There is still life for Web Intelligence in 2013


I recently had the opportunity to work on a dashboard project for a local Atlanta company. The scope of the project was simple, produce a report that allows users to compare key metrics within different levels of a single hierarchy. There were 5 different levels of the hierarchy and each level had to aggregate all values for that node. The data source was a well groomed corporate metrics mart. At first glance this appeared to be an easy task. There were no issues generating the SQL required for the metrics or KPIs. However, the volume of records that had to be projected into 16 different line charts, each having 10+ series, proved to be too much for flash and SAP Dashboards. Before you pass judgment, you should know that we used the most efficient design possible. Every record and column was used in the charts, no more, no less. In addition, Excel was not used to calculate anything. With that said, the render time was just under 5 minutes for the full dashboard. As you can imagine, this was not acceptable to the users.

With SAP Dashboards out of the question, we had to find another alternative. We looked at Explorer 4.0 SP5 and found that it did most of the calculation and handled the volume with ease. However, Explorer 4.0 is limited to a rather juvenile set of calculations (via calculated measures). As a result, some of the KPI could not be calculated in Explorer. We then turned to Web Intelligence for a solution. As it turned out, Web Intelligence was very capable of managing the data volume. The new charting engine in version 4.0 was able to produce crisp and elegant charts. Using the Input Controls, we were able to provide the users with interactive filters. In the end, the users found the final solution to be very useful. In my mind it was useful but lacked that standard dashboard look and feel. Given that Web  Intelligence was never designed to look, feel or act like a dashboard, the success of this project provoked me into thinking about SAP’s strategy for dashboards. What would SAP Business Object’s dashboard strategy look like if Web Intelligence was the core engine for dashboards. In addition, what would it take to enhance Web Intelligence to support dashboard features? For those that have experience with Web Intelligence, you likely already know just how powerful its engine can be in managing data from a relational source. Its ability to produce SQL, execute a query and then store the results in its data provider is very unique. We can also leverage its reporting engine to further query, slice, dice, merge, filter and group the data that was stored in one or more of its internal data providers. In short, it has a very powerful pre SQL and post SQL aggregation engine. When comparing this capability to other tools in the SAP BusinessObjects suite, there is little argument that Web Intelligence has a superior back-end aggregation and calculation engine. This topic was discussed in more detail in a past article named The good, the bad and the ugly of direct binding in Dashboard Design 4.0 (Xcelsius) . In a perfect world, the back-end engine of Web Intelligence and the front-end visualizations of Xcelsius (Dashboards 4.0) could have been merged to form an exceptional product. However, HTML 5 seems to be making Flash based tools (like Xcelsius – Dashboards 4.0) somewhat obsolete these days. Then there is SAP BusinessObjects Explorer. Explorer has an exceptional back-end engine and front end visualization engine as well. However, it currently lacks the ability to perform complex calculations. It too is flash based in the browser but it has an excellent mobile app to overcome many of the limitations of flash on a mobile device.

With these thoughts in mind, I started thinking about what it would take to enhance Web Intelligence to the point where it too could serve as a dashboard tool in the SAP BusinessObjects platform. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that SAP did not already have 3 to 4 dashboard tools and imagine that we are the product manager trying to devise a dashboard tool for SAP BusinessObjects. With those thoughts in mind, the following list will outline the enhancements that I believe would make Web Intelligence a powerful dashboard design tool.

  1. More Input Controls: Design more input controls based on the list currently available within Dashboard 4.0. Web Intelligence has a pretty useful list already, but a few more would go a long way.
  2. Free Form placement of Input controls: I should be able to place them anywhere on the reporting canvas.
  3. Input controls that restrict other input controls: This will add a cascading effect to the input controls so that the pick list in one is filtered by values selected in another.
  4. Add dials and gauges to the charting engine: Add a few dials, stop lights and gauges to the Web Intelligence charting
    engine.
  5. Navigation links: Adding links within Web Intelligence that can point to other reporting tabs or objects on other reporting tabs within the same report. This would go a long way in devising guided navigation.
  6. Format and choose the location of the report tab bar: This too should be free-form placement or at least able to move to the top of the canvas.
  7. Full screen viewing: Set an option on the report that hides most of the tool bars and gives Webi’s canvas a full screen look and feel.
  8. The ability to add scorecard formatting to tables: Mobile can generate a sparkle chart in a table, why can’t Web Intelligence via the browser. Trend Arrows, signal bars and temp gauges in a table cell would be a nice addition as well.
  9. Add trend line, basic R and PAL capabilities to the tool: Wow… could you imagine the possibilities.
  10. Show hide objects based on input controls and formulas: This gives us the smoke a mirror effect that every great dashboard incorporates.
  11. Add support for location intelligence: Adding support for shape files and google.com maps would be a nice touch.

I don’t expect this to become a reality, but it is an interesting thought. What if we could go back in time just a few years and make
this suggestion? Would enhancing Web Intelligence today, to support dashboard style feature, be a viable solution?

23 comments

  1. Hi Jonathan, great post topic. I like your points. I was thinking a nice workaround for your suggestion for (2) is to create a table in webi and link it to another table as a selector, it would then operate like an input control and be able to be placed anywhere.

  2. Good point and it can already do that. Using a table or chart as an input control. I would just suggest they take it a little further and make it more formal with standard web controls.

  3. Nice article Jonathan, not too long ago ago it was Xcelsius or bust when it came to “dashboarding”. However, you really have to scrutinize that thought process these days and what you described in your article reinforces that. WebI has surprisingly become an option for interactive visualization. I am hoping that element linking will soon be supported when consuming WebI docs via smart pad. Then quick interactive “dashboards” for pad devices will be a snap. Anyway…good stuff…as usual.

  4. Hi Jonathan, I’ve seen several examples of Webi ‘dashboards’ and agree that they handle volumes and design requirements much better than Xcelsius in certain cases. I really like your idea about what could be added to Webi to make it more ‘dashboard-friendly’ – something I would like to see sooner rather than later is parity with Webi Mobile vs Desktop, around the mapping, scorecards etc. If you look at the examples of Webi mobile reports, several of them are pretty close to dashboard layouts anyway, and with drilling/input filters/sections, you can achieve a lot.

    Great thoughts.

    Cheers, Josh

  5. Thanks Josh.

    The one item I failed to mention around my recent experience was that the users also liked that every chart in the WebI report / dashboard rendered on the mobile app. This was an added bonus to them. I really think the paradigm of browser based dashboards is shifting to mobile analytics. To me the convenience factor of a mobile device is more practical and a page chocked full of charts is a bit busy sometimes. To your point, bridging the WebI to mobile gap might be of more importance. On the other hand, having a tool that can meet the demands of modern day KPIs, calculations and data volumes is important as well. WebI might be an old dog but I sense that it might be a better long term solution for analytics and mobility.

  6. You hit the nail on the head Jonathan! I guess SAP hasn’t cut it yet with a dashboarding tool (could Design Studio be it?). I saw various BI projects abandoning Xcelsius and WebI to answer the requirements of flexible filtering with cascading effect, large data volume, hierarchical representation of KPIs, and other requirements that you listed in your wish list and using other tools like Flex or JavaScript frameworks! I totally second you in the need to harness WebI and probably merge it with Analysis OLAP and then in the long run have them all combined with SAP Dashboards/Design Studio for one unified BI App Design tool. I’m not a fan of SAP’s “right tool for the right job” BI mantra except for Crystal Reports, Analysis Excel and Explorer.

  7. I love this blog. I have similar experience trying to create solutions needing both the visual capability of Xcelsius and the data management ability of Webi. I think your list of WebI upgrades for dashboarding is a good one. Remember BobJ bought Xcelsius in a period when they were growing their product line by buying startup concepts. SAP has done a lot to improve WebI in 4.x. I would love to see them develop and market a “Dashboard” version of WebI. I’ve encoded context-sensitive linking url’s in a BobJ universe for WebI and DeskI. I’ve worked with parameter-sensitive openDoc strings in Xcelsius to drill to WebI and I would like to echo your suggestion that linking be better. A very well thought-out blog. Thank you.

  8. Jonathan,

    I agree that there’s still life for Web Intelligence. Thanks for sharing.

    To your wish list I would add continued enhancement to the visualization/CVOM server so SAP’s mobile team can stop creating bizarre workarounds for mobile-only charting for Web Intelligence.

    SAP has changed their product marketing – no longer is Web Intelligence a “query and analysis” tool. It is instead a “reporting” tool grouped with Crystal Reports – see Blair Wheadon’s Simple Overview of the SAP BusinessObjects BI Suite – http://scn.sap.com/community/bi-platform/blog/2013/01/10/a-simple-overview-of-the-sap-businessobjects-bi-suite.

    Although Tableau and Tibco both made it into Gartner’s leader quadrant for 2013, I hope SAP will continue to enhance Web Intelligence and not cripple it to make SAP Visual Intelligence appear more attractive.

  9. Thanks Dallas.

    “To your wish list I would add continued enhancement to the visualization/CVOM server so SAP’s mobile team can stop creating bizarre workarounds for mobile-only charting for Web Intelligence” .. This is something that Joshua Fletcher also mentioned and I fully agree with.

    To your point about exploration and visualization tools, I truly hope SAP understands the difference between department level (end-user authored analytics) and enterprise level (professionally authored analytics) in BI. I know I am over generalizing but we all need to remember that a single version of the truth can out-way the need to bypass IT for development requests. I like Visi and Explorer, but sometimes we need a more robust calculation engine to produce KPIs within a chart. Web Intelligence is a very mature tool that is time tested.

    I also sometimes think that Webi gets a bad rap due to the way it integrates with BW. Frankly, WebI’s capabilities are better suited for relational sources via SQL statements than for OLAP sources using MDX or XMLA.

  10. “Frankly, WebI’s capabilities are better suited for relational sources via SQL statements than for OLAP sources using MDX or XMLA.” Amen Brother! You have approach BW and RDBMS BI differently.

    The exchange with the 2 different customers…
    RDBMS Customer: “We want to do BI using SAP BI Tools”
    SAP BI Pro: “OK, let’s rock n roll!”

    BW Customer: “We want to do BI using SAP BI Tools”
    SAP BI Pro: “OK, first…we need to have a talk and have an understanding of what we are about to do”

    Sorry for the cynicism but trying to crack the code of correctly positioning SAP BIP on top of BW data and actually delivering something robust and flexible is not to be underestimated.

  11. Drop point 4 (Dials and gauges)
    and replace it with: include google maps/geocoding(maps inside Webi & BI Launchpad –> and I am all with you 😉

  12. I love Webi (even the BI4 buggy version), and cannot stand Xcelsius. I cannot understand why SAP didn’t improve Webi with Xcelsius-like components and look and feel instead of having 2 totally different products. That would be too simple, we’re talking about SAP after all.

    Other dashboard products that we investigated had the same limitation: pretty graphs, but no aggregation or computing (and some had not even anything close to the universe: you’d better master SQL).

  13. I’m with you. I too never understood my so many dash-boarding products on the market were designed without a proper aggregation and projection engine. The focus has been on how the end results look and not on their ability to produce the KPIs and analytics. If I cannot produce the desired result what is the benefit to the consumers?

  14. Great write up. Never went to that level of detail but one thought that I had was to develop highly aggregated universes using the aggregate aware function and see what level of performance we’d get off Xcelcius.

  15. The ability to schedule webi to HTML would be great as well.

    If universe hierarchies could be applied to input controls , this would fix the “input controls that restrict other input controls” challenge

    James:

  16. Jonathan on point 2, I definitely agree with you. In the current Webi canvas having the input controls on only the left-side of the screen does not do any good to both designers and end users.
    Good blog…thanks

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