Defining a cloud BI strategy
Before adopting a cloud business intelligence solution, a company must delineate its approach to the cloud BI concept.
Business intelligence (BI) in the cloud is a hot topic within many companies. As with all new concepts, there is the inevitable level of confusion and uncertainty regarding how to proceed. To demystify the topic, I believe things need to go back to the basics.
For many companies wanting to understand BI and their cloud strategy, the first area of focus would be on actually defining a viable 'cloud business intelligence strategy'. Only once the strategy has been defined does it make sense to evaluate the product(s) and associated vendor(s) that can support this strategy - and from here, to define the critical success factors for successful cloud BI adoption.
Only when all of this is accomplished is the company ready to start planning the physical implementation. This is a lot to digest in one Industry Insight, so let me start with what to consider when defining a successful cloud BI strategy.
What makes cloud BI a complex and confusing topic? Well, to my mind, it is the long list of cloud BI solution scenarios available to clients. Picture this: a company decides to focus purely on the data; this means it could look at an operational data store or data warehouse, fully or partially, in the cloud. Alternatively, it could consider hosting the entire visualisation stack, or a partial subset thereof, in the cloud. For example, any combination of operational, management and strategic level reporting and self-service analysis can be hosted in the cloud. Additionally, many product vendors are now supplying cloud-based advanced analytics platforms - confusing, right?
To further compound the issue, certain vendors can also accommodate the entire set of solution scenarios in their cloud technology stack, while others only address a subset of these. Added to this is the fact that certain vendors focus exclusively on supplying infrastructure in the cloud, allowing any combination of software products to be installed.
As a result, deciding on which approach to take can be an overwhelming task and makes defining the strategy extremely challenging.
I believe navigating the myriad available options successfully comes back to the basics - which means gaining a clear understanding of the actual business case.
Reducing capital investment, by reducing onsite hardware costs, is typically the first business case considered for cloud BI.
This is closely followed by increasing the speed and decreasing the cost of scalability. Cloud BI environments are inherently scalable in terms of storage, software licensing, processing power, etc, and that scalability is on-demand. This means the business can scale up in peak times, during major marketing campaigns, for example, and then scale back down, when required, paying only for what was used.
Reducing maintenance costs, via reduced on-premises energy consumption, software maintenance and upgrades or standby and support are also valid IT-driven business cases. In evaluating this business case, however, companies need to be careful to consider the human impact this might have on making IT maintenance staff redundant. Care, consideration, and long-term skills transfer need to be examined to minimise redundancy needs, in line with this business case.
The positive impact that cloud BI can have on business continuity is growing rapidly in the South African context.
A business case that sometimes does not get enough exposure is improving the IT adoption rate of new features. Traditional IT departments are, at best, on latest version minus one. Many clients, however, are two, sometimes even three, versions behind. Being cloud-enabled ensures companies have access to the latest features, allowing them to respond to emerging trends and take advantage of new features far earlier than potential competitors, which are still using on-premises solutions.
Reducing resource costs and increasing productivity is a major factor to consider from the business point of view. Through improved collaboration, the business community can be more actively involved in creating and sharing content, freeing up traditional IT resources and improving the end-user experience, all while increasing information delivery times.
The positive impact that cloud BI can have on business continuity is growing rapidly in the South African context. Business continuity is improved as there is less dependence on local resources, so BI services can still be available during local infrastructure outages.
These days, it is sometimes difficult to tell where big data begins and cloud BI ends, given the two are so closely intertwined. Cloud BI enables big data integration, as it brings organisations far closer to online big data services. Many cloud BI products come with built-in interoperability, with various cloud-based big data services. This means large volumes of data can 'stay' in the cloud, without having to clog the local bandwidth and processing capability.
Having understood the business cases that are relevant to the company, it then becomes important to understand the use cases where cloud BI can be employed. These are typically focused on collaboration; for example, regionally and/or internationally distributed sales teams, groups of departmental power users, etc. Another area of collaboration, which is seldom considered, is sharing BI with third parties without having to expose the internal network.
The benefits of cloud BI can be virtually limitless, but so too are the options and permutations of a cloud BI implementation. It is therefore critical to have a clear idea of what is important to the business, now and in the medium term, as doing so is the critical first step in the cloud BI journey.
Julian Thomas is principal consultant at PBT Group, specialising in delivering solutions in data warehousing, business intelligence, master data management and data quality control. In addition, he assists clients in defining strategies for the implementation of business intelligence competency centres, and implementation roadmaps for a wide range of information management solutions. Thomas has spent most of his career as a consultant in South Africa, and has implemented information management solutions across the continent, using a wide range of technologies. His experience in the industry has convinced him of the importance of hybrid disciplines, in both solution delivery and development. In addition, he has learned the value of robust and flexible ETL frameworks, and has successfully built and implemented complementary frameworks across multiple technologies.