Is self-service business intelligence the answer?

While Microsoft’s PowerPivot technology promises to empower users to make decisions based on their own analyses, self-service business intelligence has a dark side as well.

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The term business intelligence has become a part of technology and business lexicon, but what does it really mean? Many people think that the term refers to data warehouses, and they would be correct. But there's so much more to BI.

Business intelligence is the combination of technologies and processes for gathering, storing, analyzing and accessing data that supports decision making within a company. It includes decisions about data warehouses; reporting; data mining; extract, transform, and load (ETL) processes; and forecasting. The data that's acquired can be invaluable in terms of what you can learn about your business and customers.

Because BI encompasses such a broad spectrum of technologies, it requires highly skilled technologists to manage it. So how does self-service BI fit into that puzzle?

Self-service BI: Power to the people

The goal of self-service BI is to empower end users so they can make decisions based on their own analyses, instead of forcing them to use only the data and reports available from a larger BI system. Self-service BI gives end users the tools they need to access and analyze data contained in a larger BI solution. That way, they can design and customize their own reports and create their own views of the data.

In fast-paced businesses, the ability to gather and analyze data quickly can be an advantage over your competition. Additionally, being able to see that a product or service would prove to be a losing venture in the coming months allows you to shut down a product line to save millions. It stands to reason that the more people you have looking at data, the faster you will be able to come to some useful conclusions.

In theory, self-service BI is great, but is it practical?

The concept of self-service BI has taken hold and many IT managers and business analysts are jumping at the theoretical benefits. Before you jump in, you need to understand what self-service BI can buy you and what you need to consider before implementing it.

The Dark Side of Self-service BI

The biggest benefit of self-service BI is that it empowers an individual end user to do his own analysis without needing the help of an IT staff member. Users won't be hindered by the IT department; the IT department won't have to spend a lot of time creating new reports or making changes to the existing BI system.

The IT department may not fully understand how the data should look when an end user requests it or what that user is trying to get out of the data, which can lead to frustrated users and unhappy IT employees. Self-service BI can, in theory, put all of the decisions into the hands of the users, so nothing is lost in translation.

In a perfect world, self-service BI would give users more control and make an IT pro's job easier. But there is no perfect world.

And self-service BI has a dark side.

Self-service BI does enable users to get at the data when they want it and in the form that they want it. But that also means that it empowers the users to tax the system in ways that the system may not be ready to handle.

For example, suppose that an organization has 20,000 employees and about 100 business analysts in different lines of business. Let's say that 100 people are creating their own reports and doing their own data analyses. What does that mean for the volume of access against your data store and the volume of reports in your environment?

Here's one scenario: Each analyst will have his own reports, which could cause a lot of duplication of effort. Giving analysts access to the data store could quickly overload the database. What if an analyst leaves the company? Will all his work be lost? How much effort would it take to transfer his work to another analyst?

When executives want to make an informed business decision, they want all of the data within their reach and they want it to be correct. If you distribute this data among hundreds of analysts, it's difficult to ensure that you have a complete picture. Possibly the biggest disadvantage of self-service BI is that it can be expensive and time consuming to organize and implement.

Build out a self-service BI platform

Several software companies offer self-service BI products. Business Objects' Crystal Reports claims some level of self-service BI, and Microsoft's project Gemini is built around the concept of self-service BI. But there are a few things to consider before implementing it in your organization.

First, you have to remember that self-service BI is not a complete BI solution. You still need to put in the time and effort to develop data warehouses, data marts, ETL processes, cubes, dimensions and of all the other moving parts in a true BI solution.

Self-service BI is really a combination of parts that get bolted onto an existing BI solution in order to make it more user-friendly. On the Business Application Research Center website, Nigel Pendse called Microsoft's Project Gemini a "Trojan horse for analysis services." Project Gemini is really an add-on to Excel that allows users to analyze and report on the data within Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services, Microsoft's BI platform.

When you set out to develop a platform, be sure that you have the resources necessary to build a very large and complex system. Lack of resources and capital are the two biggest killers of any BI project. If you already have a BI solution in place and you're simply looking to add self-service BI functionalities, you are one step ahead of the game.

When implementing self-service BI, use caution when providing access to your BI system. Most likely, the data in your warehouse is sensitive; and giving too many people carte blanche access can lead to excessive load. If your database becomes overloaded, it won't be of much use to anyone. Because data warehouses contain millions of rows with a great deal of analytics, one overly complex query can be a killer in terms of performance.

Bring the self-service BI concept to life

The self-service BI concept is still in its infancy, so it's difficult to predict how it will come to fruition in the enterprise. In theory, there are several benefits to implementing it—employee empowerment and less work for IT administrators, to name just two.

Used correctly, a self-service BI platform could be invaluable to an organization. However, if planned and implemented improperly, projects can quickly deteriorate, wasting valuable time and resources.

When it comes to self-service BI, tread lightly and do your homework. Sit down and figure out exactly what you want from it and how much you are willing to put into making a solution work. Once you have all your ducks in a row, you will find a usable solution well within your reach.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of our SQL Server Insider e-zine.

About the author:
Eric Johnson (MCSE, MCITP: Database Administrator, MCSD) is co-founder of Consortio Services and the primary Database Technologies Consultant. He has delivered numerous SQL Server training classes and webcasts as well as presentations at national technology conferences. He is president of the Colorado Springs SQL Server Users Group.

This was first published in April 2010

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