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SQL Server BI for the SMB: Prepackaged BI tools vs. do-it-yourself

Since several companies have geared business intelligence tools toward midmarket companies recently, options for SMBs are growing. Should you buy a SQL Server BI tool out of the box, or create one in -house?

If you’re a small- to medium-sized business (SMB), the options for adding business intelligence (BI) to your environment are expanding rapidly. Years of investment and development by massive enterprises have made key SQL Server BI technologies more understood and less expensive, finally opening them up to a wider variety of businesses.

Numerous vendors offer “prepackaged” BI systems designed for smaller businesses: IBM’s Cognos Express products, SAP Business Objects’ Explorer, SAS products and more are getting into the mid-market BI space. There are more do-it-yourself (DIY) options too, such as Microsoft’s PowerPivot add-in for Excel -- which, while not a complete SQL Server BI system on its own, enables individual users within an organization to get specific BI capabilities without needing to implement an entire new system.

So, do you buy prepackaged or build something on your own?

BI systems have traditionally taken a long time to implement -- a two-year implementation wouldn’t raise any eyebrows with most BI veterans. Prepackaged systems will get you up and running much more quickly. They’re also often less expensive and don’t require specialized staff or consultants to get things started. Many prepackaged BI products offer subscription-based pricing, which helps eliminate the need for a costly up-front capital investment.

For more on SQL Server BI systems

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A DIY system, on the other hand, is designed specifically for your business. That’s both good and bad: It means you’ll get something that fits your organization like a glove, but it means you’ll need to spend a lot of time thinking about what your organization needs. Prepackaged systems may be less specific, but they also require less up-front planning. The market is expanding, with much SMB-specific software turning out to be niche-specific. You might, for example, acquire a solution designed specifically for sales and marketing analytics, social networking analysis or financial performance management. Targeting these systems to specific niches within the business helps deliver a bigger impact without all the up-front planning. Niche systems can, however, result in BI becoming a benefit only to certain portions of the business, meaning you won’t necessarily get the full power and impact that a broader BI system might deliver.

Will a prepackaged BI solution meet your needs forever? Maybe not. Many times, they serve as an entry point into BI, in much the same way that Quickbooks serves as an entry point to bookkeeping and accounting. Some businesses can run with that entry-level solution almost indefinitely. Others will get a taste for what the technology can do and want to move up to a bigger, broader, more companywide system. At some point, that may mean a custom-designed BI solution – which is fine. By starting with a prepackaged BI technology, you’re giving your company and your users a chance to benefit from BI. You have a much better chance of getting a return on that smaller investment, so if you do eventually outgrow the system or want something broader, you’ll have a better idea of what return you can expect – you’ll know how to gauge a reasonable investment in a bigger, broader BI system.

SMBs have the advantage of their size. They can be more nimble, reacting more quickly than large enterprises to market shifts and taking advantage of new opportunities more easily. Two years is often beyond the horizon for many SMBs, so telling an SMB business owner that some massive investment in BI will begin to pay off that far in the future is often an exercise in frustration. Prepackaged systems get you up and running more quickly, with the downside of being somewhat more generic, somewhat more niche-specific and less likely to offer broad, industry-specific coverage to every user in the company. As with all tradeoffs, you’ll need to look at the pros and cons and make the right call for your SMB.


Don Jones is a co-founder of Concentrated Technology LLC and the author of more than 30 books on IT and a speaker at technical conferences worldwide.

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