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:

Source: http://www.audiusa.com
Source: http://www.audiusa.com

 

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 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!