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Cool BI: Rating the Latest Innovations

Rich, interactive reporting interfaces, in-memory analytics and social networking may be cool, but how much value do they add to business intelligence. This article examines the maturity, value and mainstream appeal of leading innovations.

'Rich Reportlets': The Flashy Side of BI

The term "rich reportlets" refers to the influence of rich Internet applications (RIA) in the BI world. Think of a static, green-bar-paper-based report. Now compare that to these highly interactive, Web-based rich reportlets from Business Objects (Crystal Xcelsius) and MicroStrategy (Dynamic Dashboards). Bubbles and trend lines dancing across a page may not seem essential to BI techies, but ask business users which tool they'd rather use and they'll vote for a rich reportlet. When you are trying to change the way people work, don't underestimate the power of the "cool" factor in getting them to try new tools.

Beyond the appeal of these interfaces, rich reportlets contribute substance to BI. For example, users can sort, filter and change the display of any item via simple mouse clicks, without having to learn or launch a sophisticated design environment or go back to IT to have the report modified. Used effectively, animation can call attention to important data points (although to date, most vendors seem to be using Adobe's Flash RIA technology primarily for its user appeal). Another benefit of many rich reportlets is that you can store the underlying data as well as the presentation in a single file (HTML or SWF), reviving disconnected analytics capabilities that many products lost in the move to Web-based BI.

Rich reportlets rely on one or both of the following technologies:

  • Ajax (Asynchronous Java Script and XML)
  • Adobe Flash and Flex

It seems the BI industry has not yet cast its final vote on which of these technologies will win out, although Flash currently has the most traction. Among large vendors, Business Objects has had a jumpstart on the use of Flash, primarily through Xcelsius. MicroStrategy supported both Flash and Ajax in its 2007 release of Dynamic Enterprise Dashboards. Oracle supports Flash in its BI Publisher and will add it to its Answers product in a release due out next year. Information Builders was an early innovator with its Active Reports, which use Ajax, and the company released a Flash version this quarter. Cognos plans to release new dashboarding capabilities this quarter that leverage Flash.

Meanwhile, Microsoft recently released SilverLight, a competitor to Adobe Flash. Although none of the major BI vendors yet supports SilverLight (including Microsoft BI products), it's something companies need to watch.

Proponents of Ajax tout its smaller network footprint and browser independence. Proponents of Flash claim a richer experience. Regardless of which technology the BI vendor supports, I continue to see big differences in how the technologies are used, both in the design process and in the finished dashboards or reports. In Business Objects Xcelsius, for example, a developer builds a model and saves it to a Flash (SWF) file that can then be embedded in anything from a PowerPoint presentation to a Crystal Report to a portal. MicroStrategy users build a Flash-based dashboard in the same Report Services design tool used to develop formatted reports. Niche vendor eThority, meanwhile, uses Flash extensively not only in the finished dashboard or report, but throughout the product's user interface.

Bottom line: Embrace rich reportlets and interfaces for their capability to make BI engaging to existing users and more appealing to new classes of users.

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