Information Builders: The road ahead

As one of the few software companies that has lasted 40+ years, Information Builders is at the beginning of a major generation change that is already impacting the company inside and out. Where should it go from here?
Written by Tony Baer (dbInsight), Contributor

As one of the few independent software companies still around from the 1970s, Information Builders' last year has proven a watershed. Over the past 12 months, the company has seen a generational change in management as the torch passed from cofounder Gerry Cohen to veteran software industry executive Frank Vella.

The ink is still drying on the CEO transition triggered by the 2017 private equity deal that the company reached with Goldman Sachs. But the process is already well underway in changing everything from how the company goes to market to how it develops products.

We had a chance to visit with the company during their 40th annual Summit user conference in Orlando this week and had an opportunity to compare notes with the last time we hit Summit, which was about 15 years ago.

Information Builders' longevity has proven both strength and weakness. It survived based on a fierce loyalty that is cultivated among the installed base; the FOCUS 4GL, now exposed primarily through higher-level visual tools, was conceived as a Swiss Army knife for an earlier era where developers (who were more typically called programmers) required the power of working at the command line to wrestle reports out of legacy mainframes. From that came stickiness: once a FOCUS programmer, always a FOCUS programmer. FOCUS reports were too embedded into the core of the business for customers to rip away, and Information Builders paid plenty of attention developing extensions that its customers asked for.

The company's EDA SQL tool, introduced with IBM nearly 30 years ago, paved the way to its integration business that came to fruition with iWay connectors, and now the Omni-Gen data management platform. Colleague Neil Raden ventured to us that, in a market awash with query and reporting tools, Information Builders' deep portfolio of connectors to almost any enterprise data source is probably its greatest differentiator.

But there's also a flip side to information Builders' strengths. The company grew so close to its installed base that, arguably, it sucked energy away from growing into new accounts. And the willingness to please customers saddled the company with a bewildering array of SKUs on its price list. And enterprise strengths, such as the scale to serve reports to hundreds or thousands of users, or robust security, distracted the company away from responding to the wave of self-service tools by making WebFOCUS easy to use; in its defense, Information Builders wasn't the only BI vendor caught off-guard by the Tableau tidal wave. Then there was a need to develop new capabilities, such as AI and machine learning, that could turn analytics into more of a guided experience. And finally, of course, what conversation about analytics in 2019 would be complete without the cloud?

Stepping into the reins, initially as COO last year, Vella made a couple promises, First, to promote ease of use, and secondly, to establish a firm presence in the cloud. And the company is working on streamlining the product portfolio.

As Big on Data bro Andrew Brust reported, the company announced a major revamping of WebFOCUS Designer, the next step following the debut of a modern interface that Vella and crew demonstrated to Brust last fall.

As to the cloud, information Builders is unleashing a managed BI Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) on AWS. This is not the company's first foray into the cloud, as it initially listed WebFOCUS in AWS Marketplace dating back as far as 2016. But customers had to manage it on EC2 and bring their own licenses. The new WebFOCUS cloud service on AWS is not on the marketplace, but instead is being sold and serviced by Information Builders directly. There will be several levels (e.g., trial, workgroup-level gold, enterprise-scale platinum) of service and options for delivering the service that is fully managed. But the company needs to be clearer on what the cloud experience for customers will be.

This is just the start of Information Builders' cloud journey. As Brust reported, at Summit this week, Information Builders announced the first results of re-architecting its portfolio to become cloud-native, by containerizing its functions as Docker containers that could be orchestrated in a Kubernetes environment. The company is not taking the shortcut by simply throwing its entire WebFOCUS suite or Omni-Gen portfolio in a single container; instead, it is taking the more arduous but ultimately rewarding path of containerizing specific functions or modules. It is currently partway into that journey. It's a step toward the inevitable transition to cloud-first development, which is becoming the usual script for most solution and tools providers today.

For Information Builders, there is both a silver lining in the cloud and vice versa. The cloud provides a way to catch new business. It already has several dozen customers and at Summit, showcased three of them. The existing installed base will be more challenging, but as hardware ages out or generational change comes with developer turnover, this is where the managed cloud could gain traction with the base. But this will be a long game.

There's more cloud homework to do. Containerizing its portfolio will allow, for instance, Omni-Gen services to be blended more seamlessly with WebFOCUS analyses and make these services fully elastic. Beyond that, Information Builders could tap into integration with AWS machine learning services. For instance, imagine being able to pop in a model developed in SageMaker, or visualize relationships in textual or video data uncovered by Amazon Comprehend or Rekognition, respectively. At the conference, we saw the reverse end of this. RCM Brain OEM's WebFOCUS and plans to use it as a front end to its machine learning-enabled revenue cycle management solution for healthcare providers.

As for machine learning and AI, WebFOCUS is still early in this journey. For instance, there are already some intelligent search capabilities that involve autocompletion and down the road, plans to add natural make data discovery and dashboard generation more of a guided experience. For natural language query, that's an area that remains challenging. We recall seeing live demos by SAS for voice-activated natural language query that revealed the perils of live demos – not to mention the challenges for nailing the context when making queries that might be off the standard script.

AI and machine learning provide excellent opportunities for Information Builders to exploit partnerships, another goal of Vella's. As mentioned above, integrating with AWS's machine learning services in the cloud would provide a logical start.

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