Tag Archives: Steve Lucas

What is Big Data ? – another sterile BI debate ?

There is a lot of talk about “Big Data” at the moment, but, as always, it is difficult to really get to the bottom of what it is all about. This was demonstrated on Twitter this morning during a conversation between Steve Lucas and Timo Elliott from SAP.

Steve Lucas: Wondering if people agree on the definition of the term “big data”. If anyone is willing can you direct message me your definition?

Timo Elliot: @nstevenlucas reality is that #bigdata term was created to talk about #Hadoop, etc. But everybody has interpreted largely, no “true” def.

In my mind, the issue is that the use of the term, “Big Data” is most wide-spread (and most abused) in the marketing of products and services. So, as Timo hints, every “definition” is slanted towards the particular marketing whims of a particular vendor. A good example of this is the recent press release from Reardon Commerce, which talks about analysis of punctuality data from 67M US airline flights as “Big Data”.

I am not sure that this data really counts as “Big Data”. I have not thought about this deeply, but I am relatively sure that with a copy of SQL Server Express and a moderately powered laptop you could get to all the same headline conclusions highlighted in the press release (e.g. this is historically the worst day to travel, this day is not as bad as you would expect, …) in a matter of hours or days.

That is not to say that this analysis is not useful. Significant insight can come from analysis of small amounts of data, the point I am making is that labeling this as “Big Data”, is probably not that helpful in terms of understanding what the term means.

In fact, with “Big Data”, I think we have quickly reached the point we often get to with technology definitions (as Timo and I have discussed here and here), where the term actually does more harm than good, because the sterile discussion of what it means wastes time and gets in the way of focusing on what really matters.

As always, the key is to approach things from a business, rather than a technology angle. All you need to be aware of is that there are new, maturing technologies which allow you to analyse unparalleled volumes of data. If you have a lot of raw data and a business problem you think it will solve then these technologies might be for you. But, ALWAYS work from the business requirements down and NEVER ask (or worry) if a particular problem is an example of “Big Data” or not.

Mobility and the Future of Xcelsius

Over the past week or so there has been a flurry of on-line activity following two blog posts by Steve Lucas (EVP Business Analytics, Database & Technology at SAP):

The Demise of Flash and the Battle for the End-User Experience
Putting Mobile First and the New Business Intelligence Priorities

Before these posts, some people had fears for the future for Xcelsius, but these fears seemed to have been calmed by Steve’s commitment to an HTML5 version of Xcelsius later this year.

In his reasoning, I think Steve overstates the death of Flash, but nonetheless I believe he is completely right in outlining the intended new direction of HTML5 for Xcelsius. On top of this, I believe that the time between now and an HTML5 version of Xcelsius and also the time before we see feature parity between Flash and HTML5 both give a perfect opportunity for SAP solution partners to play their part in ensuring a long an healthy future for Xcelsius (on mobile and on the desktop).

Flash vs HTML5

In my post Xcelsius and Flash – Plus ça change … written at the time when Adobe made their mobile Flash announcement, I pointed out that whilst they had retreated from Flash plugins for the mobile browser, they were actually increasing their focus on Flash (in the guise of AIR) for cross-platform mobile app development. In fact, I would argue that Flash/Flex/AIR is currently the only cross-platform development/design capability which could come close to replicating what is possible with the Xcelsius designer today on a mobile device (and, that is a key driver behind our FlexWIS product, but that is a story for another day).

Currently, HTML5 does not really come close. There are many toolkits out there for HTML5 development, but the whole area is really still in the category of emerging technology. As an example, scan through this post on PhoneGap / Sencha Touch, it is from 8 months ago but I am pretty sure it is still representative of the state of play today. Couple that with the patchy support for the HTML5 spec in currently deployed browsers and you realize that it is still early days and there is some way to go before HTML5 has the tools and supporting infrastructure to become a mainstream technology for the types of BI applications which people typically use Xcelsius to build.

If anyone has recreated a non-trivial, Xcelsius-style model in HTML5/JS then I would love to see it and I would be happy to change my mind. In a world where many Xcelsius dashboards struggle with scalability and performance inside the Flash runtime, the HTML5/JS environment is unlikely to cut it for the time being.

HTML5 – the right choice for SAP

So, why do I say Steve has made the right choice in promising a version of Xcelsius with HTML5 output? Because, just as in the Wayne Gretsky quote, it is “where the puck is going to be”. Despite the current state of play, HTML5 is a near certain bet for the future.

There is a growing head of steam around HTML5 and the technology will get better and better. By the time the first HTML5 version of Xcelsius appears in beta things will have moved on, and, in the years to come, HTML5 is pretty much guaranteed to be a robust enough environment, supported by the mature development/design tooling, to make it viable.

So, technology is moving on, and for Xcelsius a re-architecture is required – this is hardly unknown in technology circles and as Dallas Marks points out on his blog this is very reminiscent of the DeskI to WebI transition, with which long-standing BusinessObjects customers are very familiar.

The role of partners

One thing which gives Steve and his team a little breathing space is a great piece of foresight from a few years ago. The introduction of the Xcelsius SDK and the work SAP has done to foster a partner ecosystem means there is much more to the product than what comes out of the box. Partner solutions extend the product in a number of areas and more importantly will continue to drive the product forward even as SAP get to work on their HTML5 re-architecture.

This is something which we at Antivia are happy to be able to do. Today, our XWIS product answers the five most commonly requested additions to Xcelsius, namely:

  • Easier data management
  • Greater performance and scalability
  • Offline
  • iPad delivery
  • End user ad-hoc analysis

And, we are already planning our next version, which will add more capability and innovation to the existing Xcelsius.

We also fully intend to be part of things going forward, so as the HTML5 version of Xcelsius emerges and evolves, Antivia will add our unique value into this world, too.

A good example of this is our XWIS Anywhere for iPad product. We architected it in such a way that whilst it can deliver all existing Xcelsius dashboards onto an iPad, it is also “HTML5-ready”, so when the new wave of models are possible it will be able to seamlessly display these as well.

For more details join our XWIS Anywhere Webinar on the 26th January 2012 (registration required)

The road ahead

As a current Xcelsius customer, far from having “backed the wrong horse” as one commentator put it, medium to long term innovation from SAP, and immediate capabilities and innovation from partners means you can have your cake and eat it :-)

Which is just as well, because Xcelsius today is the only BI tool available which makes it quick and easy to create the type of Interactive BI Apps which users really want when they ask for dashboards, but that, too, is another story.