Direct Access and Data Warehousing
Mid 2004, Vanguard introduced Direct Access, the technological enterprise information integration (EII)-like foundation of its Graphical Performance Series (GPS) solution, which delivers integrated enterprise information directly to business decision makers without relying on a data warehouse (DW), thereby potentially saving time, increasing business agility, and reducing costs. The Vanguard GPS solution has since been able to directly access the information stored in enterprise systems, without requiring businesses to move or stage data, or invest in complex and unwieldy data warehousing technology. For a more detailed analysis on this subject, refer to the article, BI Report Status Quo.
The Real-Time Data Integration Server (RDIS), is an integrated server-based middleware application developed by Vanguard that works with the Unified Information Model (UIM) to virtualize multiple data sources. To do so, RDIS receives and interprets information requests, determines which data sources to query to satisfy the request, and subsequently launches the appropriate queries to each source. Once the results arrive back from the data sources, RDIS compresses them to increase efficiency and streams them back to the user. To control the query workload, it manages a pool of connections to each data source and uses user-defined parameters.
RDIS also optimizes the use of available wide area network (WAN) bandwidth to enable efficient near real-time data integration from distributed data sources. There are multiple RDIS instances in the distributed scenario, and each one has high-bandwidth connections to its local data sources. Whenever one of them has no high-speed connection to the required data source, it will try to find the proper one among the other RDIS locations on the network, allowing the RDIS with the high-speed connection to the data source to process the request and use the first RDIS to stream the request back to the business user.
Vanguard's customers are primarily mid-sized manufacturers, many of whom have felt that data warehousing was overly complex, expensive, and inflexible for their business needs. Consequently, Vanguard has recognized the drawbacks and practical limitations of the DW model, and determined that technology had improved to the point where a completely new approach could be developed. The Direct Access solution was thus introduced to meet the real-world needs of these customers, and it has since been successfully implemented by many (one third or so of current) customers ranging from small manufacturers to multi-billion dollar global corporations.
Additionally, many Vanguard customers with DWs in place are reportedly currently phasing them out in favor of the Direct Access solution, which provides all the benefits of a DW—a single version of the truth, integrated enterprise information, high-performance reporting and analytics—but is less expensive and complex. To accomplish this, the vendor uses the RIDS innovative solution along with Vanguard's own patent-pending middleware technology.
Part three of the Has the Mid-market Found Vanguard BI Solutions? series.
Benefits of Direct Access
Vanguard cites that business executives using its Direct Access solution should see the following major business benefits:
- With close to real-time information pulled directly from the source systems, they should improve business agility, make better decisions and improve the time-to-value of their data.
- They should eliminate the need to invest in a DW, centralized data mart, ETL software, or data storage hardware.
- They should improve the return on investment (ROI) of their ERP and other enterprise systems investments by leveraging the information generated by these systems to improve business performance.
However, Direct Access (or the enterprise information integration [EII] technology in a wider context) cannot always be an alternative to a DW, given these data integration solutions augment historical time-series BI reporting with fresher operational detail, rather than conduct deep, complex analytic processing, such as multi-terabyte queries, which are still needed for many businesses. Using only EII for BI could make it difficult to deal with business change or analyze historical trends, while the prospects might still be concerned about safeguards for data quality in data-diverse environments and the impact of EII on transactional systems.
Hence, the technology is nowadays still far from mainstream adoption. In the meantime, the virtual data unification/EII preaching vendors must strive to educate the market and gain a critical mass of customers for the approach. The successful ones might, for the time being, be those that position their tools to complement, rather than replace, conventional data warehousing. Some recent surveys do cite a notable percentage of users mentioning the lack of centralized DWs as a key reason for postponed adoption of analytic tools like dashboards within their companies.
Vanguard's Competitive Challenges
With the wave of industry consolidation continuing, both in the BI arena, where large mainstream vendors are acquiring products to come down market, and in the enterprise applications arena, Vanguard's challenge is to continue to be nimble and responsive to the needs of its target market and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partners.
The challenge is to maintain its position as it partners the BI solution of choice and the industry consolidates around it. For example, Infor now owns Lilly, former Agilisys Process and now MAPICS, while SSA Global recently purchased Marcam (see The Name and Ownership Change Roulette Wheel for Marcam Stops at SSA Global). These consolidators will try to standardize the BI solutions across their ERP product lines, which is a threat to Vanguard's favored position. This is particularly coming from Cognos—which has meanwhile become the standard BI solution across all SSA Global product lines—and within MAPICS—prior to the acquisition by Infor. In addition to realizing that they do not have sufficient resources or will to develop and support their own BI solution, these vendors have likely chosen this strategy because:
- They see a recognizable BI name in Cognos as a marketing advantage,
- They attach the vendor's large size and geographical coverage to the image of stability and good customer support,
- They see the BI vendor's abundance of reference customers as an assist in selling efforts,
- They see a very broad BI product line from the renowned horizontal BI vendor; and
- The vendor also enables the connection of other data sources to its BI solution, given a number of like alliances.
With or without the blessing of the enterprise application partner, Vanguard's direct sales and marketing investment and proven success in working with customers must continue as its entry into the market.
The competition will likely come even from the lower-end of the market, as major BI vendors, including Business Objects, Actuate, and Cognos, are also assigning special attention to small and medium business (SMB) customers, given that BI is critical for them too in fast-moving, competitive markets, albeit with the caveat of the infrastructure investment being daunting. Typically, many such organizations go with what is inexpensive, available, and gets them moving without a steep software learning curve, almost by default revolving around Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet programs, and sometimes reporting tools embedded in packaged applications.
Recommendations for End Users
Mid-sized manufacturing companies interested in leveraging their investment in transactional enterprise information systems should consider Vanguard, based on the vendor's ability to offer a packed BI solution with a reasonably low total cost of ownership (TCO) in both centralized and disconnected modes. Enterprises with a DW supporting BI applications, who are questioning the advantage and cost of having one, may be interested in exploring the Direct Access option. Existing customers of some mid-market ERP products, such as Lilly, Exact, Macola, MAPICS, etc., can review GPS with their local affiliate to determine whether additional value can be generated from their transactional ERP database. This may afford a quick ROI because sales and supply chain processes should be improved by access to concise, targeted information. ERP customers with quite customized systems or products from other application vendors would want to review Vanguard's development capabilities in order to gain data integration between their various systems. Finally, prospective customers evaluating these ERP products should consider Vanguard GPS as an essential part of the enterprise solution and insist on reviewing it as part of their software evaluation process.