Optimizing my dashboard: Creating a visual draft

Remember my last post about the Webi dashboard? As mentioned at the end of that post aimed to show a technical trick to put an interactive kind of a button onto a Webi report. Now this post is the first in a series of posts how to optimize the layout of the initial dashboard. Let’s start with creating a draft of our optimized dashboard layout. The advantage of such a draft is that it is not yet implemented with the actual BI tool but using either pen and pencil or a wireframing tool. I did the later and chose the cloud edition of Balsamiq. To get a quick start you can use a 30 days trial account.

Let me explain briefly how the tool works. After that I’ll explain some of my thoughts behind the chosen layout.
Within the editor you can drag and drop sketched objects like a window container, rectangles, text, buttons etc.

Balsamiq_Editor

My dashboard in the Balsamiq editor

Looking at the available chart objects, I’m not really satisfied:

Balsamiq_Charts

Default chart elements in Balsamiq

Therefore I added my own images representing typical IBCS chart types (IBCS stands for International Business Communication Standards. I wrote a short blog post about IBCS here.). The images are based on the graphomate add-on for SAP DesignStudio and BusinessObjects Dashboards.

IBCS_charts

Typical IBCS chart types (created with graphomate)

After all, my inital dashboard draft looks like this:

Page01.jpeg

My dashboard draft (chart view 1)

At the top you can see some reserved space for an appropriate title. Providing this is a major requirement stated by IBCS as one of the top ten proposals:

I adapted this to a BI specific title concept where I distinguish between general title elements (like the organization or global query filters) and object specific titles, e.g. for the table or a chart. For the table I used the default element of Balsamiq, maybe I will update this later on with an IBCS optimized one. For now it is just a placeholder.

The charts in this first view will show current year values and previous year values (where as the current year will be indicated within the global filters area) for revenue and margin. To make the analysis of available data more straight forward, I decided to add two variance charts, one for absolute values and one with percentage values. Again, this is one of the top 10 elements in IBCS:

You might have discovered the symbolic button to switch the chart view. The second view looks like this:

Page02.jpeg

My dashboard draft (chart view 2)

The header and table areas stay the same. In the lower area with charts I now show historical values for revenue with actual and plan values. Instead of putting everything into one big chart I decided to use small multiples for the top 5 product lines (based on total revenue over time) as well as one chart for all other product lines. Depending on how it will look like in Webi we might decide to show more product lines or add another topic to the dashboard (as we still have space left on the bottom right corner).

In this blog I showed how to create a simple dashboard draft using a wireframeing tool like Balsamiq. In addition I pointed out how to apply two of the top ten IBCS proposals in this conceptual phase.

A (Webi) dashboard built by a business (power) user

This blog post is inspired by a recent customer request to challenge their decision to use Design Studio for some “dashboard requirements”. Showing how you can create a dashboard in Webi doesn’t mean I told the customer not to use Design Studio. Much more it is to show that finally a dashboard as well as every other type of BI front end solution is made up of requirements and not primarily by the tool you build the solution. Please refer to my Generic Tool Selection Process for more details as well as my post regarding BI specific requirements engineering.

Having said this, let’s have a look at how we can use latest Webi 4.1 features to quickly build an interactive dashboard without the need of (much) scripting. First of all here is what the final result looks like:

01_DashboardOverview1

You can select values from the left side bar (Product Lines), you can select States by directly clicking into the table and you can switch from the bar chart to a line chart. Here you see it in action:

The first step to achieve this, is to create the basic table and the two charts. Until the dynamic switch is implemented, I placed them side by side. Next add a simple input control in the left side bar:

02_SimpleInputControl 03_SimpleInputControlDepend

Next thing is to define the table as an additional input control – right click the table and choose “Linking” and “Add Element Link”,  choose the two chart objects as dependencies:

04_TableAsInputControl 05_TableAsInputControlDepend

Next we need to create the “switch” to toggle the two charts. As I would like to position this switch at the top right corner of the chart, I again use a table input control. To generate the two necessary table values (namely “Bar Chart” and “Line Chart”) I prepared a simple Excel spreadsheet:

08_ExcelContent

In 4.1 you can now finally upload this sheet directly into the BO repository:

07_UploadExcel

If you need to update the Excel sheet later on, this is now feasible as well:

09_UploadExcelReplace

Finally, in Webi add the Excel sheet as a second query:

10_ExcelQuery    10_ExcelQueryDetails

In the report we need now two tables: A visible one to represent the chart switch and a (hidden – see the “Hide always” option) dummy table to act as a dependency for the first:

13_HiddenDummyTable  12_HideDummyTable

The most tricky part is to create a variable to retrieve the selected value:

15_VarSelectedChartType

Here the formula for copy / paste:

=If( Pos(ReportFilterSummary(“Dashboard”);”Chart Type Equal “) > 0)
Then Substr(ReportFilterSummary(“Dashboard”);Pos(ReportFilterSummary(“Dashboard”);”Chart Type Equal “) + Length(“Chart Type Equal “);999)
Else “Bar Chart”

(The idea for this formula I grabed from David Lai’s Blog here)

Finally you need to configure the hide formula for both charts:

16_DynamicallyHideChart

That’s it.

Conclusion

Positive: I’m not too technical anymore (I do more paperwork than I wish sometimes…). Therefore I don’t consider me a “developer” and I like solutions for the so called “business (power) user” more and more. Therefore I like Webi. It took me about 60 minutes to figure out how to create this kind of interactive dashboard. I didn’t need to install anything – I could do everything web based. Except for one single formula (which I didn’t need to write myself)  I could click together the above sample. And I dare to say it looks like some kind of a dashboard :-) In addition I have all the basic features of Webi like a broad range of data source support, plenty of export possibilities, Office integration and so on. Even integrating an Excel spreadsheet as a data source is now finally a no-brainer.

Negative: Clearly, Webi is not a “design tool”. For example I wasn’t able to show icons for my chart switch instead of the text lables. Putting a background image to the table doesn’t work well if the table is used as input control. When I discussed this prototype with the customer they also mentioned that there are still too many options end users might get confused with (e.g. that there is a “filter” section showing whether the Bar Chart or the Line Chart value is chosen). In Webi you can’t change that. Toolbars, tabs etc. are just there where they are. Live with it or choose a different tool.

Bottom line: Have a look at my Generic Tool Selection Process and the mentioned hands-on test. The above example is exactly what I mean with this: Create a functional prototype in one or two tools and then do a fact based decision depending on your requirements and end user expectations.

Important remark: This post focused on the technical aspect of the dashboard. The visual representation doesn’t yet fit to best practices mentioned in my earlier articels (e.g. about SUCCESS) In a next blog post I will outline how to optimize the existing dashboard in this regard.

Getting to Know the German Monster – The Importance of Proximity in a Globalized World

Just recently I published a blog about the following topic on sap.com

Thanks for reading!

IBCS – an emerging standard for business #dataviz

In my previous post I introduced the SUCCESS model of Rolf Hichert. In this post I’d like to introduce you to the subject of IBCS – the International Business Communication Standards. IBCS’ aim is to “foster the level of understanding in reports and presentations” (Source: IBCS). Currently, IBCS consists of two main parts:

Notation of meaning
The part “Notation of meaning” describes basically the semantics of a standardized business communication language. It covers all aspects of meaning in the context of business communication and suggests an appropriate notation.

Design of components
The part “Design of components” covers rather the syntactical aspects of a standardized business communication language. It describes the basic report elements and specific rules to use them for the design of objects such as tables and charts. Several objects and additional elements make up complete pages. Although this part should not consider aspects of meaning, but only define the “grammar” of a unified communication language, some overlap to the “Notation of meaning” (semantics) is inevitable. (Source: IBCS)

IBCS and SUCCESS are closely related, therefore I will start with some explenations about how the two topics are positioned against each other. First of all SUCCESS and IBCS can be looked at from a time perspective. Clearly, SUCCESS was developed first:

Folie1

From this point of view IBCS  is a refinement of certain aspects of SUCCESS (namely the Unify part in SUCCESS). This refinement can be seen in the following perspective too:

Folie2

SUCCESS provides only generic guidelines without concrete implementation details, e.g. the following one:

UnifyStandardDimensions

Souce & Copyright: HICHERT + PARTNER

This guideline just tells you: If you visualize this year’s revenue with blue in chart number 1, you should also use blue in chart number 2. But the guideline doesn’t tell you to always use blue. If you wish to take brown for current revenue, it’s OK. Just use brown whenever you visualize current revenue. This and many of the other guidelines (some of them are mentioned in my previous blog post) in SUCCESS I therefore attribute to what I call “common sense” or data visualization basic recommendations. Now IBCS comes into play. Whereas SUCCESS is rather generic IBCS defines the details and writes them down. As indicated above IBCS does this in mainly two parts:

- the notation of meaning clearly defines which elements have which meaning:

UnifyStandardDimensionsIBCS

Source: IBCS

This way business communication should be simplified through standardization the same way as you are used to it with geographical maps for example. Blue always means water, north is always at the top of the map etc. This “semantic layer” is something which differentiates IBCS from other data visualization and information design concepts. Most if not all of them focus on generic recommendations only. In contrast, IBCS wants to harmonize the visualizations in a business context and make them therefore easier to understand.

- the second aspect of IBCS is the design of components

Let’s have a look at the SUCCESS guidline first, e.g. for chart design:

Source & Copyright: HICHERT + PARTNER

Source & Copyright: HICHERT + PARTNER

IBCS gives you much more information, e.g. regarding legends:

LegendsIBCS

Source: IBCS

You can look at IBCS and SUCCESS from a third perspective too:

Folie3

In this perspective IBCS is the solid base with all the detailed rules to consider for efficient data visualizations in business communications. Yet the IBCS rules are hard to digest (as every other industry standard…) SUCCESS can be seen as an implementation methodology of them (as IBCS and SUCCESS are mostly congurent to each other). SUCCESS is an acronym of seven verbs – if you act on them, you’ll see that implementing IBCS is pretty straight forward.

IBCS is work in progress and it is open-source (based on the Creative Commons BY-SA license). Its further development is orchestrated by the IBCS Association which again is run by HICHERT + PARTNER. Simply create a login on ibcs-a.org and start to add your own ideas to further refine and extend the standard.

If you want to learn more about IBCS, SUCCESS and how it can be implemented, join me during the BOAK conference this autumn. It takes place on Tuesday, September 16th in Zurich / Switzerland. In the data visualization track (sessions E1 to E4) you’ll find several sessions dedicated to IBCS. Jürgen Faisst, CEO of HICHERT + PARTNER will elaborate on the goals of IBCS. My friend Lars Schubert will demonstrate how you can apply IBCS using the IBCS certified software “graphomate” as part of SAP Design Studio or SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards. I myself will present together with a customer showing how we implemented an IBCS oriented design in Web Intelligence. The day after I will teach these best practices during a one day workshop. A sneak peek on the Webi reports you can find on my Hichert Certified Consultant page. Looking forward to seeing you during the BOAK conference!

What do you think about IBCS and the semantic layer? Do you think it is worth the effort to harmonize data visualizations in a business context? Just add a comment now!

Wishlist for SAP BOBJ tool consolidation

Obviously the multitude of BOBJ client tools is still a hot topic – both for SAP as well as its customers. From SAP’s side we’re hearing now about their decision to consolidate BOBJ / BI client tools. There are a lot of rumours during the currently held SAPPHIRENOW conference like the following:

JayneTool roadmap

There was a Google hangout session last week with Steven Lucas, President of Platform Solutions at SAP. In this article I will summarize some key points from this talk and add my own thoughts.

Have a look at the video at about 23:00. Steven mentions that there are currently 21 BI client tools in the BOBJ/SAP portfolio. That’s why SAP already took  the decision: “We are going to consolidate our BI tools”. In addition Steven mentions that they won’t deprecate core technologies like Webi or Crystal, but maybe integrate niche solutions like Explorer into Lumira. I personally like the statement about “feature preservation, not tool preservation”.

Although there are good reasons why SAP should consolidate their BI client tool portfolio I’d like to point out where I see the root cause of the problem: Definitely the number of different tools is not the real issue. I often use the comparison with the automotive industry. Just have a look how many models certain car manufacturer have in their portfolio:

 

Different cars for different purposes. Different tools for different purposes. But what’s different between the shown car portfolio and SAP’s BI client portfolio? All the cars share some basic functionality like four wheels, a steering wheel, head lights etc. For the BI client portfolio we still lack some basic functionality to be included in every tool more or less in the same way: One main issue is the missing homogenity in terms of data access. For relational data the Universe might be seen as a common base. But not even 10 years after Crystal Reports was bought by BusinessObjects, and not even in the new Crystal Reports for Enterprise version which was built from scratch we see equality of how you can connect to datasource compared to e.g. Web Intelligence. The same with BW connectivity. When I was at the sapInsider conference BI2014 two weeks ago at Nice / France, I had to learn once again from Ingo Hilgefort that Web Intelligence lacks some basic functionality like Zero Suppression even now having BICS based direct connectivity to BW. The same with HANA connectivity where Crystal supports HANA connectivity using an OLAP connection but Webi doesn’t. The same with Web Services connectivity and I cut continue the list for a while. From an architectural perspective I just ask: Why?

Another commonly cited issue is the charting library. Still there is nothing like common charting capabilities, the different tools still differ quite heavily in terms of what they provide as chart types and options, not to talk about the missing option to plugin a custom charting extension to all BI tools but only specific ones.

To sum up this first part: SAP’s job isn’t done by simply reducing the number of tools. They need to make sure that the remaining tools share some commonly expected features. Don’t let data connectivity or charting options be the differentiator between the different client tools.

I already wrote certain blog posts about BOBJ tool selection. Whereas the later posts were tool agnostic, the first one was very concrete. In this article I outlined some major differences (especially short comings) between the tools. On this background let me formulate my personal wish list for the future BOBJ tool consolidation:

  • Merge Crystal Reports into Web Intelligence: I know, according to Steven’s statement above this won’t gonna happen as Crystal is considered a core technology. Still, give this thought a chance. There isn’t that much missing between Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence from a feature perspective. Conditional formatting, interactive alerts, some more export formats, hierarchical grouping for relational data and a more powerful formula language. Being a Crystal Reports consultant for more than 12 years I’m not really happy with this thought in a first instance as I really like the tool. But if imagine how I could leverage certain Crystal Reports features with the powerful capabilities of Webi, it sounds very promising to me.
  • Merge BO Dashboards / Xcelsius “visuals” and input controls into Web Intelligence, Design Studio and Lumira: Stop the thinking that “a dashboard” is a matter of the tool. From a business perspective a dashboard has more important elements than just to be fancy and highly interactive. Depending on the business requirements you can build a dashboard in many tools including Design Studio (more app style dashboards), Lumira (more the ad-hoc kind of dashboard) and Webi (if you want to have more sophisticated data  capabilities and the fully fletched platform support like scheduling / publishing, control user actions with rights etc.) So please share the visual components we find in BO Dashboards today to various tools like Webi, Design Studio and Lumira.
  • Merge Explorer and Lumira – and think about the “feature preservation”. Don’t forget to add the “Export to Webi” somehow to Lumira.
  • Merge LiveOffice into BO Analysis, Edition for Office. LiveOffice is still very powerful, but I think we don’t need two separate add-ons.
  • Merge Analysis OLAP into – I’m not sure, as I’m not very used to this tool. Regarding the BW connectivity issues I’d like to see the Analysis OLAP capabilities in Webi. And / or you can add an OLAP grid / control to Design Studio.
  • Merge the predictive tools like Infinite Insight and Predictive Analysis into one joint tool.

How do you rate my wishlist? How does your wish list looks like? I’m looking forward to reading your comments soon!

[Update June 12th 2014] The guys from EVTechnology wrote an excellent blog regarding their findings from SAPPHIRENOW. There you can find the following screenshot:

SAP-BI-Platform-Simplification-500

Not too far away from my wishlist though ;-)

In addition Tammy Powlas documented an interesting webcast regarding Crystal Reports for HANA. I just hope that at least the HANA direct connectivity will be added the same way to Web Intelligence…

 

The bug paradox: When fixing the bug leads to wrong reports

My workmate Christoph Gnodtke wrote an excellent blog about how to identify SAP BusinessObjects Web Intelligence reports which are impacted by various calculation changes in newer BO versions. What I would like to point out here is that not only BO 4.x migrations are concerend but also “simple” service / support package upgrades e.g. from XI 3.1 SP2 to SP6. In my current customer case we’ve found many many reports which obviously were created in a wrong way, namely that the table structure contains the merged dimension (e.g. [Merged Country]) where as the cells within the row use a variable containing e.g. a Where operator using the original dimension ([Query1].[Country]). In our case the business requirement would have been to use the merged dimension here as well. As outlined here, in former BO support package levels a bug resulted in the effect, that the just mentioned example still showed what the business expected. Now (e.g. in XI 3.1 SP6) that the bug is fixed, the reports start to show wrong values. Although the software 360Eyes doesn’t solve the problem, it at least helps to identify concerned reports. Unfortunately we still need to look into every single report and compare between the version running on the XI 3.1 SP2 environment and the SP6 environment. In order to speed up this process we use 360Cast. This software provides similar features like BO Publications e.g. for report scheduling and bursting. The main advantage namely in the case of report testing are two fold (compared to BO out of the box features):

  1. Report selection for a schedule job can be done using good old BO categories. That means you can assign e.g. a test category to all reports you want to test in one single run. In our customer case we use categories for each data mart. In 360Cast, instead of choosing every single report individually, we just choose to select all reports of this test category.
    CategorySelection
    In order to run all these reports with one single click there is just one thing missing: Providing all the necessary prompt values, often the same values for the same prompts (like Year) over many reports. This is where the second advantage comes into play:
  2. To provide prompt values 360Cast accepts both manual input values (where a value can be applied to a all prompts with the same name) but also values from an Excel sheet (or even from an SQL query). We usually use the Excel alternative. Based on this we can easily vary input parameters for different test purporses by simply using another Excel sheet. In addition we can specify the export format and the recipients, e.g. by providing an email address.
    PromptSettingMapping
    (The values in the drop down menues correspond to the columns in the underlying Excel spreadsheet)

After all, also 360Cast doesn’t solve the initial problem. But at least we don’t need to run every report (identified by 360Eyes earlier) on its own but can automate the refresh process and we can easily rerun reports (e.g. with different prompts by simply modifying the values in the Excel list).

BI Picture Books (BI specific requirements engineering – part 2)

Part 1 of this article you’ll find here.

Illustrate available options using a BI Picture Book

A BI Picture Book is a structured collection of “pictures” aka screenshots of features illustrating one or multiple products. It describes and illustrates the available options in a compact and easy to handle manual. It should help the user to identify what options they have in a given BI front end application.
Referring to scenario A and B above, in an ideal world one would create a BI Picture Book during the initial tool selection process (scenario B). In this context, the BI Picture Book helps to illustrate the available features of the different tools under consideration. Some (or all) of these tools will become “strategic” and therefore the preferred tools to be used during subsequent BI projects. In the same way, the corresponding parts of the original BI Picture Book will also be included in the “daily business” BI Picture Book, which only contains the available options regarding the strategic tool set.
One main characteristic of a BI Picture Book is that we compare feature (or requirement) categories one after another and not a tool (with all its different features) after another tool. This helps to clarify specific differences between the tools for each category.

Figure2

Based on the previously described structure, the BI Picture Book should contain notes which highlight unique features of one tool compared to the rest of available (or evaluated) tools, e.g. a specific chart type which is only available in one tool. On the other hand, one should highlight limitations regarding specific features that are initially “not obvious”, e.g. in cases where the color palette of charts cannot be customized. Another example is to specifically highlight a tool which does not contain an Excel export (because end users might assume that there is an Excel export for every imaginable BI tool, so that they think they do not have to specify this).

How to build a BI Picture Book

Building a BI Picture Book is primarily about taking screenshots and arranging them in a structured manner, e.g. following the seven feature categories introduced above. As with every other project, certain points need to be planned and clarified before you start:

  • What is the primary purpose of the BI Picture Book? This refers to either scenario A) requirements engineering or scenario B), creating a front end tool strategy.
  • Which BI tool vendors are to be taken into consideration? Which concrete tools of these vendors are to be integrated into the BI Picture Book? For scenario A) this is defined by the available strategically defined BI toolset. For scenario B) it depends on the procedure for evaluating and selecting tools for your front end tool strategy.
  • Once you know which tools you want to take screenshots of you need to define which software version to use. Depending on the release cycle of the BI vendor, the software version can make quite a difference regarding available features. Therefore a BI Picture Book is mostly specific to a certain version.
  • For cars, there are tuning shops which provide extra features not offered by the car manufacturer. Similarly, in the BI world, there are many add-on providers who extend the available features of BI products. If such add-ons are already in place, it is important to include their features in the BI Picture Book. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t forget to label features from add-on products specifically as they might be charged additionally.
  • Do not show options which are not applicable in practice, e.g. system wide customizations on a multi-tenant BI platform. An example is customizing the look and feel of the BI portal by modifying the portal’s CSS style sheet. Although, in theory, this option might exist, depending on your organizational and technical setup, to changing the style sheet might not be allowed because many other stakeholders would be affected.

After having answered these questions, you can start: Take whatever screen capture program you like and start taking the screenshots. Use either a tool like Microsoft Powerpoint or Word to collect and layout the screenshot in a meaningful way. Keep an eye on the point that the BI Picture Books’ main characteristic is about comparing a specific feature over multiple tools. Therefore, put the screenshots of a given feature for multiple tools side by side on the same page or slide.
The subsequent paragraphs will illustrate how a concrete BI Picture Book might look. Screenshots are taken from various SAP Business Intelligence front end tools.

1. Content Options

Content options are difficult to illustrate using screenshots regarding scenario A). For scenario B) we can, for example, compare the different available data connectivity options:

Figure4

Connectivity Options in Crystal Reports

Figure3

Connectivity Options in SAP Lumira

2. Navigation & Selection Options

For navigation options outside of information, products typically screenshots of a BI portal are to be taken. This can be either based on a vendor specific portal or your company’s intranet site (or both if end users have a choice and need to decide which one to use).

Figure5

SAP BusinessObjects BI Launchpad

On the other hand, a tool provides navigation and selection features inside information products. We usually take screenshots for at least the following elements:

  • Parameter & Prompts
  • Input Controls
  • Groups / Hierarchy View and Navigation
  • Drill Down features
  • Tabs

Some of these elements are illustrated as follows:

Figure6

Prompts in SAP BusinessObjects WebIntelligence

Figure7

Selectors in SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (aka Xcelsius)

Figure9

Drill-Down in Web Intelligence

Figure8

Drill-Down in Crystal Reports

The drill-down example, in particular, shows that it is not enough for an end user to simply specify “we need drill-down functionality” as a requirement. End users need to specify requirements in alignment with the different options of drill-down available.

3. Layout Options

Figure10

Excerpt of Chart Picture Book for some SAP BusinessObjects front end tools

We suggest taking screenshots for the following elements:

  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Cross tables
  • Speedometers
  • Maps
  • Conditional formatting

Make sure you list all important features and highlight the unique ones as well as limitations that are not obvious. This helps end users to compare the different options. In some cases, it is important to shed more light on the settings of features such as charts. By way of example, specify if it is possible to change the colors of a pie chart?

4. Functional Options

Next up are functional options, for example export. It is quite simple to find the available options and therefore it is easy for end users to choose from the existing options. It is useless, for example, if you let someone define that he wants a PowerPoint export from a front end tool, if it does not exist. Of course this would be nice, but it is simply not part of the catalog.

Figure11

Different export formats for different tools

Another category of functions is printing. Usually it is not precise enough if an end user specifies he needs to print a document. Giving them a picture book, they can easily find out the available printing options. The BI Picture Book should clarify points such as if you can mix landscape and portrait page mode or choose «Fit to page». Below is our list of typical functions which could be integrated into the BI Picture Book:

  • Export formats
  • Printing options
  • Alerts
  • MS Office Integration
  • Commentary features
  • Multi-language support
  • Search options

 

5. Delivery Options

An up-to-date topic which falls into the category of delivery options is mobile-device compatibility. This is becoming increasingly important at a time when all information should be available independent of the end users geographical location. Depending on the BI vendor and the BI tool itself, mobile devices support can differ considerably. Some serve the information products 1:1 to mobile devices. Others transform existing information products into specific mobile versions, which might have quite a different look and feel compared to the original information product.

Figure13

Crystal Reports document being viewed on a desktop and on an iPad

Figure12

Web Intelligence document being viewed on a desktop and on an iPad

6. Security Options

Figure14

Different security options for Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence documents

As with content options, it is somehow difficult to visualize security options using screenshots in a meaningful way. Try to focus on the comparison aspect between different tools and highlight unique features and limitations that are not obvious. The following example illustrates the available access rights for two different tools. One tool can simply restrict the export functionality in general, whereas the other tool can control the different export formats.

7. Qualitative Options

It is hard to illustrate this category using screenshots. Yet, as indicated in a previous paragraph, you can try to find other illustrations to guide your end users in specifying qualitative requirements.

Final Words

As with my other blog posts this article doesn’t aim to be a complete list of something. A BI Picture Book is neither the only way to define BI specific requirements nor is it enought to define a complete BI front end tool strategy. It shows you a particular idea and it is up to you to apply it in your organization in combination with other appropriate methods.

Please share your experience – I’m looking forward to reading your comment just below!

The Generic BI front-end Tool Selection Process

Finally – I’m blogging again. Time flew by and “my life as a BI consultant” kept me busy with migrations from Oracle to Teradata or from BO XI 3.1 SP2 to SP6. Or maybe you’ve also heard about our BusinessObjects Arbeitskreis (can be translated as “workshop”), I’d call this the “only BOBJ dedicated conference in Europe”: www.boak.ch It was a pleasure to build and execute an interesting agenda for our participants as well as welcoming great people like Jason Rose, Mani Srini, Saurabh Abhyankar, Mico Yuk or Carsten Bange. I also had the pleasure to do the closing key note during BOAK. It was around BOBJ front-end Tool Selection. I used this opportunity to further develop a generic yet simple method how to approach the frontend tool selection. The basic idea I formulated already in my last blog post back in April 2013. But I agree with some of the comment writers that this first rule of thumb was maybe to specific to be applied in all situations. Therefore let me share what I think is a more generic approach – by the way you can use this of course for other BI vendors and not only SAP BusinessObjects (the following illustrations are just examples – the listed and selected tools don’t have any concrete meaning!):

PART A: Preparation
Step 1: List all available BI front-ends

The first thing to do is to get an overview what BI front-end tools are available in general from a specific BI vendor. As I’m a big fan of working interactively with people, e.g. gathering in front of a whiteboard or flipchart, I suggest you write down product names to sticky notes and post them on the flipchart:

Step01

Step 2: Divide tools into “in scope” and “out of scope”

Depending on your environments you can do a first, yet very rough tool selection and divide the intially listed tools (see step 1) into two groups:

“Out of Scope”: This is maybe easier to start with: If you don’t have SAP BW as a source, you can eliminate all tools working with BW only. Or if your security policy prohibits the use of Flash, maybe Explorer or Xcelsius are out of scope a priori.

“In scope”: All the tools which are not out of scope.

Step02

PART B: Build a working hypothesis
Step 3: Select the tool which covers most of your requirements

This step assumes that you have quite a clear understanding of your business needs to be solved with a BI solution. I’m fully aware that this is often not the case. But to keep the basic process for tool selection as simple as possible I won’t go into details about how to find the “right” requirements. Not yet, but maybe in a further blog post.

Anyway, let’s represent the total amount of requirements symbolically as a circle. Now think about which tool has the broadest coverage of your requirements. Take the sticky note and put it onto the circle. Please be aware that this is only a “working hypothesis” – trust your gut feeling – you can always revise your tool choice later on in the process.

Step03

Step 4: Select the tool which covers most of your left over requirements

Repeat step 3 and think about the tool which might cover most of your left over requirements and put the corresponding sticky note into the circle.

Step04

PART C: Validate your working hypothesis

Nothing is more annoying than “strategies” which exist only on paper but cannot be transformed into reality. Keep in mind that you’ve just built what I call a working hypothesis. Now you should validate it and test against the reality. It will either prove your gut feeling regarding tool selection was right or wrong.

So far you have selected two tools. They represent a selection hierarchy. For any given or new requirement (or group of requirements) you should now do a hands-on test. Always start with the first chosen tool: How well can you implement the requirement? Does the implementation fullfil your expectations? What do your end users think about it? Do they like it? For now I leave it up to you to define the “success criteria” to decide in which case a prototypic implementation passes the hands-on test and when not. Anyway, if the implementation passes the hands-on test, you should go with tool #1 for this kind of requirement now and in future situations.

If the implementation fails the hands-on test for tool #1, go forward to tool #2 and do a hands-on test again with this one. Hopefully your prototypic implementation now passes the test and you can define to go with tool #2 for this kind of requirement now and in future situations.

Step05

What happens if a prototypic implementation fails the second hands-on test too? There are three alternatives:

  • If you fail the second hands-on test for let’s say <10% of requirements, you should think about a specific solution for these obviously very special requirements: Mabye you simply continue to solve these requirements “manually” in Excel? Maybe you need to buy a niche tool for it? Just find a pragmatic solution case wise.
  • If you fail the second hands-on test for let’s say <30% of requirements, you should think about adding a third tool to your tool selection hierarchy.
  • If you fail the second hands-on test for let’s say <60% of requirements, you should definitely revise your working hypothesis and play through another tool selection hierarchy.

Closing Notes

I’m fully aware that the outlined process is simplistic. That’s why you might not be able to use it “as is” in your current frontend tool selection project. But it shows the basic idea (namely to build a tool selection hierarchy and validate it with hands-on tests) on how to narrow down the number of useful tools in a given context – and it is your job to apply respectively adapt it to your environment. Let me know what you think about it – and how it works in your environment!

The Rule of Thumb for BOBJ Tool Selection

What is the right SAP BusinessObjects frontend for a given situation? A question I’m asked nearly every day. When I was confronted first with this topic  a few years ago the taken approach was a highly sophisticated Excel spreadsheet in order to assess all available BOBJ tools based on a feature list. The only problem was: At the bottom line there was never a clear winner. Next approach were the famous decision trees like the following:

BO-Tool-DecisionTree

Not bad as a first guess. And in an ideal world where the basic functionality would be the same for all BOBJ tools such a tree could work indeed. But given the situation that even today – nearly ten year after the aquisition of Crystal by BO – support for universes is still not exactly the same in Webi, Crystal Reports and Xcelsius (aka Dashboards) and especilly the maturity of a tool or a sub component of it is vastly different, there is no clever way to tell you which tool to use for which purpose.

Although you can’t give a distinct answer to the question “which tool to use for what”, I’m convinced that the following rule of thumb will be valid in most situations and for a majority of organisations – the only assumption is that there is no limitation out of licensing. That means I assume you have a license for all or at least the most important frontend tools. The idea behind this rule is that a priority rating is more helpful than a feature or use case driven decision tree.

Here is my rule of thumb:

  1. Try it with Web Intelligence
  2. If Webi didn’t work, try it with Crystal Reports
  3. If Crystal Reports didn’t work, try it with one of the “niche” tools

Let me share some thoughts about this priority list:

Why should we start with Web Intelligence? There are various reasons for this:

  • From a features perspective Web Intelligence provides the most widest range in the BOBJ tool suite. You can use Webi for creating classical standard reports, you can use it for dashboard like applications (think about Input Controls and the ease of use regarding drilling – e.g. compared to Xcelsius…), you can use it for self-service reporting, you can use it as a data pump using XLSX export or interface to other applications using BI Web Services etc.
  • From a maturity perspective it is one of the most stable and mature applications in the BOBJ world. I tell you this as an native “Crystal guy”. But whereas Crystal Reports 2011 runs stable the same way as it did for the last decade, the new Crystal Reports for Enterprise is just crap compared to both, the legacy CR and Webi.
  • From a data source perspective: Webi is the only tool which fully supports all kind of Universe stuff. I’ve never heard of any limitation that Webi would not support something what you can do in a Universe (by design). But let me compare this to Crystal Reports: On one hand you can use only UNX universes in CR4Ent, on the other not all type of queries are supported. Crystal still has the limitation that if a universe query results in multiple SQL statements it fails to handle it as there is no local “micro cube” as with Webi. Of course this whole argument implies that we value a “common semantic layer” to be of high “added value” to an organization and therefore should be supported in its full scope. But there is even more to add: Webi handles not only multiple SQL result sets per query, it can also leverage multiple queries and easily join them. Although I’m not a friend of “merged dimensions”, there are many situations where this capability is the only work around to get the job done at the end of the day (and not three monthes later when the data finally arrived in the DWH…). No clever way to do this in Crystal Reports or Xcelsius directly.
  • From an SAP BW perspective: Two or three years ago we had to decide for Crystal Reports often because of its better connectivity to SAP BW and all around it with hierarchy handling etc. These days are “passé”. My most recent experience with Webi using the BICS interface are very promising. Totally in contrast with CR4Ent which crashes regularly, even with the latest patch level.
  • From a usability perspective: Although SAP currently tries to position Webi to be the tool where business users develop the reports, I think its usability is equivalently valubale for IT folks too. Report development is quick and straight forward – once you’ve got used to the ribbon style menues ;-)
  • From an installation footprint perspective: Given the situation that SAP releases new patches nearly every third or four week, patching client installations is an nightmare. The more valuable are fully web based deployment scenarios. Therefore once again, Webi is the favorite.

Still, Web Intelligence has some short comings. That’s why you should evaluate Crystal Reports in a second instance:

  • One of the major differentiators between Crystal Reports and all the other frontend tools is Conditional Formatting. As you may know Crystal Reports has a powerful formula language integrated. This formula language can be used to control neary every property you can set in Crystal Reports. This way you can implement what I call “guided interactivity” at its best: Let the end user choose some parameter values and use these values to control both, the data in the report but especially the layout too. The typical use here is: A customer wants to build 10 similar reports. They are not exactly same regarding the layout, but similar. For example, in Webi there is no straight forward way to show conditionally show or hide some parts of the report. In Crystal Reports such a thing is a no-brainer.
  • Interactive / proactive Alerts: As of today, only Crystal Reports based alerts can be used to send an email notification if they are triggered.
  • Export formats: Crystal Reports has a multitude of available export formats, including Word or XML, which aren’t available in any of the other tools.
  • Hierarchical Grouping for relational data sources: Crystal Reports can dynamically resolve a Child-Id-to-Parent-Id relationship and apply calculations over such a hierarchy.

But before you choose Crystal Reports remember there are two versions of Crystal Reports: The legacy Crystal Reports 2011 and Crystal Reports for Enterprise. The first one is mature and stable, but does not contain new features introduced only to CR4Ent. On the other hand, CR4Ent is a de facto “1.x” product regarding its code maturity. For now I simply cannot recommend to use it as your major reporting tool without intensive testing of your own use cases in your environment. On the other hand – depending on your situation – the legacy Crystal Reports does not support UNX universes at all nor does it support UNV universes as you’d expect it coming from Webi.

What about all the other tools? I call them “niche tools”. This is due to the fact that all of them have quite a narrow scope of application compared to the “generalists” Webi and Crystal, let me name a few:

  • SAP Visual Intelligence: This is a great tool for ad-hoc-analysis. But that’s it. No way (yet) to publish documents online (except over Explorer), schedule them or create more sophisticated standard reports.
  • Explorer: Not the most mature product, especilly in the context of SAP BW and BWA as a datasouce… In general, Explorer is nice for “standard” visualizations. But have you ever tried to customize even basic elements of these charts? Or have you tried to add a simple table into an Exploration View? Or export an Exploration View as a whole? As of today these basic things seem to be impossible…
  • Analysis, Edition for OLAP: Limited to OLAP data sources, no clever integration into scheduling, publishing etc.
  • Analysis, Edition for Microsoft Office: Only BW support…
  • Dashboards / Xcelsius: Limited capabilities in terms of data volume that can be processed, no straight forward way to realize drill downs, no common export formats, no full Universe support, no scheduling capabilities…
  • Design Studio: Not usable for productive environements in the current version 1.0, and even for subsequent versions I’m very sceptical… In addition the scope of the tool is focused on BI App development which as such is clearly a niche.

This doesn’t mean that these tools are not valuable in the context of specific requirements. But assuming that there is a value in reducing the number of used and supported tools to a minimum, these tools should be chosen only after having evaluated Webi and Crystal beforehand. According to my experience chances are quite high that your requirements can be covered by one of these two tools.

What is your experience with tool selection? Would you agree with my rule of thumb? Anything I missed? Looking forward to reading your comments!

Using HANA on Cloudshare Part 1: Setup connectivity

Hi everybody

As you may know I’m a great fan of Cloudshare, you’ll find my previous post about testing in the cloud here. So far we had to use “traditional” databases like SQL Server or Oracle to work in Cloudshare. Finally SAP managed to get its new baby – HANA – to various cloud platforms, including Cloudshare –> see here for an overview. They provide you with a regular Cloudshare environment with 24GB RAM with two machines, the HANA server on Linux and a Win7 client with HANA Studio – you can register for the 30 day trial sponsored by SAP here:

01_Environment

So far so good. But what is the value of an isolated HANA database? It’s pretty small. Usually in Cloudshare, an “environment” is quite isolated network wise, therefore my first idea was to extend the 24GB RAM and add another machine, e.g. with BO4 installed. Unfortunately the maximum RAM per environment is 32GB. Even more sad that BO4 doesn’t really work with 8GB of RAM… What to do? A first inquiry with Cloudshare showed that obviously the HANA environment is somewhat special. After some try and error I found how you can easily connect to your HANA environment both from your local client or another Cloudshare environment. Let me share my findings with you in this blog. As you can read in the title I plan some other posts, especially about how to fill data into HANA using SAP BO Data Services.

First thing we need to do is creating a static vanity URL for the Cloudshare machine. For this switch from “My environments” to “My Account”. There go to “Vanity URLs” and specify whatever you want – the only thing you can’t take anymore is hana ;-)

02_VanityURL

As you can see, there are two public URLs available now: the regular with .cld.sr and a second one vm.cld.sr. In the background these two URLs are mapped to different public IPs. Whereas the first one gives you the default access to ports like 80, 8080 etc. the second one seems to redirect also HANA specific ports like 30015. Therefore you don’t need any kind of port forwarding as suggested in forum threads like here. Don’t forget to click “Save changes” at the end of the page.

You can now do a first test within the HANA Studio on Cloudshare itself – add a new system and use <your-name>.vm.cld.sr:

03_AddSystem104_AddSystem2

05_AddSystem306_AddSystem4

As you can see in the last screenshot, the only “issue” with the connectivity is, that somehow the status information of the HANA server cannot be retrieved, therefore you don’t get the green light but a yellow one. But don’t worry, everything works fine.

The next and so far final part is to connect from another Cloudshare environment, e.g. using the Information Design Tool:

Create a new relational connection using the HANA JDBC driver:

07_AddConnection1  08_AddConnection2

And finally you can start to build your data foundation based on this connection:

09_CreateDF

Hope this helps. Wish you a lot of fun playing around with HANA on cloudshare!

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