On Monday IBM unveiled a $5 billion deal to purchase business-intelligence (BI) tool vendorCognos. In some regards, this action can be viewed as a bit of "keeping up with the Joneses," coming in the shadow of such other BI-company consolidation moves as Oracle Corporation's $3.3 billion buy of Hyperion last spring and SAP AG's $6.8 billion hoovering of Business Objects last month. It's part of a more general recognition in the wider IT market that BI applications, already important, are going to become a crucial tool for business efficiency in the years ahead and therefore an even more significant source of revenue. One issue in BI that's coming to the forefront and that's definitely on IBM's mind is a concept currently called "a single version of the truth." Although tying large amounts of data together better than ever before is generally a good idea, it isn't automatically useful if some of the data is faulty. Old data, human error, communications mistakes, and scores of other reasons can cause data about specific customers, products, and terms or other elements of business deals to disagree with each other. We all know where "garbage in" traditionally leads. So some attention must be paid to not simply synchronizing data but to making sure all the pieces of the information pie are correct. What's more, you can find useful information in many places besides databases, for example in "unstructured" sources such as e-mail messages, images, custom applications, and so forth. Drawing all these threads together to make a useful collection of facts for analysis is a challenge that grows quickly with an organization's size. IBM's plan for dealing with these problems is Information on Demand, its stated reason for emptying its deep pockets a bit for Cognos, which IBM in fact cites as its 23rd acquisition in support of Information on Demand. Information on Demand is a plan for "freeing [information] from silos and delivering it" across an enterprise. So, for example, IBM cites an ideal situation in which a call-center employee not only has current contact information on a prospective customer but also has instant access to such information as balances, transaction histories, recent e-mails, and other information to "identify up-sell and cross-sell opportunities." Well, who wouldn't want that? IBM's plan with Information on Demand is to provide it by blending (if not hammering into a squared circle) products and their elements from all its acquisitions and ultimately offering it within a framework that supports a service-oriented architecture. Cognos's appeal, according to IBM, is that its products fit into this strategy. (It has nothing to do, of course, with the fact that Cognos is the largest independent BI vendor left alive in the general IT market.) What's of most interest to you and me is what this means to the System i market. To begin with, Cognos products don't run natively on the System i. However, they use an open architecture, and they interact with DB2 databases on System i servers, and in that sense they support the System i and applications that run in environments that include the System i. (Cognos also participated in a BI-tool-buyer's guide, which System iNEWS will publish with its December issue.) I think it's not too fantastic to imagine that somewhere down the line, once Information on Demand is a going concern, it will be extended to the System i (although perhaps it will actually be the System i itself that ends up being extended into a form compatible with Information on Demand). Long range, I think the Cognos acquisition has an excellent chance of putting IBM on a path to providing its corporate customers with some killer BI tools (as long as Information on Demand doesn't get as gigantic as WebSphere is, and there's clearly some danger of that). The question is whether those integrated offerings will release before Vista 2020 (codenamed "Hindsight," remember you heard that here first) does. I asked Scott Steinacher, a technical editor for System iNEWS who specializes in the BI area, for his opinion of the acquisition. "Financially, I find this deal difficult to justify. What's more, it could not have come at a worse time for IBM Rochester. It complicates marketing the new DB2 Web Query product, which is itself a port of a competing product from Information Builders," he said. To get a feeling for the short-term impact of the acquisition on our market, I decided to do an informal opinion poll of some System i BI application vendors. Although the responses aren't unanimous, most System i BI vendors also view DB2 Web Query as a significant consideration, though many seem skeptical of the Cognos purchase causing a large impact on the platform. "The consolidation of companies that's underway in the BI market strengthens those companies' stacks," ventured Datawatch Corporation COO (and soon to be CEO) Ken Bero. "Among customers, though, I believe it will cause some consternation. It throws things up in the air. No one knows how to position their [BI] strategies. It makes it more difficult to make decisions. Here at Datawatch we view this as an opportunity to continue to provide easy-to-use BI tools with a strong ROI, today." As for IBM's justification for buying Cognos particularly, "it's not clear what they are thinking," Bero opined. "I think the most significant thing about [this acquisition and SAP's of Business Objects] is that it has brought attention to the value of BI," states New Generation Software's Marketing Director, Bill Langston. "We think this will make more executives ask their IT directors and CIOs to investigate BI, and that's good for everyone in the BI market," he continues. But, he noted, Cognos products don't run on i5/OS "and I would be shocked if IBM elected to make the investment required to change that. From a technology perspective, the Cognos acquisition really doesn't change anything for System i customers." John Hughes, Silvon Software's senior vice president, had an outlook similar to Langston's. "We don't see any significant impact to Silvon resulting from this merger since for many years we have been a System i 'application-centric' BI provider. That means our domain expertise across supply chain, manufacturing, and distribution has driven demand for our solutions." BCD International's Eric Figura agreed with Datawatch's Bero. "While this could be a good fit for IBM, are they not simply creating a lot of marketplace confusion for System i users? Isn't IBM [already] doing a full-court press pushing Cognos's competitor Information Builders' web query tool? What is [IBM's] clear message with this news?" A representative of another vendor company who declined to be named looked at the situation even more darkly. "[I think this means IBM's DB2 Web Query] will be superceded by this new acquisition. All the hype over [that] was for naught and will mislead many customers. It's just another sign of the disconnect between IBM Rochester and IBM New York . . .a common theme at IBM." Doug Mack, IBM's System i DB2 product marketing manager, took strong issue with that point of view. "That is an erroneous assertion. We are already working on the next version of DB2 Web Query, and this acquisition will have no impact on that effort. For those customers looking for an i5/OS-centric solution, we expect DB2 Web Query for System i to continue to be an attractive query and reporting solution." Information Builders, the originator of DB2 Web Query, agreed with Mack. "The Cognos acquisition will have no effect on the System i market or our ability to have a relationship with IBM. [IBM] turned to the leader in operational BI that runs natively on all platforms . . .to revive and grow its System i base," stated a spokesperson. DB2 Web Query is also a basis of Mrc President Joe Stangarone's optimistic view. "I don't believe the Cognos acquisition was done with DB2 or the System i as a primary consideration. If it was, how could you rationalize the rollout of DB2 Web Query for the System i just a few months ago?" he asks. "The System i BI market will find [itself] shifting to smaller, more capable vendors, who are nimble and far less constrained than the behemoths. Small and mid-size vendors in the BI marketplace who can listen to their customers and deliver customized BI solutions without all the headaches will be able to offer solutions in a much more timely manner."