Oracle Business Intelligence – news and strategy (from ODTUG 2006)

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Business Intelligence, Data Warehousing, ETL, OLAP, Data Mining, Management Information, Dashboards etc. were among the most frequently heard terms at this conference. Much more so than on previous occasions was BI a hot topic. A larger number of presentations, more attention and a prime position in both general sessions. BI is happening you would think. Also a fine number of expert speakers – like Mark Rittman, Dan Vlamis, Kent Graziano and Michael Armstrong-Smith, as well as the guys from Oracle. And a lot of news on Oracle and BI.

The very brief summary:

  • Oracle Warehouse Builder 10gR2 is out. The Core ETL features are covered by the Oracle RDBMS license, so now it is ETL for the millions. Additional functionality can be acquired as additional options onto the Enterprise Edition license for the database: Enterprise ETL, Data Quality and ERP Connectors. With CoreETL as part of the database, Oracle has a competitive offering against Microsoft SQL Server with its ETL features. Informatica, one of the major vendors in the ETL space with its PowerCenter product, will feel somewhat threatened by these two as well as IBM’s move with its acquistion of Ascential software
  • Oracle introduces the BI Suite with three levels of license: Standard Edition One, Standard Edition and Enterprise Edition, with Standard Edition being more or less the traditional Oracle set of BI technology, including Discoverer Plus, Discoverer OLAP, the OLAP Spreadsheet Add In, Oracle Reports and BI Beans. The two other editions have virtually no overlap with the SE and are primarily composed with BI Technology acquired from Siebel (or with Siebel). The Enterprise Edition of the BI Suite sells at $225k per CPU!
  • BI Beans will go through a serious overhaul, mainly to leverage the look&feel from webcomponents acquired from Siebel. The thick BI Beans (Rich Stand-alone Client) will disappear; the thin (HTML and web-based) beans will live on
  • Oracle Discoverer will continue to be improved upon; however: major, architecture impacting functionality changes are not be expected; it feels as if Discoverer enters more or less the same zone that Oracle Forms is in: it will live on to a ripe old age, is very reliable, as a sizable marketshare in the Oracle world (not so much in the broader market) and will be supported for software-eternity. But it is not where the action will be!
  • the Oracle Reports product seems to be fading into the background
  • XML Publishing will go through a name change to become BI Publisher. It will be part of the BI Suite Enterprise Edition, as well as be available as stand-alone product.

See the BI pages on OTN for more details; start at: http://www.oracle.com/technology/products/bi/index.html

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Some of the trends I came across during this ODTUG conference include "virtual data warehouses" where consolidation from various data sources is performed on the fly – real time ETL from operational data stores into multi dimensional memory stores, the concept of a Data Vault, and the further emergence of ‘disconnected analysis’ where users can do their OLAP in an off-line fashion.

Oracle BI Strategy

A fascinating topic this year: Oracle’s BI Strategy. For many years – probably since the launch of the Oracle 9iR2 database with embedded OLAP (multi dimensional workspaces) and DataMining engine as well as a rich set of ETL and BI supporting enhancements in the SQL engine – the theme for Oracle in BI has been: do as much in the database as possible. And a lot can be done in the database, especially the hard work, leaving little more than the presentation and handling of user interaction to the client tools, like Discoverer OLAP and BI Beans. With the release of the Discoverer Drake release last year and OWB 10gR2 this year as well as a set of new features for BI applications in the 10gR2 release of the RDBMS, the technology stack seemed pretty much in place. And then… there was Siebel.

Siebel has something Oracle never really achieved: a notable presence in the BI arena at enterprise level. The Siebel Analytics product with pre-built ETL processes and Multidimensional Cubes for standard ERP  and CRM applications like SAP, Oracle Applications, Siebel and JDEdwards has a real presence in the board rooms when it comes to BI, whereas Oracle’s products on the whole seem to be more technology driven and slightly less business focused. With the exceptions of OFA, OSA and EPB &B (Enterprise Planning and Budgeting).

In Sunday’s general session, we were given an overview of the BI strategy. Frankly, it was not clear at all. And in hindsight, it was a strange combination of the Siebel approach: business oriented, database independent and the ‘traditional’  Oracle approach with strong emphasis on the database and web-enabled technology. This presentation started with Siebel Analytics – now Oracle BI Server – in the board room and concluded with Mark Rittman’s demonstration of the Data Quality option in Oracle Warehouse Builder. Covering an enormous territory and never quite bridging the gap.

On Monday I sat in on the BI Strategy session by Christina Kolotouros, who seemed not at ease with the story she was telling. Apparently, a lot of changes are being made in this period and the dust has not yet fully settled. Christina’s introduced the BI Suite Editions- Standard Edition One, Standard Edition and Enterprise Edition, with a clear split between traditional Oracle BI technology and the Siebel based stacks – and tried to demonstrate a unified approach to Business Intelligence. Oracle BI Server – pka Siebel Analytics Server – is a middle tier product, written in C++, that can be approached through ODBC. It knows how to extract data from various heterogeneous data services and sources, of which the Oracle database is but one. And historically, as I am being told, not even the primary one since Siebel had better and earlier support for specific features in SQL Server and DB2. Yet Christin’a story was that the BI Server ‘uniquely leverages the Oracle database’. It probably will eventually, but whether is actually does that today is somewhat hard to believe. She did not elaborate on this unique support, so it remains very uncertain whether the BI Server at this point leverages the OLAP engine or the Data Mining functionality of the Oracle RDBMS. And whether it has specific understanding of Analytical SQL Functions, Materialized Views, In-Line queries and the likes. It may and if not it will. The presentation did not make it clear, which may be an indication in its own right.

Christina presented the release-plans for the BI Suite, with a 10.1.2.2 release followed by 11g for the Standard Edition – remember that’s Discoverer and associated technology – without giving specific dates. She made it clear that while Discoverer will be further enhanced, no major new functionality – especially if it would impact the tool’s architecture. Again, this sounds a lot like the predicament of Oracle Forms.

There will be new 11g releases for Discoverer and Reports – certified against the 11g Database. "There will be no forced migration"  said Christina. However, that remark by itself hinted at an eventual migration all the same… She also mentioned that over 20.000 customers are using Discoverer – a force to be reckoned with.

Christina announced some new interesting functionality for the 10.1.2.2 release of the BI Suite SE with regard to the Oracle OLAP Spreadsheet Addin (the plugin for Excel that allows on line analysis leveraging the OLAP capapilities in the Oracle database. Apart from support for the pending new release of Microsoft Office, the addin will have a fully integrated Excel taskbar, a floating editor (that allows ed
iting while the data is view
ed), a direct connection with the Discoverer Catalog, new Graphic Styles – inspired by Oracle BAM (Business Activity Monitorin) and write-back-to-the-database. The latter means that changes in the Spreadsheet can be saved to the database and shared between multiple users.

The Enterprise Edition – the former Siebel technology – will shortly see a 10.1.3.2 release (internally indicated as the Maui release). This release contains the functionality the Siebel Analytics team was working on when the acqusition by Oracle took place. New functionality to be expected in Maui includes Linux support (for running the Siebel eh…Oracle BI Server), integration with OID and SSO and support for JSR-168 (Portlet API). The subsequent release – Negrit or 11g – is already on the charts, but Christina gave neither date nor functionality, except brief remarks on Geographic analysis – leveraging Oracle Spatial – and Chart interactivity. The Enterprise Edition is priced at $225k per CPU or $1500 per user. The Client/Server option is only available as a per user license. Note that the EE is not the SE with some extras; the EE does not contain the traditional Oracle BI Tools! Neither is the Standard Edition a superset of the Standard Edition One, as the SE does not contain any of the component of the SE One license.

Wrap Up

There is a lot going on in the Oracle BI arena. The recent acquisition of Siebel has opened up a lot of opportunity for Oracle to become a major player with BI in the boardrooms of the largest enterprises, like some of Siebel’s current customers Microsoft, IBM, Cisco Systems. New, successful, business oriented tools will be combined with advanced technology driven components from Oracle’s own stable. Eventually, this will most likely lead to better products, in terms of business focus and fit for purpose as well as integration, performance and scalability. In the short term, there will be two worlds of EE and SE that hopefully will gradually merge together.

For more details, some photographs and in depth analysis on Oracle BI and ODTUG 2006 in general, please also visit the weblog by Mark Rittman at www.rittman.net . Mark is one of the most knowledgeable experts in the area of Oracle BI technology and it is quite valuable to keep close track of what he is saying on what Oracle is doing. 

More on Siebel’s BI technology and the absorption within Oracle in Abinhav Agarwal’s blog on http://oraclebi.blogspot.com/2006/02/more-on-oracle-bi-and-siebel-analytics.html

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About Author

Lucas Jellema, active in IT (and with Oracle) since 1994. Oracle ACE Director for Fusion Middleware. Consultant, trainer and instructor on diverse areas including Oracle Database (SQL & PLSQL), Service Oriented Architecture, BPM, ADF, Java in various shapes and forms and many other things. Author of the Oracle Press book: Oracle SOA Suite 11g Handbook. Frequent presenter on conferences such as JavaOne, Oracle OpenWorld, ODTUG Kaleidoscope, Devoxx and OBUG. Presenter for Oracle University Celebrity specials.

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