Gartner Makes it Official: The Age of Self-Service Is Upon Us

It isn't unusual for a new release of one of Gartner Inc.'s Magic Quadrant reports to provoke squabbling, posturing, and sometimes even high drama among vendors in a certain market segment.

It's much less common for consumers -- from enterprise buyers to the rank-and-file users of a product -- to get worked up over a Gartner Magic Quadrant report. That's just what happened earlier this month, however, when Gartner released its most recent Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms. That report incorporates a methodological change that radically recasts the Who's-Who tally of vendors it tracks. The upshot is that some vendors -- Oracle Corp. foremost among them -- completely disappeared from the annals of the Magic Quadrant.

People flipped out.

This week, Gartner released a separate report that should address, if not allay, their concerns.

Gartner's Market Guide for Enterprise-Reporting-Based Platforms tracks what research vice president Cindi Howson describes as“IT-centric” business intelligence (BI) and reporting platforms.

Veteran BI practitioners will recognize in the criteria for this category most of the elements of a production reporting system. Production reporting was the engine that used to power -- and, for all intents and purposes, defined the limits of -- “enterprise BI.” As the new Gartner report explains:

“An enterprise-reporting-based platform includes capabilities to create and distribute trusted, sanctioned and highly controlled and guided production reports and dashboards to large numbers of users in an enterprise, to customers, or embedded in applications.”

If that isn't conclusive enough, there's this:

“It is most often deployed against a well-modeled data warehouse and/or data mart, including an optimization layer featuring online analytical processing (OLAP) cubes.”

In other words, Gartner is formally recognizing a distinction -- some might call it a division -- that has become painfully apparent to many industry observers.

Taxis and Ubers, Printers and 3D Printers

It's like this, says Howson: the market for BI and analytics is an awfully big one.

Previous versions of Gartner's BI and analytics Magic Quadrant had compared products as disparate as Tableau -- a best-of-breed data visualization and self-service BI tool -- and SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), a production reporting facility that Microsoft Corp. has bundled with its SQL Server database for 12 years now. It isn't that Tableau and SSRS don't play in the same ballpark -- it's that (as Pulp Fiction's Jules Winfield might observe) they aren't even the same sport.

“We have different gating criteria. You have to meet the definition of the 'modern' BI platform, because that's where the buying is going. An easy example is Microsoft's SQL Server Reporting Services. Reporting Services is not a modern BI platform, it's an IT-centric, reporting-centric BI platform,” says Howson. “You have to meet that gating criteria first off. Then there's a second round of gating criteria in terms of revenues [a vendor has] in that space and the number of customers [they have] in that space. You have to supply so many customer references, so if you launch a new product, and if you don't have [a sufficient number of] live customers, we can't consider it for 2016.”

This helps explain why neither of Oracle's BI and analytic offerings, Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE) and Oracle Big Data Discovery, made this year's cut, Howson explains.

OBIEE is the very model of a traditional, IT-centric BI platform. It's a slam dunk for Gartner's Market Guide for Enterprise-Reporting-Based Platforms. Oracle Big Data Discovery is different. By any reasonable standard, including Gartner's own, it's indisputably a “modern” BI platform. Big Data Discovery was released too late -- and, in any case, Oracle could provide too few live customer references -- for it to be included in this year's tally, however. “Next year's is different,” she says.

Now and in the future, Howson sees Gartner employing the same “gating criteria” to vendors that aspire for inclusion in BI and analytics Magic Quadrant. “Really, the same gating criteria that Gartner has always set thresholds for customers, for revenue, and so on. The big change this year is that we really said in response to a multi-year shift of where the market is going, it's not useful to buyers for us to compare something like Reporting Services with Tableau, for example. We're really trying to respond to the changing market landscape and changing customer buying patterns,” she explains.

“We've kicked around analogies internally about how do describe it, such as do you compare renting a DVD from Blockbuster to streaming something on NetFlix, or streaming, do you compare taxi cabs to Uber? At some point, you need to separate what are people looking for, what are they evaluating.”

Why Such a Tempest?

Why did a relatively straightforward change to an industry report provoke so much discussion?

For one thing, it had the effect of radically reshaping the lay of Gartner's BI and analytics quadrant.

In this year's Magic Quadrant, a slew of former “Leaders” -- viz., IBM Corp., Information Builders Inc. (IBI), MicroStrategy Inc., Oracle, SAP AG, and SAS Institute Inc. -- were downgraded to “Visionaries.” Each of these vendors markets one or more technologies that meet, at least in part, the criteria of a “modern” BI platform.  On Gartner's terms, however, none offers a single, integrated platform comparable to Microsoft's PowerBI, Qlik Sense, and Tableau-- the sole “Leaders.”

It isn't just that Gartner adjusted one of its most important gating criteria, it's that in doing so, it also formalized a nascent distinction -- between user-oriented, do-it-yourself, self-service BI tools on the one hand, and traditional IT-centric BI technologies, on the other -- that utterly upends the status quo. IBM, IBI, MicroStrategy, Oracle, and others were easily “Leaders” in a composite market wherein traditional, IT-centric technologies coexisted with insurgent self-service BI platforms. They don't fare so well in a market that gives priority to self-service BI -- and only to self-service BI.

Surely they're ruling the roost in Gartner's Market Guide for Enterprise-Reporting-Based Platforms, though? Well, no, not exactly. The new Gartner report doesn't plot, rate, or score vendors, Howson notes. One possible reason it doesn't is that -- in effect -- Gartner expects it to go away because it expects the (legacy) category of which it's representative to gradually diminish in importance. “By 2020, 80 percent of all enterprise reporting will be based on modern BI and analytics platforms; the remaining 20 percent will still be on IT-centric reporting-based platforms because the risk to change outweighs value,” the Market Guide points out.

“The primary market shift is away from production reporting to delivering interactive analytic dashboards using a modern BI platform in support of a range of analytics use cases,” the report says. “While many organizations have significant investments in IT-centric, enterprise-reporting-based platforms that run their businesses, these platforms must either modernize in the short to midterm or be substantially displaced by modern BI platforms that will support the full range of self-service and enterprise reporting use cases. Operational and regulatory reporting may not migrate to modern platforms for some time, as the benefit of switching is low compared to the risk.”

There's another reason a big change to a proprietary industry report provoked such a furor: for better or for worse (and more than a few BI buyers would endorse the latter sentiment) Gartner's Magic Quadrant has enormous power, not just in terms of its capacity to shape buying habits, but -- even prior to buying -- to determine which vendors are shortlisted for RFPs.

In this respect, the Magic Quadrant could be said to be analogous to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in mental health: both publications attempt to define standards that are binding and authoritative for an entire field.  Both purport to determine what's “normal” and what's “abnormal,” “healthy” and “unhealthy,” and both include or exclude entities, practices, processes, and so on. Just as inclusion in the Magic Quadrant can determine whether or not a vendor makes an RFP shortlist, so, too, can classification in the DSM determine if an insurer will recognize -- and pay for the treatment of -- a disease or disorder. That's power. That's why some people are so exorcised.

There's also this: people get attached to products for any number of reasons, not least because they like them, but also because -- and this is especially true of people who make purchasing decisions in enterprise IT -- their reputations are bound up with them. If a vendor or product is dropped from the Magic Quadrant, the prestige of the person who recommended it may take a hit.

There's a final, very simple reason why Gartner's newly revised Magic Quadrant report provoked the BI industry equivalent of a kerfuffle. Three centuries ago, Bishop Berkeley observed that “to be is to be perceived.” In a context that's specific to BI, a good paraphrasing of Berkeley might take the following form: To be a BI vendor is to be perceived -- as a dot plotted on Gartner's Magic Quadrant.

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