The Broadening of BI

Business intelligence(BI) is one of the fastest growing market segments in the database world, and for several reasons.

BI gives organizations the ability to do more with what they already have: a wealth of information. IT departments can provide strategic business value by using BI to pull meaningful information out of the operational data in order-entry, shipping, and sales applications. By accumulating and aggregating that operational data into data warehouses, organizations can use OLAP and data-mining technologies to query, group, and analyze this important business information in ways that aren't possible through pure relational data-access techniques. Although implementing BI doesn't come without cost—including personnel, training, and additional storage and servers—being able to get more meaningful information out of the data you already have (especially in these tough economic times) is a strong incentive for adopting BI technologies.

BI is also more affordable and easier to implement than ever. All the major relational-database vendors now offer BI capabilities as a part of their products (some only in enterprise editions), a primary enabling factor that's made the leap to BI possible for many more organizations. Microsoft set off the current BI explosion by first bundling OLAP Services with SQL Server 7.0, then adding data-mining functionality into SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services. IBM and Oracle have followed Microsoft's lead, bundling BI components with the latest releases of their relational-database systems. Incorporating BI capabilities into the database platform, which gives businesses the technology they need to start testing and using OLAP and data mining, removes one of the biggest hurdles to BI adoption: having to buy and implement additional products.

Another reason the BI market is growing so fast is that the definition of what constitutes a BI technology is expanding. Traditionally, BI was synonymous with data warehousing and OLAP. Now, BI includes many other technologies that enable organizations to gather, aggregate, analyze, and report on data and make better business decisions. Microsoft has adopted this broader definition of BI, expanding beyond Analysis Services' OLAP and data-mining functionalities. For example, SQL Server tools such as Data Transformation Services (DTS) and Reporting Services now fall under the BI umbrella. Both tools are clearly related to BI: DTS is SQL Server's primary tool for loading data warehouses, and Reporting Services can generate reports from Analysis Services databases. However, SQL Server professionals more commonly use these tools for relational-database management and reporting. DTS is the tool of choice for importing data into and exporting data from SQL Server database tables, and Reporting Services is the hottest new product for creating reports from databases.

BI is growing in several directions all at once. The need to turn existing data into decision-making information is pushing the adoption of traditional data-warehousing and OLAP implementations into more organizations, especially those that have OLAP capabilities built into their relational-database engine. And the range of activities categorized as BI is stretching into new areas. With this broader definition of BI, your organization might already be participating in a number of BI projects without even realizing it.

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