Information Builders moves into predictive analytics

NASHVILLE – Information Builders Inc. is entering the predictive analytics arena with a new version of WebFocus that uses the open source RStat technology, which one analyst says will provide a richer set of models.

WebFocus RStat is billed as “the first BI platform to enable data miners, statisticians, BI developers, and analysts to collaboratively build predictive applications for field and operational employees.”

Gerry Cohen, chief executive officer of New York-based IBI, said predictive analytics are a perfect fit with WebFocus, as the flagship product already collects, analyses, and transforms data, and works on every platform.

“It’s ideal because it’s not about what happened, or even what’s happening today, but about what will happen,” Cohen said.

Costs are kept down via the integration of RStat, an open source statistical library product used by universities around the world.

One of Information Builders’ mantras is “ease of use,” and that was present in the product announcement, which stressed a product that could be used by more than just the data nerds and power users. Cohen joked as Rado Kotorov took the stage to demo the product that “he’s not even a PhD!” The demo showed a simple interface that allowed the user to call on data and variables to pull up a visualization of predictive results via a user-friendly Web form.

There will be different types of models available (from decision trees to neural networks). It can also place the information into WebFocus. Cohen even joked about “a certain three-letter company.” And what does SAS have to say to all this? Bring it on, according to Gaurav Verma, business intelligence marketing manager for the company.

We think it’s all good,” Verma said. “They’re not the first one to do it, and it does a great job, validating our own strategy and making people pay more attention to predictive analytics.”

He said that this move is typical in the market right now. “Whenever you introduce feature functions, any one of the rest of us can follow within weeks! This year, we saw that classic business intelligence needs to be able to differentiate, and predictive analytics is a big driver in the market: people are done with the historical view,” said Verma.

Boris Evelson, principal analyst at Forrester Research, agreed that this was a good move for the company, even if the offering wasn’t unique, due to the all-in-one aspect that will allow the user to stop switching between their WebFocus and a separate predictive analytics tool. The use of the open-source Rstat, however, he said could mean a richer set of models to work with. He was surprised, though, by Cohen’s statement that the company plans to push out the product via more OEM partnerships. “I would’ve thought that they would have used this to compete more against Microsoft and SAS directly (especially since people wouldn’t have to switch between programs now),” he said.

Other demos included an electronic publishing tool courtesy of ActiveReports for the Adobe Flex format that would allow users to access active analytics and Flex dashboards within PDF documents.

The iWay Activity Monitor was also demoed, showing how it tracks in real-time business-to-business networks, and InfoAssist, a power-user tool featuring a user-friendly drag-and-drop, ribbon-style interface based partially on the Windows Office 2007 set-up for easy right-click options (like filtering results), browser-like tabs, and the ability to shift around columns easily. In a market increasingly dominated by behemoths, it’s Information Builders’ ease of use that does indeed still please its doggedly loyal customer base.

Steve Glasser, a project manager for business intelligence and data warehousing for the Des Plaines, Illinois-based parts distributor Lawson Products, was drawn to the user-friendliness. He said, “I’ve used them all, and none have the ease of use they do. They also work with you, versus the other guys-you have a very close relationship with them, and you know their developers and systems.”

There is still the matter of sticking out from the crowd, however, according to Forrester Research senior analyst Jim Kobielus. “In all the ongoing consolidation, where does that leave Information Builders?” he asked. “They’ve done no acquiring, nor have they been acquired. The challenge is to differentiate themselves.” Information Builders is lagging in diversification, according to Kobielus.

Oracle, SAP, IBM and SAS are very deep in the verticals, such as financials or HR or consumer packaged goods of healthcare. They have plenty of performance management offerings that build on and leverage their respective business intelligence stacks. Information Builders has a little performance management, but it’s not as deep.”

When it comes to partnering strategies, other companies are also venturing into hardware pairings that will benefit the mid-market. Vendors like SAP, Oracle, and IBM are packaging their business intelligence software with data warehousing pieces.

“(Is Information Builders) looking at providing a prepackaged data warehousing and ETL solution geared toward the mid-market?” Kobielus said. “If you pre-build the entire stack (blades enable quick deployment), then you get the companies that don’t necessarily have the IT people to do it themselves and are under time and budget pressures.”

During a keynote panel of business intelligence analysts, however, Evelson said businesses should step carefully when buying a software/hardware package, and should make sure that the hardware will really perform the way they want. “There’s a difference between a specific use-case appliance, and enterprise-grade data warehousing appliance,” he said.

Beyond those pitfalls, said analysts, the privately held, unacquired, somewhat smaller Information Builders could have an advantage. “Innovation remains important, and private companies can be better-positioned (to respond quickly to customer needs)…Folks don’t go to the big companies for innovation-they go for reliability. Consolidation is not a bad thing because it does free up innovation,” said Howard Dresner, who coined the term “business intelligence” and now runs his own consultancy, Dresner Advisory Services.

And, said Evelson, “(The consolidation) is a non-event until we start seeing those major vendors centralize on one platform, which could take a very long time. There’s still a need for heterogeneous vendors, the unexplored start-up vendors, that are not concentrating on integrating (their acquisitions).”

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