Enterprise vs. SMB business intelligence: a look at the differences

Business intelligence can differ greatly among big enterprises and small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Here’s an analysis of enterprise and SMB BI systems.

Initially, business intelligence (BI) systems were targeted primarily at large enterprises with tons of data. But BI technology based on SQL Server improved and became more accessible to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), which started using BI systems to answer many of the same business questions their enterprise cousins asked. After all, business is business: Whether you work at a sprawling multinational or a 2,000-person company, you still operate many aspects of your business in a pretty similar fashion.

So why is it that some BI systems are specifically targeted at smaller businesses? Why wouldn’t any old BI system be suitable for any kind of business? What, specifically, are the differences between an “enterprise BI system” and an “SMB BI system?”

The underlying technologies of these systems are identical. They’re all built around a database (specifically, a data warehouse) of some kind; they usually incorporate some kind of in-memory analysis engine; and they offer reports, scorecards, dashboards, drill-downs and other user interface elements. There are two main differences between the “big” systems and their smaller cousins: scale and design.

Enterprise systems, as you might expect, need to support much larger data repositories, since bigger companies produce a lot more data. Scale can make an enormous difference in the price of a BI system. Because the data warehouse has to be specifically designed to handle the quantity of data, the supporting hardware often needs to be bigger, and in many cases, the BI system consists of numerous discrete parts, like a database server, a Web server and an analysis server.

BI systems designed for SMBs are usually all-in-one packages -- they include all of the needed components in a single installation. SMB-targeted BI systems can often run on one or two servers, rather than needing a bunch of machines. Smaller BI systems can still handle copious amounts of data, but they don’t need to handle the incredibly large amount of data that you’d expect from a much larger business.

Enterprise systems are also almost always custom-designed, meaning the enterprise either has to have on-staff BI expertise or hire consultants to do the work. The custom design is required because enterprises typically have numerous in-house systems that need to be integrated into the BI system. While consultants often start with a common basic foundation, the customization is what tends to set these larger systems apart.

SMBs, on the other hand, tend to rely a bit more heavily on BI systems that aren’t custom designed. In fact, some BI systems are actively marketed as “appliances,” implying a plug-and-play functionality that gets a smaller business up and running more quickly. Just as smaller businesses can often use off-the-shelf software for customer relationship management, bookkeeping and other functions, they can also take advantage of predesigned BI systems. That means the SMB often doesn’t need on-staff BI expertise, and it may not need to hire expensive consultants to get a BI system up and running.

In some ways, SMBs actually have an easier time of implementing a BI system than giant enterprises. Enterprises might expect to spend months getting a BI system designed and implemented; with the right prepackaged BI system or appliance, SMBs can often be up and running in a week or so.


Don Jones is a senior partner and principal technologist at strategic consulting firm Concentrated Technology. Contact him via www.ConcentratedTech.com.

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