Cloud BI: Going where the data lives

Nancy Gohring

"Because we have a cloud-based platform, we have real-time access to see what's going on," he says. The biggest challenge: "Taking the data we have about what our clients are doing and how they're progressing in the implementation process and turning that into what we call a nerve center, or a way we can actively monitor exceptions to the process."

Athenahealth wanted a system that would collect information about every point in the implementation life cycle in order to easily find problem areas. For instance, clients route their fax machines to the Athenahealth system. If no faxes are coming in for a given customer, it could mean the customer hasn't yet rerouted the fax number. Or, for a long-time customer, if the percentage of fax information coming in increases relative to electronic information, that could mean someone mistakenly changed a setting.

When Athenahealth started looking for a BI product that could meet its needs, it had a few additional requirements. The vendor "had to be able to move quickly because we had a fairly strict timeline, in the two- to three-month time frame, to deliver on this project," Weinstein says.

Also, the company wanted a product that would meet analytics needs going forward, too. "We wanted to invest in more of a platform, not just a one-time solution," he says.

Weinstein quickly found that some of the large, traditional BI vendors were not going to be able to roll out Athenahealth's initial project quickly enough. In addition, some were too complicated to use, potentially limiting future projects. Athenahealth considered products from both IBM and Oracle, and then moved on to the cloud BI offerings, ultimately choosing Birst.

Athenahealth didn't run into problems with having most of its data stored on-premises and not in a cloud environment. The company has over 50,000 provider clients and tracks more than 100 metrics about each one every day, Weinstein says. That data is pulled from an internal data center into a separate internal data warehouse. From there, the relevant data is uploaded to Birst.

The data uploads happen automatically, several times each day, as part of a process that the company built using tools and scripts, some of which were provided by Birst, he says. "It doesn't keep me up at night," Weinstein says of the process. He has to intervene only if there's an error. "But that is part of our standard monitoring and would be expected as part of a complex data warehouse environment."

Possible pitfalls
Millennial Media, Athenahealth and DMA (see "Early adopter") all say that using a cloud BI service meets their needs. But there are a few roadblocks that companies should look out for when considering cloud BI.

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