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5/22/2012
08:52 AM
Cindi Howson
Cindi Howson
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SAP Shares Five-Point BI Improvement Plan

SAP is innovating on core business intelligence, visual analysis, mobile, social, and deep analytics.

SAP Hana and a new visual discovery tool, Visual Intelligence, took center stage at SAPPRIRE last week. But more noteworthy to me is the fact that SAP is once again innovating in business intelligence (BI), not just integrating products. Specifically, SAP outlined plans to innovate in five areas: core BI, creative analysis, mobile, analytics, and social.

Visual Intelligence is a new desktop tool that lets Hana users visually explore and manipulate data. The tool is intended for power users, a key difference from the vendor's lightweight, Web-based BusinessObjects Explorer visual discovery tool. A versionrelease of Visual Intelligence that uses Hana as the data source is generally available immediately and is included as part of the SAP BusinessObjects BI suite license. An individual, named-user-licensed release, not tied to the BI server, is planned but not yet finalized.

With the Hana in-memory database in production not-quite a year, only a few hundred customers can immediately make use of Visual Intelligence. SAP CTO Vishal Sikka cited 353 Hana projects, with 145 live deployments.

[ Want more on SAP's statistical analysis capabilities? Read SAP Steps Up Commitment To Predictive Analytics. ]

That's just the beginning, as SAP has big plans for Hana and big plans for Visual Intelligence. SAP also announced a developer version of Hana available in the Amazon cloud, with more than 2,000 instances ready immediately. I expect this seeding approach to boost Hana's uptake.

Visual Intelligence will gain wider market potential in June with the planned release of an upgrade supporting additional data sources such as Excel, flat files, and free-hand SQL (for Web Intelligence users who have been mourning the loss of that feature, I can imagine some resounding cheers!). A third release, expected by year end, will bring support for Universes, the vendor's semantic layer. I hope it will support both for newer .UNX and older .UNV files, as SAP has offered with its new predictive-analytics software. Dual support may be harder to deliver, but it certainly helps with customer uptake.

Based on initial demonstrations, Visual Intelligence is ahead of some competitors on data-manipulation capabilities, automatically guessing at measures and dimensions, as well as hierarchies, such as time and geography. If the data is not clean, users can perform transformations with no scripting, a point of differentiation from QlikView. Data models can be saved back to Hana for other power users to access. It's yet to be seen how well Visual Intelligence merges multiple data sources.

The breadth of visualizations--ranging from standard bar charts to newer tag clouds and trellis charts--seems to compare with some of the best-of-breed visual discovery tools such as Tableau Software and Tibco Spotfire. Lacking, though, is the ability to share discoveries while also preserving interactivity. A power user, for example, can email an image to another user, but Visual Intelligence does not yet have an ability to publish a collection of analyses as a type of dashboard or exploration view that decision-makers can then consume and interact with via an iPad or the Web. Expect these improvements to be added in the end-of-year release.

SAP's improvements in dashboards and predictive analysis didn't get stage time at SAPPHIRE, but they were the topic of one-on-one briefings and booth demos. Adam Binnie, VP of Business Intelligence Solutions, and Jason Rose, VP of Business Intelligence Marketing, outlined five areas where SAP has been executing well or intends to improve its capabilities:

1. BI core: Deliver significant upgrades--steps already taken through SAP BusinessObjects 4.0 and the subsequent Feature Pack 3.

2. Creative BI: Provide fast time to value with tools like Visual Intelligence.

3. Mobile BI: Develop first for mobile users through SAP Mobile and Zen.

4. Extreme Analytics: Deliver big-data, real-time, and predictive capabilities with Hana, Sybase IQ, and Predictive Analysis.

5. Social: Capture decisions and leverage the network with tools like StreamWork.

SAP promises all of these improvements with minimal disruption, which is, of course, a nice vision. But for customers currently going through a BusinessObjects 4.0 migration, reality is a bit more disruptive, particularly for customers with large Desktop Intelligence deployments. Change is disruptive, like it or not; it's more a matter of degree of disruption and the quality of the migration utilities.

Elaborating on how SAP is innovating in these five areas, SAP Mobile, for example, was showcased throughout the conference. SAP can claim leadership as a mobile applications and mobile development-platform provider, but the company's mobile BI story is a mosaic, dependent on the device and the BI content. SAP has been caught up in the decline of Flash for animation (as well as the decline of RIM in mobile).

SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (formerly Xcelsius) currently relies exclusively on Flash, but SAP recently published a statement of direction that points toward a new product, code-named Zen, planned for release this year. Zen will bring HTML5 and long-awaited drill-down capabilities to dashboards, but initially it will only handle SAP BW and Hana content. In this regard, the first release of Zen is mainly an improvement for current SAP Web Application Designer users. SAP has committed to maintaining and enhancing Dashboards, so I was also pleased to see an HTML5 version of the product at SAPPHIRE (expected in SP5 later this year).

SAP says Zen and Dashboards will eventually come together. One consultant aptly described the current mix as "the dashboard quagmire," a valid criticism. I have been critical of SAP's dashboarding products for years, so I'm also glad that SAP now has a plan to address current limitations.

SAP's recently released Predictive Analysis software offers analytics based on the R statistical programming language. Hana Service Pack 4, released last week, adds native support for R algorithms.

BI collaboration is supported via SAP's StreamWork interface, which was integrated with BusinessObjects 4.0 Feature Pack 3, currently in (beta) ramp up release. Users can directly annotate content and view discussion threads from within the SAP BusinessObjects BI Launchpad. Working within StreamWork, users can also import reports to support a decision process. A new ability to auto update such reports from within StreamWork will be useful say for weekly planning or strategy meetings. SAP Hana Service Pack 4 added support for analyzing unstructured information, such as social data.

Last year at this time, customers were waiting for SAP BusinessObjects 4.0, which was late, arriving three-years after the previous major release. One year later, there are improvements on multiple fronts, with SAP once again innovating in BI.

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