BI Standards Emerging

Specs will govern data access interaction but are two years from maturity.

Two standards designed to ease the use of business intelligence tools in heterogeneous data server environments are gaining momentum, but tangible benefits for users remain out of reach until the specifications gain maturity.

The Java Community Process Java OLAP interface specification, known as JOLAP, last week emerged from a 60-day public review period and awaits a final draft and reference implementation; no time frame for those has been set. Separately, the XMLA Council last month released Version 1.1 of its XML for Analysis specification.

Both methods, when implemented by developers of BI tools, promise to open analysis of data from multidimensional databases and allow more interoperability among multiple vendors solutions, eliminating the need for proprietary APIs.

But industry players and observers say it will likely be at least two years before users see any benefit from these emerging standards.

XMLA 1.1 uses Simple Object Access Protocol, or SOAP, to standardize the data access interactions between a client application and data provider. It requires no client software, unlike current data access techniques, such as OLE DB and ODBC, making it hardware-, operating-system- and programming-language-independent.

JOLAP is also designed to standardize data interaction and the management of data and metadata. But it is for use only within the Java environment and does not support non-OLAP analytics, such as data mining.

Although the XMLA Council and JCP both include leading developers in the analytic server community—Hyperion Solutions Corp. and SAS Institute Inc. are in both while Microsoft Corp. is in the XMLA Council and Oracle Corp. is in the JCP—products that support the emerging standards are a ways off.

Hyperion, of Sunnyvale, Calif., plans to include support for XMLA in the next release of its Essbase multidimensional database, expected in beta next quarter. Essbase will add support for a reference implementation of JOLAP when that reference implementation becomes available, as early as the first or second quarter of next year, Hyperion officials said. General availability of the Essbase upgrade will be based on the success of the beta.

SAS officials said support for XMLA could be seen as early as the middle of next year in SAS 9.1 but said much will depend on beta trials. Officials at the Cary, N.C., company also want to wait to see how the JOLAP reference implementation develops.

Analytics tools vendors today that must support different APIs to access server products from SAS, Hyperion, Oracle, IBM and others are following the server vendors lead at this point.

Officials at Cognos Inc., for example, who sit on the XMLA Council said current APIs are more stable and perform better than XMLA or JOLAP. The Ottawa-based company has no plans to support either in its products until that equation changes, officials said, stressing that Cognos can already support thin-client, Web-based data analysis with existing technology.

Performance of data analysis is a key issue for users, said Glen Mac Donell, manager of data management and analysis at the American Automobile Association, in Heathrow, Fla.

"When youre dealing with OLAP, you want speed," said Mac Donell, who uses Cognos PowerPlay analysis tool. "But people wont use it if its not fast."

Mac Donell said that as emerging standards mature, they could be helpful to his department, but right now interoperability of data sources isnt that much of an issue. "Its just a matter of knowing where the data is and what you want to convert it to," he said.

Enterprises may not wait for interoperability to happen, said Mark Smith, president of Full Circle Strategies, in Truckee, Calif. By the time real-world deployments of analysis tools supporting the emerging specifications are ready in two years, XMLA and JOLAP may be obsolete, Smith said.

"The question is whether or not people will really need this stuff," he said. "People may just build their own components on top of XML and not need XMLA or JOLAP."