Monthly Archives: December 2011

Reflections: 10 years on from Blue Edge – what’s changed in BI?

10 years since Blue Edge was acquired by Business ObjectsAs I look back on 2011, which has been a pivotal year in Antivia’s growth, I can’t help but reflect that it’s now 10 years since my first company, Blue Edge Software, was acquired by Business Objects.

10 years ago, Business Objects and Cognos, both then standalone entities, were the giants of the BI world; Crystal Decisions was yet to become part of Business Objects; and Xcelsius was but a twinkle in the eye of Santiago and Santi Becerra the founders of Infommersion (see Donald’s recent post on the history of Xcelsius fact#1)

At Blue Edge, we brought capabilities to the BusinessObjects platform which were similar to those offered by lower end competitors of the day, like Actuate. For example:

  • Personalized report distribution: re-wind Moore’s law 10 years and even with the best-performing data warehouses, personalizing a report by refreshing it once against the database for each user, using row-level mapping didn’t cut-it … batch windows were just too short for the processors of the time to churn through all that data. So, at Blue Edge, we introduced single-pass report bursting to the BusinessObjects platform, where you could refresh the report once and then create personalized versions for 100s or 1000s of users based on their profile (it was a bit like splitting each section of the report onto its own page and giving each user their own index which only allowed them to view the pages that were relevant to them).
  • Guided navigation in reports: We recognized that not everyone is a data analyst (and, today, I still believe that 99% of end-users shouldn’t be given unfettered access to data), so we enabled guided navigation within our reports, automatically creating hyper-links so users could explore anomalies in their data following paths predefined by specialist data analysts.

Today, increasing the level of BI adoption is still a big challenge for many organizations. However, our tool of choice for getting information to a mass audience today is no longer the report, rather it is the dashboard, or perhaps more accurately, the interactive BI application. And, through Xcelsius we’re able to create custom, interactive BI applications that reflect the way our business works and which users can just pick-up and use, with no training.

Nearly all the successful dashboards I’ve seen over the years have implemented some level of interactivity (embedding the same type of guided analysis we delivered 10 years ago at Blue Edge). However, building this interactivity with Xcelsius makes for complex dashboards with lots of data queries and lots of formulas. Simplifying these dashboards by minimizing queries and eliminating Excel formula has been the focus of my current business, Antivia. And, through XWIS, we’ve been able to help over 50 SAP customers worldwide to deliver their Xcelsius projects better, faster and at lower cost.

Today, I still see my role as helping organizations to make BI more accessible to more users and I guess you could say that at Antivia, we bring the flexibility and productivity gains promised by many niche BI vendors directly into Xcelsius and the SAP BusinessObjects platform.

However, the biggest change I’ve witnessed in the past 10 years has been in how we want to consume our BI. At Blue Edge, it was all about making information available through the web-browser. Today, the big drive is towards tablets … or, more accurately, the big drive is towards iPads. In 2011, we’ve witnessed a radical change in corporate IT policy where many organizations are now buying iPads for their employees in droves (I believe, SAP themselves currently hold the record for the largest corporate iPad deployment with some 12,500 deployed !), whereas a year ago many IT departments would have been fighting tooth and nail to keep these devices away from the corporate network.

Given this, you won’t be surprised to hear that my most satisfying achievement this year has been Antivia’s development of XWIS Anywhere, which solves the issue of getting (Flash-based) Xcelsius dashboards onto the iPad and does so in a way that fits in with the corporate data security demands of our large customers.

So, 10 years on from Blue Edge and we’re still wrestling with the BI adoption challenge – in one way, not much has changed. But, with dashboards, interactive BI applications and tablet devices – in another way, everything has changed. And, today, I believe, we are developing the tools and deployment capabilities that will enable BI to become truly pervasive and I’m excited that Antivia, through XWIS and with our new FlexWIS product, is playing a part in the next stage of BI’s evolution.

The 12 Days of XWIS – Summary and the competiton

12 days ago, we started the “12 days of XWIS” series, and on each day we have posted a very short video highlighting a different feature of XWIS. During the series, we’ve seen how XWIS helps boost developer productivity, extend end-user capabilities, fend off niche-BI vendors, automate dashboard distribution, and even deliver dashboards on mobile and tablet devices.

At the end of each post, we included a little-known fact from the history of Xcelsius, so even if you were not interested in XWIS (although by the end of the series, how could you not be!), hopefully, there was still something of interest for you as an Xcelsius user.

On top of that, each of the 12 videos contained a hidden word or phrase from the previous day’s “History of Xcelsius” fact.

So, now the time has come for you to try and win your choice of an iPad or a Kindle Fire. In order to enter, you simply need to send an email to 12days@antivia.com listing for each day, the hidden word or phrase from the video that appeared in the previous day’s fact. So your entry will look something like:

Day 1 – strawberries

Day 2 – long winter nights

Day 12 – winner

(note: these are examples, not the real answers !)

Your email must reach us by 5pm Pacific time on Friday 13th January 2012. We will select a winner at random from those entries who get the most answers correct.

Good luck!

The Twelfth Day of XWIS – An “Xcelsius on iPad” present for Mico

As I said in the introductory post of this series, one of the inspirations behind the 12 days of XWIS was the following tweet from Mico Yuk:

As Mico has been such a tireless champion for Xcelsius, it is great that we can help make this wish come true for her with our XWIS Anywhere for iPad product. XWIS Anywhere will be released early in the new year, but just to ensure Mico knows we are close to delivering, we made the following video of her famous, SAP Reportapazoola winning, Coffee Consumption dashboard running on an iPad (complete with seasonal trimmings).

To to find out more about XWIS Anywhere for iPad, join me for a webinar on January 12th: Sign-up for XWIS Anywhere Webinar


(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 13

The flexibility of Xcelsius is one of its key strengths, however it does mean that sometimes people push the boundaries a little too far. Amongst the most remarkable “complexity” stories I have heard about Xcelsius are:

  1. The Xcelsius model with 600 QaaWS connections
  2. The Xcelsius model with 120 Live Office connections
  3. The Xcelsius model which has 240 pages of documentation to describe the spreadsheet calculations

Fortunately, these were not all in the same dashboard! What is the most complex Xcelsius dashboard you have come across?

Tomorrow, I will post a summary of what we’ve seen over the past 12 days … and most importantly, explain how you can enter our competition to win an iPad or Kindle Fire.

The Eleventh Day of XWIS – Personalized Dashboard Distribution

On day nine of the 12 days of XWIS, we saw how XWIS enables Xcelsius dashboards to be taken off-line and viewed when the user is away from the corporate network. This required the user to log on to the dashboard while connected to the network and click the “take off-line” button. Today, we look at how XWIS further extends this functionality so that users can receive personalized off-line dashboards directly in their email in-boxes.

This capability is directly analogous to the core BI platform capability to “burst” WebI and Crystal reports, but XWIS extends this functionality to Xcelsius dashboards.

In the video, note how:

  1. The dashboard is same one we created on day nine, nothing extra is required.
  2. The personalization (security) of the dashboard is controlled by a WebIntelligence report
  3. The publication definition screen has all the capabilities of the BI Platform scheduling (in fact, the publication is saved and run as a package in the BusinessObjects system)
  4. When the user receives the dashboard it is limited to the data specified in the WebI “recipient” report (in this case State = ‘Texas’)
  5. The off-line dashboard retains all the interactivity of the original connected dashboard.

(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 12

Although Xcelsius has been one of the most successful dashboarding tools of the last decade (both commercially and in terms of the sheer volume of business information it has been used to disseminate) it is not without its detractors. Probably the best known and most outspoken of these is Stephen Few, who once described Xcelsius as a “child’s toy of a product” on his Visual Business Intelligence blog. Stephen’s issue with Xcelsius seems to be that Xcelsius makes it too difficult to create dashboards which conform to visualization best practice (in fact, Stephen might argue that this is impossible with Xcelsius, but I would disagree with him on that) and makes it too easy to create dashboards which are simply flashy for the sake of it.

As I have argued before (e.g. on the EverythingXcelsius blog) I think it is the combination of the two ends of the spectrum which have underpinned the success of Xcelsius; I guess my view is not surprising given that I authored the XComponents which contain both the XGlobe (perhaps the least best-practice-compliant component ever written for Xcelsius) and the first publically available bulletchart and sparkline components for Xcelsius.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the final installment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!

The Tenth Day of XWIS – BI 4 support

Throughout this 12 days of XWIS series you may have noticed that all of the videos have been produced using an SAP BusinessObjects BI4 system as a back end.

Today’s video highlights this support by creating a highly-functional, interactive dashboard on top of a BI 4 WebIntelligence report.

Key things to watch out for are :

  1. The reusable nature of the connection. Not only does XWIS allow you to reuse existing BI content (e.g. WebI and Crystal reports), but each connection (WebI, Crystal, SQL, OLAP) can be used across multiple dashboards by multiple dashboard designers
  2. Automatic drill-down and drill-across; once the data has been dropped into the dashboard components they “just know” how to drill, no further action (and certainly no Excel formulas are required)
  3. Absolutely no binding in the spreadsheet at all. All connections are managed by the XWIS components for ease of design, maintenance and maximum (binary) performance.
  4. Data synchronization between 5 components (in this example), all navigating together without the need for any work in the spreadsheet.
  5. Direct binding (through Autowire) to native Xcelsius (or, to be correct, now we’re in the BI4 world: SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards) components (charts) and a third-party component (Centigon’s GMaps Plugin).

You will not see any of these without XWIS !

(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 11

I wrote about the Xcelsius SDK on day 8 (including a video of the first ever publicly demonstrated add-on component). When it was first released, the SDK allowed developers to create new components which could be be dropped onto the Xcelsius canvas. However, what many people don’t realize is that with the release of Xcelsius 2008 SP1 the SDK was extended to enable support for new Excel functions within Xcelsius. This addition meant that it was now possible to:

  1. Implement built-in Excel functions which were not supported by the core Xclesius product
  2. Re-create custom Excel functions (e.g. commercial add-ons of custom VBA functions)

A good introduction to the extended SDK capability can be found on this SAP Community Networks blog post.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the next installment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!

The Ninth Day of XWIS – Off-line Dashboards

Even in today’s connected world there are times when we need access to our information when we don’t have connectivity to our corporate systems. Our ninth day explains how XWIS solves this problem for dashboards, by adding an off-line capability to Xcelsius.

The video below shows how easy it is for the dashboard designer to enable the offline functionality in a dashboard (by dropping on a single “offline” component) and then how the end-user just needs to click the component in the live dashboard to save an off-line version for later use.

Notice how these off-line dashboards are fully interactive and how many of the features we have seen in the previous few days (e.g. drill down and across, synchronized data, ad-hoc analysis and Autowire) continue to work in the off-line dashboard.

(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius – Fact 10

Included in the Xcelsius 2008 release was a completely new set of maps providing more capability and covering the globe in significantly more detail. Unfortunately, one key map was missing – Canada ! This was particularly ironic as the Xcelsius development team was organizationally part of Business Objects’ Vancouver Development Center. Thankfully, the Canadian map was added in in the first service pack a few months later, but it was a pretty glaring omission for a while.

It just goes to show that bugs in software are like needles in a haystack, very hard to find, but obvious when you find one sticking in your finger.

Be sure to check back on Monday for the next installment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!

The Eighth Day of XWIS – End-User Layout Control

Yesterday, we saw how the XWIS slice-and-dice component allows dashboard end-users to conduct some of their own ad-hoc analysis, thereby saving their design team from making endless incremental changes to their dashboards.

Today, on the 8th day of XWIS, we contiune this theme as we look at another feature which empowers end users and lessens the design team’s workload, namely the XWIS Zoom component.

The XWIS zoom component allows end-users to change the layout of their dashboards on the fly, so they can home in on particular visual components to help them make better informed decisions. Again, changes like this would normally require work from the dashboard design team, but the XWIS zoom component means that the end-users can complete more of these types of task on their own.

It might be possible to implement something like this using Xcelsius dynamic visibility and a number of hidden components, but the complextiy this would introuce would add considerably to the TCO of the dashboard. By contrast, the video below shows how simple it is to add the XWIS Zoom component to any existing dashboard; simply drag the XWIS Zoom component onto the canvas and re-compile the dashboard.

Once the dashboard is running, clicking on the zoom control allows the end user to choose the layout they want to see and which visualizations they want to see in the layout.


(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius Fact 9

Yesterday, we looked at how the introduction of QaaWS was pivotal to the success of Xcelsius. Another pivotal feature came in the 2008 release namely the Xcelsius SDK. This allowed third parties to write “add-in” components that could be used alongside the built-in Xcelsius components. The SDK has been a continued source of innovation over the years with many SAP partners creating components to extend the capabilities of the product.

One of the first (possibly the very first), component to be publicly demonstrated was a “coverflow” component, which Brian Mantuano from the Xcelsius development team presented in a session at Adobe MAX in October 2007. The 20 second video below shows the component in action in the Xcelsius designer.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the next installment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!

The Seventh Day of XWIS – End-User Ad-hoc Analysis

Over the last 6 days we have looked at various features of XWIS which dramatically increase the speed at which you can develop connected Xcelsius dashboards.

In fact, Ryan Goodman (who has probably written more Xcelsius dashboards in his time that just about anyone else) commented that, in his experience, XWIS increases the productivity of Xcelsius developers by between 10 and 20 times (i.e. 1000% to 2000%). The videos from the first 6 days of XWIS (particularly days one, two, three and four) demonstrate, collectively, just how dramatically XWIS can speed up Xcelsius development.

Today, on the 7th day of XWIS, we turn our attention to how XWIS brings new capabilities to decision-makers; capabilities which are pretty much impossible to create with Xcelsius on its own.

We start by looking at the “slice-and-dice” feature of XWIS which empowers the dashboard user by letting them create their own view of their dashboard data in a controlled environment … and has the added benefit of eliminating a significant part of the dashboard designers’ workload.

Even with the best dashboards, there are occasions when users need to see a view of the data in the dashboard which is not possible with the existing design. Often these requirements are short term, but important, nonetheless. Without XWIS, the only solution is to go back to the dashboard designers and ask then to add the new view to the dashboard.

Often is not possible to make the changes in the necessary timeframe, but even when it is:

  1. This creates yet more work for the dashboard designers in the BI team
  2. These incremental changes (often for transitory requirements) increase the complexity of the dashboard and add to the maintenance overhead

In the video below, you can see how easy it is to add the XWIS slice-and-dice component to a dashboard and how elegantly it solves the above issues; the slice-and-dice component waits in the background until needed, and one called-upon it allows the end-user to define their own views of the data without having to go back to the dashboard developers.

(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius Fact 8

One of the pivotal points in the history of Xcelsius after the Business Objects acquisition was when Richard Reynolds (at that time a Business Objects pre-sales consultant) proposed a project to the “Labs” development team in Paris to produce something he called the “WSDL Wizard” which would provide a direct connection between Xcelsius and the BusinessObjects semantic layer. Alexis Naibo (the Labs team owner for the project) took the project on but renamed it “Query as a Web Service” or QaaWS … and the rest is history. However, without Richard, Alexis and QaaWS, the evolution of Xcelsius would almost certainly have been rather different.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the next installment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!

The Sixth Day of XWIS – Merging in spreadsheet data

Yesterday, we saw how you could merge SQL data with data managed by the BusinessObjects BI platform, to create a consolidated data view within your dashboard. Today, on the sixth day of XWIS, we take this one step further, and look at how you can also merge in data from the spreadsheet.

The video below takes up where we left off yesterday and adds in another dataset to the merge component, this time coming from Excel, via the XWIS Spreadsheet reader.

The Spreadsheet reader allows Excel data to become part of the XWIS data model and opens up a number of possibilities, including pulling in forecast data and enabling “what-if” analysis on XWIS data.

Key points to watch for in the video are:

  1. Spreadsheet data is mapped into XWIS using the same “objects” as BusinessObjects and raw SQL data, which makes merging easy.
  2. Once added to the merge component, the spreadsheet data behaves like any other data in XWIS.
  3. Although the spreadsheet only has data at the lowest level, once mapped, XWIS aggregates it up using the hierarchies defined in the central WebI report.
  4. As the spreadsheet data comes from Excel, it is possible to use core Xcelsius functionality to perform “what-if” analysis on the XWIS data.


(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius Fact 7

The Xcelsius icon has not changed much over the years; its evolution is shown in the image below. The first one might not have been an official product icon, but it did appear in a number of early sample dashboards created by Infommersion.

 

 

 

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the next instalment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!

 

The Fifth Day of XWIS – Merging in non-BOBJ data

On the 5th day of XWIS, we look at a challenge faced by many SAP BusinessObjects projects … the need to access data from outside of the BI platform, which is typically stored in a stand-alone SQL database.

This is an area competive vendors sometimes use to attack SAP BusinessObjects. They claim that addding new data sources using BusinessObjects technology is a slow, drawn-out process, which hampers BI projects, making organizations less agile. However, contrary to what these vendors claim, the issue is not about the speed with which BusinessObjects can assimilate data, rather the issue is about the processes surrounding a piece of enterprise technology designed to ensure that centrally managed data stays clean and uniform.

Nonetheless, there is often a very real, tactical requirement for BI projects to be able to access data which is not yet in the central repository … and, once again, XWIS is on hand to help.

Today’s video shows not only how XWIS can seamlessly access raw SQL data, but also how it can merge that data with existing data in the BuisnessObjects platform to provide a unified view across the two, complete with the ability to automatically drill down through the data and to add variables which calculate new measures across the two data sets … and, all this achieved without a single Excel formula in sight.

(for best results, watch this video in full-screen mode)

Remember, in each video there is a “hidden” word or phrase from the previous day’s Xcelsius Fact. Find them all and enter the draw to win your choice of iPad or a Kindle Fire.

History of Xcelsius Fact 6

Did you know that prior to Xcelsius 2008, Excel was not embedded within the Xcelsius designer. This meant that you had to create your spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, save it as an xls, then import it into Xcelsius to work on it. This may not sound very onerous, but it meant that every time you wanted to make a change to the spreadsheet you had to go back into Excel, make the required changes then re-import the spreadsheet back into Xcelsius ! A fairly laborious workflow.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the next instalment of the “12 Days of XWIS” – why not subscribe to our blog feed, so you don’t forget!