Friday, November 26, 2010


I had another look at Panopticon today. I had seen it before, but they have a new version out. Panopticon is probably most noticeable at first glance because of its spectacular data displays. Their marketing material usually features very busy charts of two types – tree maps (heat maps with a drill down) and what Panopticon calls horizon graphs, which only they offer, as far as I know. Horizon graphs are too busy for most applications and only seem to me to be useful for trying to get an overview of a large quantity of data. It sees itself as a competitor of Tableau and Spotfire.

Similarly, Panopticon’s data layer is specialized in supporting large quantities of multivariate data, often in real time, or near real time. Typical applications include real time monitoring of telecom networks and financial trades. Product is notable for its ability to access disparate data sources including column-based data sources and enterprise buses. This makes a bit more like middleware than most BI. The company is particularly active in the financial services industry, where about 80% of its customers are found. Panopticon offers semantics in what it calls a Stream Cube, a multidimensional model with data access and caching functions.

Panopticon’s newest release includes an easier way for end users to design dashboard that are embedded in third party systems. This product, which the company refers to as the Rapid Development Kit(RDK), is a reminder that the product is often used in very technical applications, such as as an embedded dashboard in a custom solution. The RDK is intended to allow business users to deliver content to such technical environments.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Cognos 10

I had look at Cognos 10 today when IBM’s Andrew Popp and Andrew MacNeill dropped by in W├╝rzburg on a whistle-stop tour of Europe. On the whole I was pretty positively impressed.

Cognos says it is moving back towards the business user. That was the main message I picked up from the meeting. I have been noticing this interesting trend with many vendors. About ten years ago there was a big swing away from the business user, and vendors started focusing more and more on the enterprise. The main reason for doing this was that they were chasing the bigger deals.

But vendors often forgot about the end user in their rush to establish themselves as enterprise standards. In fact, the BI Survey 9 found that buying choosing BI software for a project because it is the enterprise standard leads to the worst project results. It is refreshing to see vendors making a real effort to address this issue.

Cognos is focused on making the product easier to get started with. They have identified the issue of jumping between multiple studios as the key issue for end users. Removing the “studio hop” is a big part of the new product. Actually this never seemed to me to be such a big deal. However, I have often seen users confused about it in the field – at least during sales presentations. I wonder if it is also an issue for users with a day’s training.

Be that as it may, the new version of Cognos provides a new way of accessing the system. Now the user starts in a Workspace that provides easy self service features and can add to that by clicking a button automatically attached to objects that brings the user to the appropriate authoring tool. Cognos is also moving away from the recursive grid concept that is the basis of Report Studio. This is probably a good idea as well, because you need quite a bit of practice to get a complicated layout right.

Cognos also introduced disconnected analytics with Report Studio’ ability to create prepackaged reporting applications. These single file packets include a slice of data and one or more interactive formatted reports. They are called Active Reports and are a lot like Information Builder’s Active Reports. They have also developed a set of query optimizations called the Dynamic Query Mode.

Another interesting side remark that IBM made was that they were considering using the name Dashboard for the Workspace. In the end they decided against it, and I think it was a good decision, although it is probably easier to get attention using the totally overhyped term dashboard which seems to be used to mean just about anything.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Visual Mining

I had a look at Visual Mining's Performance Dashboards a few days ago. Visual Mining has a product call NetCharts which comes in different editions for different customer groups. The core version is a set of developer tools that allow Java developers to create HTML 5 or Flash charts. NetCharts Server provides additional features for delivering the charts to end users. The NetCharts Performance Dashboards add an additional layer of user interfaces and data access tools to allow users with relatively few technical skills to create their own dashboards.

Strictly speaking dashboards do not include tabular data. Well anyway, that was the original idea, even if most vendors do not stick to it. and most of the presentation I got of the Performance Dashboards actually revolved around the features of the table object that is provided. The tables offer of sorting and filtering as well as conditional formatting.

Each table is made up of a single hierarchy and one or more columns, either taken directly from the database or calculated on the fly as a variances, including simple time intelligence features such as previous year. The hierarchy has good presentation features - it shows children as indented elements, the parent can be above or below the children, level based formatting is available and so on. Furthermore the end user can add or remove levels and change their order on the fly.

The product also has drill-down feature in the tables and the charts, so users can see the transactions the underlie the aggregate data. Navigating in the finished dashboard is relatively simple, and more emphasis is put on creating the dashboards. The end user can be given the rights to modify the charts freely, even changing chart types.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chris Webb on the BI Survey

Chris Webb made a few comments on the results for SSAS in The BI Survey 9. I think the most interesting point he brings up is the poverty of front-end tool use, particularly third party tools, for a low-priced database with an open interface. You would think third party vendors would make up a larger market share, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

After all one would expect third party vendors to flock to the tool, especially since it is already available at so many sites. (The latter claim is my speculative inference based on the fact that SSAS appears so seldom in competitive evaluations.) Of course there are plenty of third party vendors on SSAS, but they seem to make a relatively small dent in the market. We do see quite a few third party planning tools using Microsoft as a platform though.

I don't think that this is limited to SSAS however. Use of third party front-ends for other multidimensional databases such as TM1 and Essbase also seems relatively seldom.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Web Business Intelligence is not a key issue

One of the questions we ask in the BI Survey is which criteria people use to choose BI products. Buyers in The BI Survey don't seem to find Web support very important. Specifically relatively few mention it as a reason for selecting the product they elected. In fact, less than one in ten do.

Of course that does not mean that Web based BI tools are no longer used. It just means that as a product differentiator, a Web platform really is not of any great interest to buyers.

This is interesting because Web architecture is a priority areas for business intelligence vendor R&D, and marketing departments often emphasize the Web capabilities of new releases.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

John Schwarz was never going to be CEO of SAP

If you are interested in business intelligence or follow the doings of SAP, you probably already know that the former BOBJ CEO John Schwarz has left the company. The temptation is to delve into the details of all the post-takeover events at SAP and try to puzzle out the proximate cause of this move. Then you could do a little Kremlinology, trying to guess what is going on in the minds of various execs.

But I prefer to stick to a few general observations.
  • When business intelligence companies get taken over, the senior management almost always leaves after a few years.
  • There has been some discussion that Schwarz was shooting for the CEO job, but that hardly seems likely to me. Remember SAP had about ten times the revenues of BOBJ. Also, as SAP has learned the hard way, selling business intelligence software is a very different business than selling ERP.
  • The main thing that keeps an executive of the acquired company on board is a clause in the contract. As soon as the clause expires, the executive jumps ship.
That's about it, really.

OK, like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything but temptation. Look at the press release. Schwarz says "I strongly believe that SAP BusinessObjects will play a vital role in SAP's future success" and that he is "confident about the future direction of the company". It's hardly a ringing endorsement of SAP's ERP business, is it?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mixing Excel versions

The last partner presentation I saw at the the Microstrategy was given by Microsoft's Donald Farmer on the subject of PowerPivot. The presentation didn’t seem terribly relevant to Microstrategy, but it was a solid gee-whiz run-through of PowerPivot's features accompanied by a distracting post-modern slide deck featuring grainy black-and-white photos and classic ads. Donald also mentioned one intriguing tidbit that surprisingly no one really seemed to pick up on.

Afterwards I had dinner with Donald and Neil Raden in an unobjectionable casino restaurant. Neil is a devoted dad and regaled us the entire evening with amusing with anecdotes about his family. And as usual on such occasions we spent a lot of time gossiping and reminiscing. It was good fun.

The tidbit was that Excel 2010 will be able to run on the same machine as Excel 2007. Am I the only one who missed this? I’ve been discussing Microsoft’s new Office version and how it fits Microsoft’s BI strategy with just about anyone who will listen for months and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone talk about this.

Microsoft’s BI strategy has always been platform oriented. By this I mean that Microsoft is really interested in pushing its platform and the BI tools have always been an appendix to this goal. When it comes to Excel, Microsoft’s main challenge is to get users to upgrade and BI features are offered as a gambit to drive upgrades.

The problem here is that Microsoft’s argument doesn’t quite add up. Customers are supposed to use Microsoft’s BI tools because they have them anyway, but they are supposed to upgrade to the newest Office version because then they get the BI tools. I have heard this called synergy, but it isn’t – it is circular logic.

Most large companies will reluctant to take advantage of the BI features built into Office 2010 if it requires upgrading the Excel version. Microsoft often competes on price in the BI space, but there are simply too few BI users as a percentage of total Office users to justify a costly Office upgrade to get free BI features.

But all this assumes the company will only run one version of Excel. But if I understood Donald Farmer correctly, you can now run two versions of Excel on the same machine, meaning Excel 2010 can be positioned as a “normal” BI tool that runs alongside Excel 2007. If Microsoft follows this strategy in the field it could bring a lot of clarity into its BI strategy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A better word for marketing is demarketization

The word market means different things to different people. Adam Smith's idea was that markets are about competition, and competition auomatically keeps tabs on vendors and consumers. So actually markets are about competition.

However, if you are in the marketing business, market is just another word for opportunity, and opportunities tend to arise in places where there is little or no competition.

Check out famed internet marketeer Seth Godin's blog entry on Groucho Marx.

Seth states "It's extremely difficult to repair the market." What is he actually saying?

He's saying get out of situations where you have to compete directly. So for him, a market is a place where there is no competition, and when competition comes, it's time to get out.

That is the point to vendor lock-in. When you lock in your customer, you lock out the competition. And that is why software vendors love it so much. It demarketizes the customer relationship.