If you Google “BI Search,” the way-back machine takes you to a raft of stories from 2006 when talk was rampant that the future of business intelligence might lie in a blinking cursor in a text pane. Before and since, vendors have been working to make data and information access more intuitive for casual users, a model you’d expect to grow as text mining and analytics mature.

With emphasis on existing reports and other unstructured information, Google also figured large for BI search in 2006 and quickly struck partnerships with most of the well-known BI vendors. I still read about this and expect we’ll see more, even if no one has yet approached me with a powerful use case.

What I’ve been looking for are better ways of making natural language queries against structured databases, (which would look something like Internet search), so I paid a bit of attention to SAP’s introduction of Business Objects Explorer at their SAPPHIRE conference last week (I was not in attendance). I missed my meeting with SAP, not unusual for the SAPPHIRE rat race, but better yet, talked to Katrina Coyle, Global Information Manager at Molson Coors who has been beta testing SAP Business Objects Explorer for just six weeks and already wants it pretty dearly.

Molson Coors is a longtime SAP customer, a good thing since Explorer revolves around an in-memory database in SAP Netweaver BW Accelerator appliance, optimized Intel processing and Adobe Flash presentation.

I let Katrina lead me to the good stuff. (Disclosure: Apart from my interview I have seen video demos but not actually laid hands on it). The accelerator brings in data that is indexed (as opposed to searching the entire database) and loaded into spaces containing a cube, part of a cube or multiple cubes for search. “One of our biggest spaces we created has 900 million records, which really are indexes, and it is unbelievably fast, three or five seconds through huge data sets and inside the data it’s milliseconds.”

Faster is better but the greater proposition is in the interface and presentation. Molson Coors introduced the test platform to relative novices in a five-minute Webex presentation and turned them loose in a sandbox environment. “We have a lot of movement within our organization, especially in sales. You know how it is when you move, there’s ramp up, you don’t know where that data is or where our overstock is,” says Coyle. “This is very different from asking which report you should look at: you type in a region, a time period over last, hit the button and boom, it comes back with a suggestion of what you want and 99.9 percent of the time the first thing it proposes is what you want.”

Drilldown and filtering clarify the information and the results are liberated in Flash through displays that (hopefully) make the best sense of the information. Coyle says the response times means Explorer is being used in meetings (where people are already looking at reports and dashboards) to answer the usual follow-up questions.
Forrester Research analyst Boris Evelson had a look at Explorer at SAPPHIRE and calls it a “powerful” example of natural language search. “A business analyst can explore a what-if scenario, and a very casual user who will never be comfortable with any kind of OLAP or even a dashboard or matrix-based display can quickly find things and put them into facts and dimensions.”

The Explorer product grew out of Business Objects’ Polestar search product, and SAP calls the new release (general availability is later this year) the greatest integration yet of SAP and Business Objects technology. But nobody actually owns it yet so I will be looking for a case study or profile of this or similar technologies as they come into use. Stay tuned and add your thoughts below.