Imagine all the information inside the spreadsheets, databases, and other software programs your company uses.

Now imagine there was a way to aggregate all the bits and bytes trapped in individual programs and run them through one giant filter that could spit out reports to help you run your business better -- information like which routes trucks should take to get there fast without wasting gas or which product lines should be expanded because they pull in the biggest net profit.

That's a pretty good explanation of business intelligence software, programs that gather and analyze data from umpteen original sources and produce reports companies can use for strategic planning purposes in sales, staffing, supply chain management, product profitability, and other aspects of business.

Business intelligence (BI) applications were once the purview of major corporations that could afford the multi-million dollar price tags and the extensive IT systems they needed to run.

But BI software, like a lot of other applications -- is making its way to the Web, and a growing number of vendors offer it on a software-as-a-service basis at prices smaller companies can afford.

Why your business should use BI

Companies are looking to speed up the pace at which they do business and the kind of analytics BI software generates help them make decisions faster -- in hours or days compared with weeks or months, says Michael Lock, analyst with Aberdeen Group, the tech market researcher.

Unlike earlier generation BI applications that required companies to do a lot of custom programming and integration, SaaS-based BI software has templates and dashboards that make it simpler to, says Brad Peters, CEO of Birst (formerly known as Success Metrics), a Silicon Valley start up that introduced a SaaS-based BI app called Birst in the fall of 2008.

Small and mid-sized businesses are also interested in Web-based BI software because it takes a minimum of internal IT resources to get started. Vendors maintain the application and store customer data, all outside the firewall, Aberdeen's Lock says. 'It's as close to a plug-and-play solution as you're going to get.'

In fact, in a poll of 650 companies Aberdeen Group did in October 2008, 22 percent of companies under $50 million that used BI software opted for a SaaS solution compared with 15 percent of mid-sized companies and 8 or 9 percent of large enterprises.

SaaS-based BI software is also reasonably priced. Birst, for example, offers a trial version of its software for free and other versions start at $100 per user per month.

As more small and mid-sized companies show an interest in BI software, vendors are taking notice. In the past year, companies such as SAP and IBM that traditionally offered on-premise software for large enterprises have acquired smaller, SaaS-based BI software vendors to better compete in the small and mid-sized business market.

To get the maximum value out of BI software, however, it's not enough to buy a license or pay a subscription fee. A company has to nurture an information culture so people get into the habit of using the software, because ultimately, the more users, the better the ROI, Lock says. He tells of one company, a building materials manufacturer, that was so successful using BI software for budgeting and forecasting that people from throughout the organization started asking how they could use it too. 'They saw what it could do and started to get creative. It was culture driving adoption,' Lock says.

SIDEBAR: BI Software Vendors

In addition to Birst, Aberdeen Group identifies the following vendors that offer SaaS-based BI software: - Web-based BI from Business Objects, a division of SAP