. This results in IT workforce economies of scale and lessens the chances of IT personnel scheduling bottlenecks.

Challenges of Client/Server Architectures

The design of client/server architectures presents three principal barriers to scaling technically and functionally. First, their proprietary languages and interfaces prevent them from interoperating through standard protocols. Second, they ship with proprietary infrastructures that create redundancies. Third, the presentation layer is married to application processes because the client was designed to handle the processing. Challenges of client/server architectures include:

  • Solutions designed for two-tier architecture provide tight coupling between the presentation layer and application processing.
  • Separate executables for separate platforms (UNIX, NT, Java, .NET) are required.
  • Complete infrastructure stacks are designed so leveraging new technologies requires replication or intermediation.
  • Data access is tightly coupled to the rendering.
  • Immature security standards and inability to segment levels of physical security between tiers exists.

Opportunities Presented by Next-Generation BI Solutions

  • Internet standards including secure HTTP, browsers and WSDL enable applications to render interactivity in the browser without incurring high frequency of communication.
  • WSDL implementation enables separation of presentation from application for increased flexibility and agility.
  • Maturation of Web services and concepts of SOA enable services that can communicate efficiently - irrespective of machine or operating system boundaries - enabling applications to be platform neutral and technology agnostic.
  • With SOA, services communicate between servers to operate as a single instance without machine boundaries, allowing companies to deploy applications that are geographically dispersed and providing services with high levels of scalability and reliability.
  • Security standards and protocols have emerged to enable applications to be safely and securely deployed beyond the firewall.
  • More control exists over network traffic loads from Web solutions.
  • More manageable security risk exists around Web-based communications.

The pressure to overcome the barriers increases as competitive pressures weigh in and the costs of inertia mount. Companies need to effectively leverage information assets to inform strategy, ensure compliance and improve operational effectiveness. They can achieve this using a BI solution that is broadly deployed, modified and cost-effectively managed. The following sections describe how the next generation of BI will enable companies to overcome these barriers to reduce costs and improve performance.

A Breakthrough in Architecture

The most notable advance in BI architecture is the Web, which has driven several standards that are now part of mainstream network environments. Many companies have implemented these standards - TCP/IP, HTTP, simple object access protocol (SOAP), WSDL, XML and lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP) - because they are available and reliable.

Let's look at why a Web services architecture is useful when working with a reporting solution. There are three guiding principals that reporting solutions should aim to fulfill:

  • Simplify: Avoid redundancy of resources and effort.
  • Adapt: Maximize flexibility through componentization and support for Internet standards.
  • Scale: Continually optimize performance and functionality.

The architecture of a reporting solution should consist of highly optimized services that work together to fulfill user requests. These services communicate with each other over a common network using SOAP and XML and can be deployed on any combination of platforms.
Using Web services to leverage a variety of technologies provides optimal performance and maximizes a customer's investments in critical infrastructure such as operating systems, applications servers, relational database management system (RDBMS), security and metadata. The end result is an open, extensible platform for building and delivering BI in a dynamic and distributed environment.

A reporting solution built on an SOA communicates with each service through its messaging architecture, commonly referred to as the "BI bus." This is extended via WSDL, allowing customers to develop custom applications through a consumable, programmable interface in any development language.

Services communicate as peers via SOAP and XML. Many SOA implementations do not use peer-to-peer communications but instead message through one or more centralized hubs. These architectures do not scale linearly and are subject to more points of failure. SOAP facilitates communication across these platforms using XML and WSDL to communicate with the various BI services. The advantages of using SOAP and XML include:

  • Platform independence and programming language neutrality;
  • Optimization for existing Internet protocols built on TCP/IP;
  • Leverage of open standards and thus improvement upon them by a community including Microsoft and IBM.
  • Less communication breakdown because lots of context is provided in every communication. Services don't have to try and remember where they are with each party they are talking to, as this information is part of the WSDL method of communicating.

Finally, a reporting solution built on SOA can also provide a data layer that enables optimized access to one or more RDBMS (either natively or through open database connectivity, SAP BW and XML) and intelligent reuse of data and queries.

Industry Needs

Regardless of their size or industry, companies often find that their BI users need different capabilities and have a variety of skills that change over time. Until now, supporting such a diverse group has generally meant deploying a different tool (or group of tools) for each specific need, language, skill level, functionality and security level. However, with an SOA, organizations can get the high level of reporting capability they require while keeping the simplicity necessary for a wide range of users.

Adapting to Unique Application Requirements

User requirements and business requirements can differ by application, industry and company standard. A reporting solution can expose all of its functionality through a single advanced programming interface (API) that is service based, fully documented and extended through WSDL. This provides a number of significant benefits when integrating reporting solutions into existing applications. These include:

  • Presentation: Organizations can leverage their current skills in the development environment of their choice through a reporting solution's API. By exposing everything through a WSDL, any language can be used for extending and customizing the solution.
  • Integration: Reporting tools provide Java Archive (JAR) files for Java and seamlessly integrate with Microsoft's .NET environment and older COM environment. Any integrated development environment can call a reporting tool's services simply by pointing to the URL which supplies all the relevant information required to access the APIs. Fewer parameters are required and there is minimal query/response between the reporting tool and the application.    

Delivering Breakthrough Performance, Scalability and Reliability

When a user invokes a query, the request is processed at the application tier. At the heart of a reporting tool are services such as querying, presentation and job scheduling. Services are all autonomous and location-independent. This means they can reside on different servers and even on different platforms. If one component fails, the others continue processing. This gives enterprises a great deal of flexibility in deploying a reporting solution and maximum leverage from existing servers.

The services are all platform agnostic. They will run on any application server as well as Windows or UNIX. Again, this provides companies with a great deal of flexibility; it leverages existing talent and infrastructure, and can ultimately provide both significant performance and cost benefit.

All of the services are multithreaded. This means that as companies add processing power, the services can generate additional threads as required. The query and rendering engines are also multi-instance. For example, as companies add servers, these servers can replicate themselves to provide additional capacity. A reporting tool can scale both horizontally and vertically to ensure reliability.

Finally, the services are also self-spawning. Each of the core services has a queuing mechanism, and the service will spawn a new instance when the load reaches capacity.

A reporting solution will provide significant performance benefits to companies building reports with very large data sets through its ability to bring results back with a single query and to personalize and distribute reports at the application-server tier.

A reporting solution built on an SOA shatters the notions that led to proprietary, rigid, stifled BI deployments. It provides a single platform that will dynamically deliver information around the globe through unique user interfaces in many languages - to any device or application from relational or multidimensional data sources.

In addition, a solution that is properly implemented with an SOA should demonstrate many aspects of consistency across all BI capabilities, including the way things are printed, scheduled, saved and retrieved as well as the way alerts behave and even the way users move between capabilities. These consistencies are difficult to achieve with traditional BI.

A platform supported by a Web services-based SOA that scales up, out and through standard interfaces leverages world class technologies for security and application management. For the first time, enterprises can now cost-effectively deliver timely, complete and accurate information to anyone who needs it. 

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