Cognos 10 Breaks Down Barriers To Business Intelligence and Analytics
November 28, 2010

On October 25, IBM introduced Cognos 10 at its Information on Demand and Business Analytics Forum in Las Vegas that I attended to review the technology closer from my examination at its recent IBM Business Analytics analyst summit in September. According to Rob Ashe, IBM’s general manager of business analytics, Cognos 10 has been developed for over six years. You’re probably aware that in that period IBM made a variety of acquisitions including Cognos itself. These acquisitions and their impact on the new product are clearly in evidence as part of the release.

Overall, Cognos 10 provides a unified user interface that integrates a broader set of analytics and technology as a result of the acquisitions of SPSS, Applix TM1 and Celequest. More than half the respondents (57%) in our recent benchmark research indicated that providing access through a variety of tools was an important goal. Cognos 10 also introduces a common workspace for all the different analytics that are now supported. Company officials described the changes as moving from role-centric capabilities to a unified workspace with “progressively more interaction” based on the user’s knowledge, interests and job function. In practice it’s a transformation from product-based capabilities to the common workspace because each type of analysis and capability was, in the past, based on a separate product: reporting, ad hoc query, planning, statistics, real-time monitoring and others.

Progressive interaction is a powerful technique that can greatly enhance the range of users and use cases that a single product can support. I attribute the popularity of spreadsheets, in part, to this design concept. Novice users can read a worksheet with almost no prior familiarity. With a small amount of training, users can create spreadsheet formulas. More advanced users can create nearly pixel-perfect reports with embedded graphics. And high-powered “spreadsheet jockeys” can use macros and scripting languages to create something close to an entire application with user input, data validation and integration with other elements of an IT infrastructure. Cognos 10 attempts to create a similarly broad and seamless range of capabilities, and for the most part it succeeds.

Why did IBM skip version 9 and go directly from Cognos 8.4 to Cognos 10? In part it was because this would be a big release, but as well because IBM had acquired products that were already on a 9.x version such as TM1. I agree with that thinking but not with the decision to number this release 10.1. It’s a gimmick to make you think it is not dot-zero release and thus won’t suffer from the quality issues common in dot-zero releases. That said, I have no reason to question the quality of the release. In fact, there are specific life-cycle management features designed to support the upgrade process, including testing of new and old reports side-by-side, but I’d rather see the emphasis on touting these features and the quality of the release than using a version-number gimmick.

And Cognos 10 has plenty of new features to talk about. Search, like other capabilities, has been brought into the common workspace and is now simply another available feature rather than a separate product. It is well integrated with the entire stack including single search capabilities across data, metadata (including data lineage), analyses and collaboration about the decision-making process. However, search is still focused primarily on structured data and related documents.

Mathematical models, statistics and predictive analytics are readily available in the new version. The mathematical models common to financial performance management applications are key to enabling users to project the operations of their organization into the future. Business intelligence need not be just about analyzing history. Our benchmark research indicates 84% rank planning and forecasting as very important or important characteristics to add to BI and fulfills on a common platform for also supporting what our firm calls and has researched with integrated business planning. Statistics and predictive models are also useful for predicting the outcomes of future activities and individual transactions rather than the future of the overall organization.
This release also includes self-contained interactive content in what Cognos calls “active reports.” If, for example, you are on a plane or at a customer site where you can’t be connected, active reports allow you to continue to investigate a portion of the data that has been associated with the report. And since Cognos 10 has write-back and what-if capabilities, the changes will be synchronized when you reconnect.

The mobile part of Cognos 10 is not ready for release yet. Presenters gave early demonstrations of it, but these capabilities will have to be fully assessed and compared to other offerings later. Mobile BI, as my colleague has assessed, is changing as business demands it and IT starts to embrace mobility beyond a single corporate standard.

One of the areas where Cognos is breaking down barriers outside of the traditional BI stack is in the area of collaboration. As an industry, vendors have not invested enough in bringing BI to users – they typically ask the users to come to BI. (See my thoughts on this issue <http://www.ventanaresearch.com/blog/commentblog.aspx?id=3983> for more.) Cognos 10 recognizes that BI is part of a decision-making process and includes collaborative capabilities to support that process. Lotus Connections is the backbone for Cognos 10 collaboration and is included as part of the product. Using it, decisions can be noted and followed through to completion. Links to e-mail provide alerts to participants in the process. They can view the backgrounds of others on the decision-making team. And in a world of increasing compliance requirements, the decision-making process can be reviewed after the fact if necessary. These are steps in the right direction, and I’d like to see it go even further with tight integration to non-IBM collaboration environments and productivity tools.

As with most major releases, this one includes performance enhancements. They shorten the time for both cube-building and querying. Cognos 10 introduces a feature called Dynamic Query which leverages a caching scheme and query-routing techniques to speed the queries by directing the queries to the cache (if available) or to an OLAP cube or relational source as appropriate. Dynamic query applies to non-Cognos cubes as well as Cognos cubes.

Life-cycle management is a favorite feature of anyone who has ever managed a large BI upgrade. Cognos 10 has multiversion capabilities that allow organizations to run a mixed environment of old and new reports, so you can transition gradually to the new version. In addition, you can compare the output of old and new reports to highlight differences directly within Lifecycle Manager. This feature should save IT organizations significant amounts of resources during the testing process.

At the launch event, Cognos had customers from Boeing onstage talking about their upgrade process. Their company runs 13 different applications based on Cognos for 3,500 users. The presenters said they were able to complete the upgrade in six days. They installed it in their development environment on a Monday, in their test environment on Tuesday, tested it from Wednesday to Friday and made a go or no-go decision on Friday afternoon. On Saturday they installed it in production, and when users came to work on Monday they were all on the new system. While every environment will be different, that speed of implementation seemed pretty impressive to me.

However, there’s still more work to be done to incorporate an even broader range of business users and more types of analyses. Specifically, I’d like to see some of the Cognos 10 features integrated more with a range of non-IBM products including collaboration tools and metadata. As well I’d like to see advanced analytics, still primarily the domain of power users, made more widely usable. Cognos has made strides in delivering advanced analyses to a range of users, but developing advanced analytics still requires specialized skills. I’d also like to see better incorporation of unstructured data analysis. The SPSS text analytics capabilities could be surfaced more and search could be expanded to deal better with the combination of structured and unstructured as well as internal and external data.

Overall, Cognos 10 is a dramatically improved release and in my opinion currently sets the standard for end-to-end integrated business intelligence products and then supporting analytics, planning and performance management. I expect it also creates an easier platform for incremental developments on the part of the IBM Cognos development team going forward, since it has tackled many of the hardest integration challenges already. IBM has clearly communicated its intention to make more acquisitions, with another $14 billion earmarked for that across the company, so we can expect the new platform to be expanded even further in the future.

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Regards,

Ventana Research


 

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