Chris Webb's BI Blog

Analysis Services, MDX, PowerPivot, DAX and anything BI-related

Platforms For Building Richer BI Applications

with 4 comments

One of the mysteries of the MS BI third-party ecosystem is how slow it has been to make use of technologies like WPF and Silverlight. Marco Russo has a plausible explanation of why this is here; it’s really only in the last six months that things have begun to change. A few products I’ve seen or heard of include Clearway GeoAnalyzer, Radarsoft’s RIA Grid and Intelligencia for Silverlight; there’s also increased interest in building your own specialised BI apps in Silverlight – for example I’ve seen Sascha Lorenz do presentations on this subject at various conferences, and of course Bart Czernicki’s book “Next Generation Business Intelligence Software with Silverlight 3” was released a few months back. I still don’t think we’re anyway near reaching the potential of the technology though.

I think one way to increase uptake would be to provide some kind of toolkit or additional layer to help developers or even power users build BI applications. Maybe something like a Microsoft version of SAP’s XCelsius would be a good idea? I know there would be a lot of overlap with what PerformancePoint is meant to do, but I think there is sometimes a need for highly visual presentation of data rather than plain old dashboards, beyond what’s possible with PerformancePoint, Excel or Visio even in Office 2010. I’m not advocating the abandonment of Stephen-Few-ish design principles for serious business dashboards in favour of fancy gauges and animations – but sometimes, for example in presentations or newspaper articles, a bit of ‘wow’ in the way the data is presented can be as important for the overall purpose as the meaning of the data; the kind of visualisations you can find on http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/, for example, are what I’ve got in mind here.

Here’s two examples of what could be done. When I saw Microsoft Semblio I thought something like it for BI developers for creating dashboards or presentations would be cool: it’s an SDK for creating rich, multimedia content for educational purposes. In a similar vein, I recently met up with an ex-customer of mine, Steven Peters, who is now the owner of a startup called Munglefish that develops a platform for developing closed-loop sales and marketing presentation applications. Munglefish’s EpicX platform is something like an interactive PowerPoint, and among other things each ‘slide’ can display BI data as an aid to the sales process (eg if you’re selling Widgets to an IT consultant in his mid-30s in SE England, you’d be able to display just how much money other IT consultants in their mid-30s in SE England had saved buying your brand of widgets) as well as capturing information about the flow of the sales process and sending it back to a data warehouse to be analysed; I think it is one of the best examples of BI being integrated in what is not primarily a BI application that I’ve ever seen, and its success is completely due to the kind of high-quality graphics that are possible with WPF and Silverlight. These platforms don’t remove the need for a developer but they do reduce the overall amount of development work needed. They are also targeted at scenarios where slick visualisations are very important for engaging the audience – we know it’s just as important to hold the CEO’s attention in a dull meeting where you’re presenting your financial data as it is to hold a 12-year-old’s attention in a science lesson.

Finally, last week I also saw the announcement of Vedea, a new, experimental data visualisation language from Microsoft Research. You can find full details of it on Martin Calsyn’s blog here:
http://blogs.msdn.com/martinca/archive/2009/12/03/introducing-the-microsoft-visualization-language.aspx
It’s basically a new .NET language for “creating interactive infographics, data visualizations and computational art” – pretty much what I’ve been asking for so far in this post, and although I still think it would be too technical for the average business user I can see it would have a lot of interesting uses for BI professionals. With a bit of luck, like F#, it will make the transition to being a full member of the .NET family one day and maybe then we’ll have a tool that will allow us to make the most of the power of Silverlight and WPF for BI with the minimum of effort.

Written by Chris Webb

December 7, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Posted in Client Tools

4 Responses

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  1. Agree totally. Actually just running into all these issues last week/this week and its funny you blogged about it. Do you use SSRS which is limited in some way, use SharePoint BI stuff, which is again limited in some ways, use PPS, which has its own quirks, get a 3rd party add on like Dundas Chart which can do things but is limited by Microsoft tools. Try to pull all together which really doesnt end up working. What we are doing is custom .NET web app using Dundas OLAP to create the look and feel we want, which is just way to overblown in my eyes. I would like to utilize more out of the box functionality from MSFT.

    Steve

    December 7, 2009 at 6:23 pm

  2. @ChrisFirst, thanks for mentioning my book. The blog post that you write is the very reason why I decided to write my book (which focuses on Business Intelligence 2.0). Microsoft has pretty good analysis tools, but have very poor integration with tools to visualize this information. All of the links you mention are right-on. I would like to add a couple more to ur list:- Pivot (http://www.getpivot.com) is in private beta right now and it is a interactive data visualization tool from Microsoft. It has a lot of functionality like Excel Pivot. I could see it mature into a great cube analysis tool for SSAS.- RoamBI (http://www.roambi.com) is a mobile data visualization tool for platforms like the iPhone. You upload your data and use their tools to analyze the information- SnapFlow (http://www.snapflow.com) is a workflow visualization and collaboration tool based on Silverlight that makes creating/visualizing/sharing workflows much easierI think there is a gap for data visualization tools for .NET and I think it can be filled via Silverlight. Silverlight runs on the client and provides a rich interactive framework to create and surface these next-gen data visualizations. HTML/JavaScript/Flash simply cannot provide the "one stop shop" like Silverlight/Microsoft can…map data visualizations/SharePoint/Azure Cloud/SSAS/SSRS etc.

    Unknown

    December 8, 2009 at 3:10 am

  3. Dundas recently created a dashboarding tool using Silverlight. It looks somewhat similar to XCelsius – although I do not know the details of the Dundas product http://www.dundas.com/Dashboard/index.aspx.

    Martin

    December 8, 2009 at 7:23 am

  4. Chris you should take a look at this control http://ranetuilibraryolap.codeplex.com/ . I found it the other day and IMHO it is as good if not better than the other vendors that have been mentioned.

    Unknown

    December 13, 2009 at 7:37 am


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