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10/10/2006
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Put to the Test: CA's AllFusion Modeling Suite Version 7

Release 7 of the AllFusion ERwin Data Modeler offers a major upgrade, adding undo/redo features and a rich set of data-comparison capabilities.

PROS
• Visual data modeling approach is fast and easy to master.
• Offers useful new undo/redo and reverse action features.
• Complete Compare feature eases data source comparison.
CONS
• Confusing menu selections remain.
• Advisory pane presents cryptic messages and flawed tracking capabilities.
• Will require a few bug fixes in the next point release.

The AllFusion Modeling Suite from CA (formerly Computer Associates) is a set of modeling tools consisting mainly of a process modeler, data modeler and data-model validator, supported by an assortment of optional features. Among these tools, the best known is the AllFusion ERwin Data Modeler, which has been a sound product and big market success almost from its release in the late 1980s by Dr. Benjamin Cohen and his team at Logic Works in Princeton, N.J.

Innovative and trendsetting, ERwin offered a clean and clutter-free user interface, a "just right" set of features reflecting a sound understanding of the discipline of data modeling, and a simple-but-effective, client-centric architecture (in contrast to, say, the unwieldy, database-dependent architecture of Oracle Designer). Logic Works was sold to Platinum Technologies in 1998, which was in turn acquired by CA in 1999. Since the acquisition, ERwin seems to have languished, exploited but largely ignored, like an unfailing golden goose starved for nourishment. Over the years the product progressed from version 3.5 to 4.0 and then to 4.1 (guided, according to CA, by an active and responsive user community), but improvements seemed minimal at best.

Now in one big leap from version 4.1 to release 7, ERwin has emerged with new features and hope that CA recognizes ERwin for what it is: an endearing and enduring tool that is worthy of continued investment. Indeed, with these latest upgrades, ERwin can once again stake a claim to leadership in data modeling.

Keep What Works

There are many and significant changes in ERwin 7, but fortunately, CA has not tinkered with ERwin's greatest strength, the visual paradigm for data modeling. Pulling together entities (tables), defining relationships between entities, specifying attributes and arranging the model into an apposite yet aesthetic artifact remain simple tasks that can be done in a matter of minutes or even seconds. ERwin continues to support the popular Information Engineering ("crow's feet") notation as well as the less popular IDEF1X (Integration Definition for Information Modeling) notation (my personal favorite). ERwin also supports a Dimensional Modeling notation in the physical model.

Enhancements to the ERwin workplace include a revised Model Explorer window (see screenshot below), an Action Log pane and an Advisory pane. The Model Explorer window lets you browse objects in a model view or a subject-area view, and it provides an easier way to manage subject areas and switch from one subject area to another. The Advisory pane displays messages related to user actions, but I found two shortcomings with this feature. One, the messages overwrite one another, so the ability to save messages (which is a plus) is valueless--you don't get to see the message history. Two, the messages seemed less than useful. When I set the data type for an attribute, for example, the message displayed was "Attributes/Columns Editor," and details of the message read as follows: "<Level=0><Successful Transaction> Attributes/Columns Editor"--not exactly descriptive of the change. Lastly, simply opening and closing the attributes list for an entity leads to a confusing "Failed Transaction" message (one of a few bugs I encountered that are typical for a major new release).

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