BI in the cloud is starting to come of age

Although the cloud as a concept has been around since the 60s it is only the last five years or so that it has come to prominence. Organisations across the world are learning to trust the cloud and are starting to host all kinds of business-critical services and information in it.

Yet until fairly recently business intelligence (BI) was lagging behind other cloud services. Millions of enterprises are using the data generated by their business to make intelligent and informed decisions about that business but it was mostly done using traditional on-premise BI. The big BI vendors had paid only lip service to offering their services in the cloud and customers seemed happy to maintain the status quo. This is changing, but what will it take for BI in the cloud to truly take off?

Catching up

2011 has definitely seen a shift in perceptions of BI in the cloud, with a number of vendors launching cloud offerings. Cloud services have become an accepted part of the technology and business mainstream and BI is starting to catch up.

This is due in no small part to the genuine benefits an organisation can achieve by utilising BI in the cloud, primarily value, cost and speed of deployment. Initially, BI in the cloud eliminates inefficient and risky processes related to planning, architecting, sourcing, budgeting, hiring, deploying, and more.

A BI cloud environment can also be delivered extremely quickly, in some cases in just 48 hours. It requires no Capital Expenditure and the long-term Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) compares favourably with on-premise BI. So while BI has for the most part, been the preserve of bigger organisations, BI in the cloud makes it much more accessible and affordable for businesses of all sizes.

Secure

As BI analyses all manner of data and information from a business, one concern has been the security surrounding storing and analysing such data in the cloud. Organisations do not actually have to host data in the cloud though and with some solutions can in fact connect directly to their on-premises or cloud-based data sources. Alternatively, they can opt to build and host their own database on the BI vendor Cloud through integrated database and ETL (extract, transform, and load) options.

But either way it is safe. Privacy and data protection is of paramount importance for most businesses and the security measures with cloud BI services is as rigorous, if not more so, as on-premise. Cloud services should be designed to deliver the highest available levels of security and operational control, leveraging secure virtualised BI environments, data encryption, hardened network infrastructure including secure customer VLANs, and multilayer authentication and access control to fully secure customer information.

Physical hardware environments are maintained in secure, SAS-70 compliant cloud-based facilities with layered physical security and multi-factor access control.

Convincing IT

But there does remain the final challenge of convincing IT departments that BI in the cloud is a viable option. Yes, it will free them up to concentrate on more strategic tasks but cloud BI needs to demonstrate value beyond that.

I believe the benefits of cloud BI will ultimately speak for themselves and if people get to experience it they will lobby IT themselves. Which is why we recently launched Cloud Personal. This enables users to view and share dashboards on the web or via the Apple iPad, allowing them to answer business questions quickly and easily, without buying software or waiting for IT.

Many people rely on spreadsheets to analyse and share data but Cloud Personal means a user can apply the power of visual intelligence to data in the following ways:

  • A salesperson can create a sharable sales opportunity dashboard and regularly update it, so users can review top and bottom ranked products, explore sales performance to see trends and find causes, and email a visualisation of sales opportunity data to colleagues.
  • An SMB owner can build a dashboard to track financial performance, to be shared with selected execs within the business.
  • Users can also share their dashboards via email, or publish them to an unlimited audience via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and more

So BI in the cloud is starting to come of age. The technology is available and the functionality and security are of equal quality to on-premise BI. All that remains is for users to experience this and once they do I think we will see a gradual but large migration from on-premise BI to cloud-based solutions.

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Paul Devlin is UK Manager of MicroStrategy, the world’s largest pure-play BI vendor that works with organisations such as Tesco and McDonalds. Paul has worked for businesses incluing SAP and SAS and has a proven track record of leading software businesses to achieve significant revenue and profitability.