Search and BI Make a Great Team

Click to see screenshotsIn a classic ad for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, a chocolate eater and a peanut butter eater collide into each other, leading to the immortal lines: "You got chocolate in my peanut butter! You got peanut butter on my chocolate!" But it isn't only in the world of snack foods where two different things can be combined to create something that's more than the sum of its parts. There are definitely examples in the IT world where similar but distinctly different technologies are combined to create a solution that provides more than either technology could by itself. One such amalgamation currently gaining steam is the marriage of enterprise search technologies and business intelligence tools. Here, you have two technologies dedicated to the discovery and analysis of data. However, each tends to look at different types of information, and they have radically different approaches to finding that information. Search tools have for the most part been designed to index and query unstructured data, such as Web sites and document repositories. Search, meanwhile, takes a broad approach to finding data and tends to deliver multiple possible results rather than exact answers. Another key attribute of search is ease of use. A typical search engine is something that even a novice can quickly use to find information. Business intelligence tools, on the other hand, are based on complex and refined queries that result in exact and complete data results and reports. BI applications thus tend to have a high level of complexity, which has meant that only business analysts or those specifically trained on BI systems could effectively use them. However, despite their differences, both BI and search are ultimately in the business of discovering information. And when effectively combined, they can provide a much broader and insightful information discovery system.

Click to see screenshotsSearch and BI
Read eWEEK's case study on how the city of Albuquerque integrated search and BI to improve their information management.

Listen to the Tech Rising podcast as Jim Rapoza talks to Brian Osterloh and Chris Framel, of the city of Albuquerque, about the city's project to combine business intelligence with search.

In a classic ad for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, a chocolate eater and a peanut butter eater collide into each other, leading to the immortal lines: "You got chocolate in my peanut butter! You got peanut butter on my chocolate!"

But it isn't only in the world of snack foods where two different things can be combined to create something that's more than the sum of its parts. There are definitely examples in the IT world where similar but distinctly different technologies are combined to create a solution that provides more than either technology could by itself.

One such amalgamation currently gaining steam is the marriage of enterprise search technologies and business intelligence tools. Here, you have two technologies dedicated to the discovery and analysis of data. However, each tends to look at different types of information, and they have radically different approaches to finding that information.

Search tools have for the most part been designed to index and query unstructured data, such as Web sites and document repositories. Search, meanwhile, takes a broad approach to finding data and tends to deliver multiple possible results rather than exact answers.

Another key attribute of search is ease of use. A typical search engine is something that even a novice can quickly use to find information. Business intelligence tools, on the other hand, are based on complex and refined queries that result in exact and complete data results and reports. BI applications thus tend to have a high level of complexity, which has meant that only business analysts or those specifically trained on BI systems could effectively use them.

However, despite their differences, both BI and search are ultimately in the business of discovering information. And when effectively combined, they can provide a much broader and insightful information discovery system.

For example, a search system can lower the usage barrier for BI, providing access to business intelligence data from the type of search interface that anyone can use. And a BI tool can make it possible for search results to include structured strategic data, such as sales information. The combination of the two has the potential to help users find all of the potential answers to vital business questions.

To get an understanding of the current state of search and business intelligence and how the involved players see the integration of these two technologies playing out, eWEEK spoke to representatives of three companies working in this area: search titan Google, enterprise search and information management vendor FAST and Cognos, a leading business intelligence provider.

On the current state of the integration of BI and search and the forces that are driving it, representatives from all three vendors agreed on the need to expand the reach of BI to both structured and unstructured data. But each focused on a different way to drive the integration.

Davor Peter Sutija, FAST's Vice President of Market Development, said that the driving force behind the BI-search combo is the need to provide what he calls "pervasive business intelligence." "This means the use of relatively powerful but easy-to-use tools that empower individual decision makers across the enterprise to interact with information stored in a search index," he said.

The search index itself and its characteristics, especially pertaining to data retrieval and categorization, were a big focus of my discussions with FAST. "We believe that the convergence of search and BI is not only about searching for reports that BI platforms are able to produce," said Sutija. "We believe that there is a more fundamental convergence going on in the ability to mine unstructured information by doing extraction and categorization."

Google's Nitin Mangtani, Lead Product Manager for Enterprise Search, focused on the broad access that search interfaces bring to business intelligence, saying that Google's goal is to bring BI to the masses. "One of the shortcomings of BI was that it was limited to only n number of users," he said. "Only a very few people knew how to use these BI tools and how to access these reports."

Leah MacMillan, Vice President of Product Marketing for Cognos, also brought up the need to provide greater usability while providing access to the data that a business intelligence system provides, saying, "Users are expecting the kind of ease of use that comes with Google and Yahoo and all of the search engines that they are familiar with, but until now there really hasn't been a way for users to search for structured BI content."

Sutija, Mangtani and MacMillan also talked about the solutions that their respective companies are currently offering to help ease the integration between search and BI.

The main effort on Google's part is OneBox, which is a feature of the company's enterprise search appliances. OneBox makes it possible to link directly to business intelligence systems and provide a real-time standard Google interface for searching these systems.

Sutija talked about FAST's Radar platform, which is a business intelligence portal that leverages the attributes of the search index and focuses on data quality.

Not surprisingly, Cognos has integration deals with both of these search vendors (along with many others), but has also focused on easing the accessibility barriers of its own BI products through Web interfaces and by boosting the internal search capabilities within its latest release of Cognos 8. This latest version of Cognos lets users do keyword searches and receive Google-like results within the BI application.

The end of BI as we know it?

Some in the industry have wondered whether search tools will eventually gain enough capabilities that they will eliminate the need for business intelligence tools altogether. No one we spoke with for this story thought that would happen, but each expressed some different ideas about how far search might encroach on BI's territory.

Google's Mangtani said, "Search is not trying to replace the BI tools. All of the BI tools have very rich reporting capabilities. Is search generating BI reports? The answer is no. The BI vendors like Cognos and Hyperion are generating the actual BI reports. What we are doing is basically making search a universal interface so that you can get at all of this information."

FAST's Sutija echoed this idea: "I don't believe there's going to be a global replacement anytime soon," he said. "There is ample need for super users to develop complex reports using traditional BI tools. I believe that everyday analytics and up-to-the minute analysis of how your company is performing is best delivered by a search mechanism, while more complex analysis will probably still remain the domain of specialists."

eWEEK Labs believes the integration of search and business intelligence will continue to evolve. In fact, you should expect to see more movement of features and capabilities between the two. Just as BI application have integrated search within their systems, expect to see traditional BI features such as dashboards and rich analytics move over to enterprise search platforms.

Also, the continuing evolution of Web technologies will have an impact on how search and business intelligence deal with data. Increased usage of data-aware technologies such as JSON and of the many standards related to the Semantic Web are bringing much more structure to data on the Web.

And if your business hasn't begun to integrate search and business intelligence, now is the time to look into it. Luckily, nearly all of the major business intelligence vendors are already integrating with nearly all of the major enterprise search companies, making it much more likely that your business will be able to find a solution that works with the products that you already use.

By melding the open access and unstructured content indexing of search with the precision and structured content querying of business intelligence, businesses will be able to build a much more complete picture of the information that their company relies on.

Or, to paraphrase a line from that old commercial: Search and BI. Two great information technologies that provide great information together.