Information Builders continues ‘sea change’ in platform strategy with new enhancements

Information Builder Summit this year did not see any splashy new technological announcements or partnerships, but there were some significant new items, with some still in tech preview.

At last week’s Information Builders Summit in Orlando, the company laid out their roadmap going ahead on both the UI [user interface] and AI fronts, and provided some information on their AWS partnership that was originally launched a year ago.

While CEO Frank Vella laid out the high-level vision, in his first Summit since assuming the CEO role from founder Gerry Cohen, more granular specifics were presented to the conference by younger members of the Information Builders team.

Last fall, Information Builders launched a major reworking of the UI of their WebFOCUS BI and analytics platform, to both give it a much more modern look and make it easier for less technical users to work with. At Summit, they demonstrated what’s coming next, the latest changes to the UI that aren’t available yet, but will be soon.

“We are showcasing our new data preparation tool for data analytics at scale, bringing it in the hands of business and IT alike,” Joe Beaubien, Information Builders’ Senior Sales Engineer of the year for 2018, told the audience.

Beaubien demonstrated what is coming in terms of being able to author content.

“When you open up WebFOCUS designer in the future, you will have a workspace for working with data,” he stated, “Our ability to work with 200 different adapters, which has always been a differentiator for us, lets us tell the entire story, so we don’t have to single-source data.”

Beaubien also indicated what is coming next in terms of the ability to author content.

“We are still streamlining the user experience,” he said. “All from a single workflow is where the future of design is going. We will also drive higher adoption rates by allowing end users to speak their queries. That will let us enable more users and answer more use cases.”

“We have had a sea change in UI, with the release late last year,” said Jake Freiwald, Information Builders’ Vice President of Product Marketing. “What was highlighted today, which is still slightly in the future, is an improved variant of Designer. The old one has a sidebar with various things you click into. Customers liked that. But the design team wanted to simplify even more. So what they are working on now has no sidebar, and three levels of stuff. We want people to use search functionality to go through things.”

Aditya Sriram, a data scientist at Information Builders, addressed the convergence of AI with information management, highlighting three trends of AI which he said will make ita reachable to embed AI into the process of all verticals.

“One is using AI tools to provide non-techs with a platform they can use to deploy models,” Sriram told the audience. “It lets them create, deploy and visualize machine learning models without understanding or learning code. An example would be a hospital wanting to manage cardiac stroke care across neighbourhoods. The business outcome would use that data and map it so users can see the number of stroke cases they can be projected to get on a monthly basis.”

The second trend, Sriram said, is leveraging recommendation engines to AI as well as data management.

“That will provide users with content that is personalized for them,” he said.

The third trend is creating content based on search requests.

“That involves pulling appropriate data from sources and auto-creating a map, with the power of searchable AI for a smarter BI,” Sriram stated. “Those are the emerging trends.”

Freiwald said that while the language around the democratization of data is not new – almost every data company pays homage to it – Information Builders is viewing it somewhat differently than most.

“The typical user of competing products is someone who knows enough about data to upload their spreadsheet and create their own charts and graphs,” he stated. “It’s a business user –  but it’s a pretty data-savvy one. And that’s why the penetration rate is only 20 per cent. When we talk about providing analytics for everyone, we are talking about groups like truck drivers and customer service reps, who don’t need to upload and slice a spreadsheet. They want a dot on their dashboard that’s red instead of green to highlight, for the customer service rep, a warning of possible customer churn. Behind that dot there is sophisticated stuff, which can provide them with three offers most likely to stop customers from churning.”

While actual new AI capabilities were not the focus of this Summit, Freiwald provided some details on what’s coming.

“We will take models that were created in the AI tools and deploy them at scale,” he said. “That’s not new in itself. But AI will be deployed more specifically to help people in WebFOCUS and Omni-Gen with analytics and data management. With data management, we will have new ways of doing data remediation where the machine should learn after a specific time to have new cleansing rules and new remediation rules. On the analytics side, we are doing automatic content generation. We are figuring out the best kind of chart types to use. In the future, as part of the roadmap, we will use machine learning to include how users interact with that. We will take feedback from their preferences and start to ensure individual users see things that are most relevant to them. That’s not by role types. We can do that now. It’s a different thing entirely to learn by what each individual user prefers.”

Greg Stanisci, Manager of Business Intelligence for the York Regional Police, in the Greater Toronto Area, was one of the reference customers in the keynote, and discussed how they are using BI today, and where they hope to go with it.

“Police organizations are drowning in data, but the message we provide is that they can use that data to drive their day, and not sit in a police car and grab a coffee and wait for their day to come to them,” Stanisci said.” Cops tend to be resistant to propellerheads, but they like getting tools that make things happen. As a result, up to 2000 cops leverage the technology on a daily basis.”

Stanisci indicated where they expect to go with AI and machine learning.

“We are planning to work with Aditya [who is based in Toronto],” he said. “We have discussions planned around machine learning and automating some processes. We are hoping to productize this partnership around natural language processing, and around  automatically ingesting intelligence data on people, places and things, so what was unstructured information is now provided to our intelligence group. This will help in identifying relationships like organized crime, which will go beyond York Region.”

New enhancements to the solution which are available now include new integrations around Kafka and containers.

“Kafka is a new piece for us,” Freiwald said. The integration of Kafka-based data streams and real-time application of this data to analytics is increasingly important in real-time data streaming around the Internet of Things (IoT).

Information Builders’ BI and analytics technology has also now been containerized, making Docker deployments possible through Kubernetes orchestration.

“If we put WebFOCUS into a container, we can make it so it doesn’t matter where it runs, or how many are on a machine,” Freiwald said. “It’s insulated from all the things that could change around it. You can spin up a container for more scale. Partners can also write an application to a container, which is simpler to deploy, because when you deploy it, it’s all there. That’s good for moving things to the cloud. For on-prem, it makes it easier to scale.”

Information Builders has quietly moved to a more agile release cycle, where releases  now come out every two weeks, although there will still be some big headliner ones, and Freiwald said they expect containers will make this process easier.

“If you take a cut of a new verson, spin it up in a container in a test environment and not have to follow a download, test, install cycle, it will make things easier, especially in the cloud,” he said. “They will just get the releases as a managed service. We want them to be on the latest versions of the software, and this will encourage that, although we do expect that on-prem deployments will be more likely to still prefer just taking the big named releases.”

Last, but not least, Information Builders indicated that it has further extended its partnership with the AWS cloud, which launched in May 2018 with the Information Builders Cloud managed solution. Information Builders’ announcement at Summit was limited to a ‘momentum’ one, of continued success with Information Builders Cloud. There does appear, however, to be something further that they are not yet ready to announce.

“We have been working closely with AWS and have enhanced our integration with them since it was introduced, but we can’t specifically publicize what we have done,” Freiwald said. “We have created special pricing and rolled out new packages. We are working with AWS on Microsoft tools as well, which is kind of ironic, but AWS knows customers want to deploy tools like SQL server on AWS.”