Start-Ups

Birst: Business intelligence and big data insights for the everyman

Business intelligence tools offer great insights, but are often made for analysts. Here's how Birst built a user tier for business intelligence data.

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Image: Birst

Since the rise of big data, business intelligence (BI) tools are experiencing a boom of their own. In short, BI tools and services help transform raw data to make it easier to use for business analysis. These tools, which are traditionally built for business analysts, have a huge potential impact which is often lost on non-analyst employees.

This is precisely why Brad Peters and Paul Staelin founded Birst in 2005. Peters, now the company's chairman and chief product officer, said that they started the company with the intention of meeting what he described as "this mass unmet need for general business users to consume insights so they can make better decisions on a day-to-day basis."

Birst provides on-demand business intelligence and analytics to enterprise customers, geared toward all employees, not just business analysts. It offers business intelligence reports, analytics, dashboards, and interactive visualizations.

Peters said that the goal was to rethink the supply chain for going from source application to end user, and to provide a better end user experience as a service. That goal plays out in creating user-ready data for non-analysts and providing insights quickly to keep users agile in their decision making.

Jeremy Zacha, director of technology at Nu-Way Transportation Services in Bloomington, Illinois, said that his company uses Birst to "monitor a variety of key indicators." Nu-Way, which offers transportation and logistics services, uses Birst to fleet MPG management, fuel purchasing management, manpower, and safety.

"The best part of using Birst, the ease of combining data, creating reports and distributing," Zacha said. "The challenges include dealing with complex data model, data integrity, report administration."

Birst isn't just a visualization tool, as it works to refine the data quickly for non-analysts and add visualizations on top of it. This is the "user tier" of data analytics, the last mile in the big data process.

The problem for many users looking to put their data to work for them is determining a starting point. The open source project Hadoop has gained popularity in the last few years, but it is only a part of the process for many.

"To some extent, Hadoop is a crutch," Peters said. Hadoop has what he called a seductive quality that makes users feel like they don't need to think about their data. Regardless, he believes that it is a good source of raw data, as are other existing data warehouses that are commonly put to use.

Birst is commonly compared to existing BI tools such as QlikView and Tableau. However, Peters said that Birst is more of a complement to services like Tableau than a competitor because it serves the non-analyst community. In addition to targeting average, everyday business users, Birst's other distinguishing feature is the speed at which it can be implemented and begin providing insights.

"One of the major reasons BI implementations fail, and they fail a lot, is that by the time you get one done, the business need has changed," Peters said.

In that situation, clients struggle to receive accurate feedback from their business users in terms of the analyses they were able to make. So, Peters said, you don't know if they actually have the proper tools and properly prepared data that will make a meaningful impact on their work.

In the spirit of agility, Peters said that Birst enables business users to make better decisions, not report on a decision after it is made. For example, a marketing organization can determine which campaigns are the most useful before they run them, instead of figuring out that those campaigns weren't worth the cost after the fact.

The majority of Birst's deployment's are wholly cloud-based, but the company does offer a software appliance as well, so clients can run a private SaaS instance with that software appliance on their company's own private cloud.

Non-technical users can integrate data without any programming, using a point-and-click interface to choose the data they want analyzed. Birst offers connectivity and integration from major players such as SAP BW, Salesforce.com, NetSuite, Google Analytics, Marketo, and Microsoft Analysis Services. Users can also extract data from major databases such as Oracle, DB2, SQLServer, and MySQL.

Once users choose the data they want to analyze, they can select from a variety of visualizations available through Birst. Birst's interactive dashboards are also customizable, so you can organize it in a manner you see fit. Device-scalable reports can be generated using a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interface and can be scheduled to run at certain time intervals or on a specific cadence.

The company has been around for almost a decade and has amassed some top shelf customers, working with Citrix, American Express, Cisco Systems, and Samsung, just to name a few. Birst also has strategic partnerships with Amazon, Marketo, and NetSuite.

Birst raised its last round a little more than a year ago in August 2013. Sequoia Capital led the $38 million round, and Peters said that the company is using the funds to build out its sales force and grow internationally — including expansion into Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Disclosure: CBS Interactive, TechRepublic's parent company, has used Birst.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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