The BW/BObj Rift - We're all just services

Eric Vallo has written a quite wonderful and balanced piece starting to dig into the rift between the BW and BusinessObjects BI communities over on the EVTechnologies blog. As Eric mentions, his blog was the result of quite a bit of back-and-forth between the two of us, the other principals involved in the DS Layer site, and the wider SAP and BusinessObjects communities. Eric was kind enough to kick off the conversation, and I'll continue it here. Hopefully this will evolve into a longer public conversation.

So, let's get started!

Eric did a good job of laying out the different scenarios we tend to see out in the SAP & BusinessObjects customer ecosystem right now. While each of these scenarios is clear, I think there is still a huge amount of confusion within both the BW and BusinessObjects communities about what each set of tools does and what it should be used for. In other words, when do you go for each scenario or tool? In my opinion, this confusion stems from the reality that both toolsets do a lot of things, and there is a lot of overlap. You can build a full datawarehouse and BI reporting solution using only BusinessObjects tools. And you can do the same using only BW tools. Or you can mix-and-match and pull in 3rd-party tools as well. But each toolset certainly has its strengths and weaknesses.

My take on BW's strengths and weaknesses is, perhaps, a bit out of the mainstream. But I think it is justified and, importantly, I think it is in line with SAP's vision for it's data platform. Specifically, I see BW as a set of data warehousing, data management, and systems management services. I admit readily that I've shamelessly stolen this way of describing the concept from others, but it fits so well that I have to use it. So, BW provides a set of services like the following very incomplete list:

  • An abstract, platform-independent data warehouse modeling environment
  • A service for imposing a semantic model on top of the data warehouse modeling environment
  • An analytic engine for executing queries on the data residing under the semantic model
  • Security
  • Data management services like near-line storage (the ability to pretty transparently persist data in a single semantic structure across two data-stores with remarkably different latency, structure, performance, and cost characteristics while still being able to query that data "live") or archiving.
  • Visualization and reporting services

The implementation of this service concept is far from perfect. In fact, today, most of these "services" aren't really recognizable as such because BW is such an integrated intertwined monster. With BW on HANA, we are now starting to see some of these services exposed individually, and the result is rather impressive.

One advantage of seeing BW as a collection of services for the purposes of this discussion is that it becomes much less important whether BW continues to exist. When viewed this way, the whole discussion about whether or not SAP HANA is going to "kill" BW becomes moot. The important question is whether the services continue to exist, either as part of BW, part of the HANA platform, or in another way. It is the services that provide the value, not BW per se.

The same actually holds true for BusinessObjects. Here we have services like the following (again, incomplete):

  • A service for imposing a semantic model on existing data models
  • An analytical engine for executing queries on the data residing under the semantic model
  • Security
  • Services for moving data from one place to another and transforming that data
  • Services for tracking and analyzing data lineage and quality across multiple platforms
  • Visualization and reporting services

BusinessObjects took a much more service-oriented development approach from the beginning, so many of these services are much more obvious as individual BusinessObjects products or product components. You might recognize direct descriptions of Universes, Data Services, or Information Steward, or the host of BusinessObjects reporting and visualization tools whereas in the case of the BW services there is no individual tool we can install to provide the service.

You probably also notice some overlap with the list of services in BW. Hence, the confusion.

The really interesting part of this overlap is that some of these services are provided in pretty similar ways between the two platforms (the semantic layer) while others take a very different approach (visualization and reporting services) or simply don't exist on one platform or another (abstract data warehouse modeling environment, or tracking and analyzing data lineage). It's these different approaches or unique services that differentiate the platforms.

Until SAP matures its data platform strategy and makes some decisions about which overlapping services live, die, or merge on each platform, it's going to be up to customers to do the hard thinking necessary to make the best implementation decisions for them. It is, of course, important to know what services each platform offers, what technique the platform uses to offer those services, and what kind of performance and functional characteristics similar services have on the different platforms. I hope that the podcast series Josh Fletcher and I are working on will help with that discussion across customers. But in addition to these feature considerations, there are also cost, requirements, tooling, and expertise considerations that are going to be unique to each customer.

Personally, I think BW and BusinessObjects tools both have a lot to offer and we shouldn't discount one or the other when we're talking about addressing data warehousing or BI problems. As consultants, we'll have our personal preferences, but we should try not to let that influence our customer advisory roles when addressing early design and tool selection questions.

In the data warehousing space, my strong feeling is that BW's approach (if not BW itself) is a powerful approach to making datawarehousing more accessible. It doesn't solve the basic problems of data modeling and data governance, and it can introduce its own set of problems. But BW does help abstract some really knotty technical and organizational problems that like data consistency, technical governance, platform-specific optimization, and technical change management that must be addressed when building a data warehouse.

Meanwhile, the BusinessObjects approach of a really open, modern, and platform agnostic BI and EIM toolset is a great one. Especially in the ETL and BI space, many of the services that BusinessObjects offers are years, even decades ahead of where BW is with its more integrated and older transformation and reporting engines.

I'm hoping that the two communities can learn a lot from each other by interacting more both technically and socially. In other words, like Eric, I am really looking forward to feedback and teaching through other blogs or Twitter.

And now, back to you, Eric.