Last week SAP launched the 4.0 Release of its Business Intelligence and Enterprise Information Management products in conjunction with the New York City stop on its “SAP Run Better Tour”. My colleague Mark Smith has already covered the announcement in the context of some of today’s major technology trends. In this post, I’ll focus on the specifics of the product announcements.
SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence Release 4, more than three years in the making, supersedes SAP BusinessObjects Enterprise XI Release 3.1. The new release includes several other product name changes as well – for example, the Xcelsius visualization tool was renamed Dashboards – so if you, like I, were confused you can download a list of all the name changes through the following link: http://download.sap.com/download.epd?context=1DA760BA0F1EC83BE393EBA644F81666F51DD9A22B64430471986DC9069E0006EA2364413D2990C3DC0B25B525C25CBC22407270EEBDE423.
The name changes were confusing, but it quickly became clear that three common themes run through all 4.0 products: better integration; the incorporation of real-time capabilities; and improvements in the user interface, including support for a variety of mobile platforms.
One of the key reasons to consider SAP products rather than “best of breed” products from independent vendors is integration. Integration can mean different things to different people. From a technical point of view, integration means being able to access to data and information across applications, processes and business silos. From a user desktop point of view, it means being able to work in a common user interface on top and a common semantic layer underneath. (These, by the way, make systems easier to learn as well as to use.) Release 4.0’s improved integration capabilities address both points of view, but pay particular attention to the latter, and with good reason. Our latest benchmark research in business intelligence (BI) found usability to be the number-one consideration in evaluating a vendor and its products, especially on the business side, so these improvements should be welcomed by those evaluating new BI purchases. Other large vendors such as IBM are also focusing on this same theme in their stack of BI products.
SAP executives also stressed that the new release’s real-time capabilities run throughout the product portfolio and its underlying architecture, allowing 4.0 products to collect large and store large volumes of data in real time and to display the results in real time as well. For instance, its Event Insights product collects and delivers real-time information as it occurs, while on the front end, SAP Business Objects Dashboards processes updates in real time and displays revised information as the underlying data changes.
None of these capabilities matter, however, without the ability to collect and to prepare data in a timely fashion. Our benchmark research has shown that 96 percent of organizations take two or more days to deliver important metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) to users. We at Ventana Research believe that’s too long. For this reason, release 4.0 supports the SAP High-Performance Analytic Appliance (SAP HANA), an in-memory database technology that speeds the processing of large amounts of data. While it is not a required part of the BI toolset, it is available if necessary to accomplish real-time database processing and analysis.
To present that data, SAP has greatly expanded the capabilities of Dashboards. For example, SAP demonstrated the ability to link dashboard components so that changes in the data selected in one component would be reflected in similar changes to the other components displayed on the screen. It reminded me of work my colleagues and I did on ExpressObjects in the mid-1990s; in fact, in the middle of the demonstration I got a message via Twitter from a colleague who had worked with me on the product and who had the same impression as he was watching the webcast of the event. It was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. What SAP brings to the table is a broader, more tightly integrated stack of products than we were able to offer at the time and a more modern platform that supports a variety of thin-client and mobile devices. Overall the Dashboards provide a nice user experience and incorporate some reasonable interactive visualization capabilities, including the ability to lasso a data bar to narrow the display or to drill down directly from the graphs. However, they don’t offer all the visualization techniques and interactivity of some specialist products such as Tibco Spotfire or Tableau Software’s Tableau Desktop.
Another area SAP stressed was self-service BI. The SAP Explorer 4.0 provides an easy-to-use, search-based mechanism to access data from a variety of different entry points, including mobile devices. I first saw the 4.0 version of this tool at SAP Tech Ed demonstrated on an Apple iPad and I was impressed. It includes an associative search approach much like QlikView that allows you to search on characteristics you know rather than a rigid set of predefined keys such as product name. The user interface in the latest version is clean and modern, making it both pleasing to the eye and easy to understand. Explorer comes up a little short with respect to a broader definition of self-service, however. SAP has focused almost entirely on enabling ad hoc queries or searches without an existing or predefined query. In most cases, Explorer requires the data and metadata to exist already in an SAP Business Objects Universe. The exception is Excel; users can load and navigate Excel spreadsheet data using Explorer without outside assistance. I hope SAP will develop this aspect of self-service more fully so that users will be able to navigate data from other sources on their own without the intervention of someone with knowledge of Universes.
Two areas that didn’t receive much emphasis at the launch are advanced analytics and predictive analytics. In SAP parlance, “advanced analysis” equals online analytics processing (OLAP) – or at least it did prior to the name changes I discussed above. The OLAP analysis capabilities are primarily oriented around the drill-and-pivot navigation of historical data analysis, in part because SAP’s enterprise performance management technology is still separate from its core BI products. I expect SAP will turn to HANA as a way to provide additional planning and what-if analysis. Today HANA’s Multidimensional Expressions (MDX) capabilities are limited to Excel, but SAP is working on expanding those capabilities. SAP is delivering predictive analytics, another key element, using its Predictive Workbench, but this product is based on IBM’s SPSS technology, which may explain why it had a lesser role in the 4.0 launch.
In total, the Release 4.0 SAP provides a robust and relatively complete set of BI capabilities. Although individual point products may perform a specific set of functions better, if you are looking for a comprehensive, well-integrated BI platform with good mobile support, you should put SAP on your list of products to consider.