IBM takes aim at midmarket with new BI tools

Big Blue will exploit its strong channel to gain ground with Cognos Express

IBM on Monday will announce a BI (business intelligence) and planning suite aimed at midsized companies that need more insight into their business than a spreadsheet can provide, but not the complexity of an enterprise-level product.

Dubbed Cognos Express, the applications are meant for businesses with between 100 and 999 workers, said Ben Plummer, general manager of the IBM Cognos midmarket business unit.

The suite consists of three modules that can be bought separately or as a unit. A reporting tool offers drag-and-drop-style report creation and ad hoc querying; an "Advisor" module is used for forecasting and "what-if" scenario analysis; and a product called Xcelerator allows users to crunch and visualize data with an in-memory analytics engine through the Microsoft Excel interface.

IBM claims the package can be deployed in "a matter of hours." It is managed through a Web-based console that reduces dependency on help from IT staffers, according to IBM.

Enterprise-class BI systems are much more complex, given factors such as the need to juggle and integrate various data assets from acquired companies, Plummer said. "It's not that they want it to be complicated, it's complicated by default."

Meanwhile, BI vendors have historically sold medium-size companies repackaged versions of enterprise-grade software, he said.

"They try to cram an enterprise-size package into a midmarket-size box," he said. "It's like a Jack-in -the-box. When [midsize customers] open it up, it pops out and scares them."

Pricing for Cognos Express starts as low as US$12,000 for one module and five users.

IBM is not ruling out delivering Cognos Express as a SaaS (software as a solution) offering in the future, but for now is sticking with on-premises deployments, according to Plummer.

"Companies of this size, they say, 'can you just bring it in and put it on the server I have?'" he said.

An initial Cognos Express customer is Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill, a California restaurant chain with 13 locations.

Wood Ranch is investing in about 25 Cognos Express licenses due to business growth and a desire to gain better insight into its finances amid a bleak economy, according to Mark Quandt, vice president of finance.

Margins in restaurants are thin to begin with, and eating out is a discretionary expense for consumers, he said.

"To the extent you've got more visibility into the business, you're going to come out ahead," Quandt added. "We felt this is the way we needed to go."

Wood Ranch has been working with all three modules for about two weeks, and will use the software to analyze data from its point-of-sale system.

The POS system generates reports that do "a good job of overall sales, and your sales mix, but you're stuck into their templates. If you wanted to work with the data, the only option was to export into Excel," Quandt said.

"Excel is a great personal tool ... [but] with 13 restaurants we got to a point where we wanted to get a little more sophisticated in your analysis."

However, IBM's decision to employ the Excel interface in the Xcelerator module is a plus, given the familiarity Wood Ranch's workers have with it, Quandt said.

Under Wood Ranch's corporate structure, each restaurant is considered an independent company from a legal standpoint, and consequently each has its own database, Quandt said.

The Cognos Express suite will help the chain pull together all the data and conduct modeling and forecasting, he said.

Wood Ranch has only two IT workers, but Quandt does not expect he'll need to bring on additional resources to run Cognos Express.

Along with e-learning and content management software, midmarket companies are expected to invest heavily in BI as the economy improves and IT budgets recover, said Forrester Research analyst Tim Harmon.

He praised Cognos Express on its technical merits, but said competing midmarket offerings from Tibco and Qliktech are of comparable quality.

But IBM may have an edge given its strong channel, according to Harmon. "The additional margins and incentives that are available [to partners] with this product are not insignificant," he said.

Partners will also be able to fine-tune the product for verticals, a job that becomes more granular as companies get smaller, according to Harmon.

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