Archive for the ‘Client Tools’ Category
For my last post from the PASS Summit, I thought I’d mention briefly some of the products that caught my eye as I wandered round the exhibition hall this afternoon:
- OData Connectors from RSSBus (http://www.rssbus.com/odata/), a series of web apps that expose OData feeds (which then of course can be consumed in PowerPivot and SSAS Tabular) from a variety of data sources including Quickbooks, Twitter and MS CRM. I’d seen the website a month or so ago, actually, but I found out today they are close to releasing OData connectors for Google, Google Docs, Facebook, Email and PowerShell as well, which open up some intriguing possibilities for PowerPivot analysis. I can imagine doing a really cool demo where I set up an email address, got the audience to email me, then hooked PowerPivot up to my inbox and analysed the emails as they came in!
- XLCubed (http://www.xlcubed.com/) – well, ok, they aren’t exactly new to me but it was good to have a chat with the guys on the stand. It’s worth pointing out they have a good mobile BI story for SSAS users.
- Kepion (http://www.kepion.com/) – I was quite impressed with the demos I saw of their products for building SSAS-based BI solutions, especially for (but not restricted to) financial planning; it looked pretty slick.
- Predixion (http://www.predixionsoftware.com/predixion/) – again, the company itself isn’t new to me but I got a demo of their new product, Predixion Enterprise Insight Developer Edition, which I’d been meaning to check out for a while. This is an immensely powerful free tool for doing data mining in Excel and it’s very closely integrated with PowerPivot too. Even if you don’t want to do complex stuff, it has some features that would be useful for regular PowerPivot users such as the ability to select a column in a PowerPivot table, analyse the data in it and then generate bandings which are then persisted in a new calculated column.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about any third-party SSAS client tools here, isn’t it? This is partly because there aren’t as many of them around as there used to be; if I’m honest, it’s also because I find writing product reviews pretty dull as well. That said, I’m always interested to see demos of these tools, and my customers are always asking me about what’s available so I need to keep my knowledge up-to-date.
I’d like to point out before we go any further that his post is NOT a product review, but some thoughts that occurred to me after seeing one of these client tool demos.
Anyway, few months ago I was given a demo of a tool called Deltamaster, sold by a German company called Bissantz. Now if you’re reading this in Germany (or Austria, or Switzerland), you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about something that’s been around almost as long as SSAS itself – I’ve certainly known about it for years although I’ve never properly played with it. If you’re reading this elsewhere, though, you probably won’t have heard of Deltamaster because it isn’t widely sold outside its home market. It’s a traditional, full-featured desktop SSAS client tool tool that does all the things you’d expect a traditional, full-featured desktop SSAS client tool to do. It does PivotTable-like things. It does charts and sparklines. It allows you to save multiple views in briefing books. It has menus coming out of its ears and hundreds of different options for doing things. The UI is, if anything, a bit too busy and slightly old-fashioned looking, but it does everything you’d want it to.
What really caught my attention, though – and I’m sure this is a feature its had for ages – was the range of guided analyses it has built-in. With just a few clicks and the selection of a few parameters, you can do some very sophisticated stuff. Here’s the Concentration Analysis (aka ABC analysis) report that it produced for months on the Adventure Works cube, complete with colour coding, chart and all the working:
A distribution analysis (again, notice the stats in the box on the right hand side):
Even some impressive-looking data mining stuff that I don’t quite understand (I should RTFM):
I’ve seen this kind of thing before, but Deltamaster does this well and has by far the largest number of different types of analysis available. And all this made me think, why don’t more tools do this? Why doesn’t Excel feature this kind of functionality?
Data visualisation tools like Tableau have done well by making something that’s difficult and easy to get wrong – data visualisation – much easier, by pointing you in the right direction and stopping you doing things you shouldn’t be doing. You think you want a pie chart? You don’t get it, because pie charts are a Bad Idea. You get what’s good for you, not what you want. What Deltamaster is doing (and I think it’s an idea that could be taken a lot further) is the same thing but for data analysis, statistics and data mining. Now I know next to nothing about statistics and while I’m not proud of that fact, I’ve only managed to survive as long as I have in the BI world because my customers know less about statistics and data analysis techniques than I do. So far, the big struggle in BI has been to present the correct figures in a table with reasonable performance. The next problem in BI, once the data has been delivered, is to make sure business people interpret it properly. This is what good data visualisation tools do, and I think this is what guided analysis functionality could do as well. Are sales really going up, or is this seasonal variation? Is there a correlation between running promotions and increased sales? Does a customer’s gender, age, occupation or education level tell us anything about their likelihood of buying from us? At the moment there are plenty of BI tools that give us the ability to answer these questions if we know what we’re doing, but most of us don’t.
So, the key thing though is not to provide lots of types of guided analyses, but to make them easy to use and difficult to make mistakes with. If I was to criticise Deltamaster it would be because it provides a whole bunch of analyses that spit out graphs and stats, but it doesn’t go far enough to help you choose which type of analysis is right for your business problem, to help you choose the right parameters to pass in, and to help you make sense of the results which are returned; it’s still well ahead of most of the competition though. Would some level of user education always be necessary? Would the tool need to know about the data it’s working with, and the business problems associated with that data? To some extent maybe. I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement on what we’ve got today though.
I’m always curious to see what’s new in the world of SSAS client tools, and quite frequently get demos of the latest client tools. Here’s a brief summary of three client tools I’ve looked at recently…
First of all, bioXL from Pyramid Analytics. It’s a very nice looking Silverlight cube browser with several very interesting features. However the main reason it’s worth looking at is that if you’re lumbered with a large Proclarity installation and no obvious way of migrating, it that it could be the answer to your prayers. It’s designed with existing Proclarity customers in mind: it’s almost completely backwards compatible with existing content stored in PAS, and equally importantly the UI follows the Proclarity look and feel very closely, so existing Proclarity users will feel very comfortable. In fact, looking at it you’d almost believe you were in a parallel universe where Microsoft hadn’t made that crazy decision to kill of Proclarity, and had instead rebuilt it in Silverlight.
Next up, XLCubed. Now I’ve blogged about them here before and Marco is also a fan, so I won’t say much, but I remain a big fan; version 6 has just been released and they’re working on mapping too. I think it’s one of the best tools on the market for the sophisticated SSAS user, both for Excel-based analysis and also for creating web dashboards.
Thirdly, Panorama Necto (see here as well), which aims to bring the benefits of social media to BI. The thinking here is that adoption of BI tools has stalled because the tools themselves are too difficult to use, and also that it’s too difficult to share and discuss the information found using these tools with a wider audience. Once you get past the fact that someone at Panorama really, really needs to read up on dashboard design (3D charts! Gauges! Arghhh, call Stephen Few!) before doing any more demos, I think they’re on to something. It’s still early days but I’ll be keeping an eye on how their functionality develops and integrates with different media.
As I say whenever I talk about third party products here, I don’t do reviews on my blog, I just highlight products that look interesting and probably deserve closer inspection. So here is a non-review of a client tool I had a demo of today, Report Portal, a thin client, pure-html solution that includes both ad-hoc browsing capabilities and dashboarding/reporting. Although the UI looks a little dated, the fact that nothing needs to be installed on the desktop, that there are no requirements that might fall foul of corporate IT policies (which might, for example, rule out a Silverlight solution), and that it is licensed on a per-server basis do remove a lot of potential deployment headaches.
Rather conveniently, Igor, the guy who gave me the demo, realised that I’ve seen hundreds of client tools for SSAS and just showed me the features that make this particular product stand out from the pack, so that’s what I’ll talk about. Here are the main points:
- It automatically creates a number of date calculations and relative time selections (such as ‘current month’, ‘previous month’) for you, meaning you don’t have to develop them yourself.
- On time dimensions you can set up selection by a date picker, and also do date range selections by selecting a start and end date.
- It can also do cascading parameters rather like what’s possible in SSRS or with Excel 2010’s slicers.
- For drillthrough it allows you to build your own drillthrough query, select which measures you want, which attributes/columns you want and the order you want the columns to appear
- There are a wide range of charts and visualisations to choose from, including an interesting (although possibly not Stephen-Few-approved) pie-chart tree report.
- There’s also a load of other features, such as the ability to embed SSRS, OWC, SQL-based and other report types in dashboards; it supports writeback; it allows you to save comments in cells; and there’s also a blog and a wiki inside the portal.
Overall, it’s a solid, mature product that’s been around for six years and does pretty much everything you’ll want. Definitely looks like one to add to the shortlist if you’re looking for a zero-footprint SSAS client tool.
In early September I attended two webcasts introducing new client tools. I’ve been meaning to blog about them ever since but haven’t got round to it until now (so I have some apologising to do); as I’ve said before, I’ve given up writing reviews on this blog but both products have some interesting features and are therefore worth a closer look.
First of all, Varigence Vivid. It’s an Excel addin that does all the kind of complex query things that a proper SSAS client tool does but which Excel pivot tables don’t do; which is all very well, but there are plenty of Excel addins like this already. However its key selling point is this: unlike every other Excel addin client tool for SSAS, instead of trying to replace the native functionality completely it actually builds on and extends existing Excel pivot table functionality. This means that users who don’t have Vivid installed can still use worksheets and pivot tables created using it, which I think is pretty cool.
Second up, Bonavista Dimensions. It’s another Excel addin that can connect to SSAS but it can also create SSAS local cubes from a variety of data sources (I suspect if/when PowerPivot gets an API it will make sense to add support for creating PowerPivot models too). The main differentiating feature in this case is visualisation, and it supports a wide variety of Tableau-like charts which look very impressive; you can also export dashboards created in Excel up to a server to allow for web-based consumption, rather like Excel Services without the cost and hassle of Sharepoint.
Talking of Tableau, ever since it was launched I’ve thought Microsoft should buy the company – it would catapult MS into a genuine leadership position in BI, and almost incidentally solve the whole client tool problem for SSAS, PowerPivot and BISM (and incidentally, has anyone else noticed how much exposure Tableau is getting on Azure Datamarket?). The topic came up on Jen Stirrup’s blog recently in relation to Project Crescent and was dealt with very intelligently; unlike Jen, though, I don’t think Crescent is a reason for Microsoft not to buy Tableau. For a start Crescent comes from the SSRS team and if anyone in MS was going to buy Tableau it would be the Office group – and I don’t think they’d change their plans just because of what the SQL Server guys are doing. Can you imagine what a big deal it would be if Tableau appeared as a new tool in Office 2010? It would certainly be a major reason for many companies to upgrade, and therefore generate more cash for MS than Crescent will ever make – not that Crescent is bad, on the contrary it looks quite promising, but Office revenues are on a different scale to SQL BI. Hmm, however much sense it makes I’m not sure it will ever happen though…
The Silverlight PivotViewer Control (as Live Labs Pivot is now officially called) has just been officially released. There’s loads of great content on the website here:
There’s also a good post on how to use the Pivot Collection Tool for Excel here:
No sign of that tool for creating collections from SSRS that was demoed at TechEd yet, though.
It is a truly beautiful piece of software and puts to shame all of Microsoft’s previous attempts at BI client tools, although of course it doesn’t actually integrate with any of the rest of Microsoft’s BI stack (I’ve asked a question on the PivotViewer forum about whether there are any plans to fix this here – it really needs to happen). It’s also proves something I’ve said on this blog several times over the years: that the lessons learned in the business intelligence world for visualising and analysing large data sets could bring many benefits to the world of search. Look at this real example of how the PivotViewer control can be used to search for wedding venues in the UK, for instance:
And wouldn’t it be cool if you could use it to browse through the contents of your file system in the way I showed with Excel and PowerPivot recently?
Continuing my occasional series of reviews of SSAS client tools, I recently took a quick look at Business Analysis Tool Desktop from BIT Impulse, a company based in the Ukraine. It’s aimed at the power-user market, which Proclarity desktop used to dominate (and still does, to be honest, despite the fact it died several years ago, but I won’t go off on that rant again), and offers advanced analysis functionality for people who find Excel pivot tables too basic and restrictive.
It makes a good first impression – a nice, modern UI, with a look-and-feel that will be very familiar to users of Proclarity and also Tableau. To start you need to create a ‘workbook’, which contains multiple ‘pages’, which can contain several different types of analysis.
The first page type can contain either a table, a table and a chart, or just a chart. Query building is accomplished by dragging and dropping hierarchies either onto the rows and columns of a pivot table, or onto a ‘shelf’ on the top of the pivot table, and this works very smoothly and intuitively. All of the advanced selection mechanisms you’d expect are present: you can select individual members, entire hierarchies or levels, descendants, and so on.
Complex filters of either the Rows or Columns axis, or specific hierarchies that have been selected, can also be built up using one or more conditions; similarly you can sort axes and hierarchies easily too, and do Office 2007-like cell highlighting to create heatmaps. Once the query has been executed, there’s a nice feature whereby you can hide some or all of the real-estate connected to query building such as the lists of dimensions and measures and the ‘shelves’; I also liked the way it was possible to resize rows and columns in the grid to make the layout clearer.
The other page types include a treemap:
…and a rather cool scatter graph that can be animated to display changes in data over time, and which I spent quite a bit of time playing with:
Overall, it’s certainly a strong competitor in its sector and worth checking out if you’re in the market for this type of tool – I liked it. I wouldn’t say it was miles better than any of the other tools like it that I’ve reviewed in the last year, but it’s definitely no worse and has its own particular strengths.
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:
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.
Here’s a cheeky move by Microstrategy: they’ve made the free version of their Reporting Suite work for Analysis Services. More details and a download link here:
I’ve not tried it so I don’t know whether it’s any good or not, but it’s free and you can have up to 100 users, so it will be worth checking out. Of course this is Microstrategy trying to hurt Microsoft and its partners, but, well, it’s free…
For those of you who commented on my recent post asking what the future held for existing Proclarity users, some interesting news. My fellow SQL BI MVP Thomas Ivarsson asked whether there were any plans for helping Proclarity users migrate to PerformancePoint and got this reply from Alyson Powell Erwin:
Here’s the text:
There will not yet be a migration from ProClarity 6.3 to PerformancePoint Services for SharePoint 2010. Customers can continue to use ProClarity throughout its current supported lifecycle date of July 2012 for mainstream and July 2017 for extended. We are still working on the roadmap for ProClarity but it is likely that you will not see a migration path until the O15 timeframe.
So, in effect, three and a half years after Microsoft first announced they were buying Proclarity, they still have no roadmap for migrating existing Proclarity customers onto a new platform. I’m sorry, but this is just not good enough; I don’t think they could have come up with a strategy that would be more damaging to Microsoft BI if they had called up Larry Ellison and asked him to contribute some ideas. Development on Proclarity finished three years ago, almost, and they’re saying that there probably won’t be a migration story until Office 15 – which is likely to be about three or four years in the future! That’s effectively telling some of the most serious, committed Microsoft BI customers to bin their existing solutions and start again from scratch, and I can’t tell you how angry that makes me feel. It seems to me that Microsoft don’t have a BI strategy any more, they have a sell-more-Office (and especially MOSS) strategy. That’s fair enough, Microsoft have to make money somehow, but in there’s no point expecting SQL Server BI to drive sales of Office in the future if they’re busily driving away the existing customer and partner base. It’s a classic case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Here’s what Microsoft should do:
- Round up whatever members of the Proclarity dev team that are still in Microsoft and get them to work on a new stopgap release of Proclarity. It doesn’t need to add much new functionality, but it does need to update the UI and make it look a bit less like a VB6 app circa 1998.
- Either stop pretending that Excel will meet the needs of power users and let the Proclarity fat client live for a few years longer, or add functionality to Excel that will bring it up to the required standard. Richard Lees has just published a good list of what needs to be done here (I can think of a few more myself, such as support for ragged hierarchies that use HideMemberIf), and while some of these issues are addressed in Excel 2010 not all are. Excel 2010 is just bringing Excel up to the levels of functionality that most third party SSAS clients had in 2005. And again, I can’t wait until Office 15.
- Publish – and commit to – a clear roadmap showing how existing Proclarity customers can be migrated to the new Office BI platform. At the moment most Proclarity customers feel completely abandoned and have no idea what to do (as the comments in my recent blog post demonstrate).
In the meantime, if I was one of the remaining third party SSAS tools vendors I would be wondering if it was possible to create a wizard that would migrate existing Proclarity briefing books onto their own platform. I would imagine it might generate a few leads…