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Actuate e.Spreadsheet Version 7

Product Profile

Ventana Product Profile

Summary

Spreadsheets are the most broadly used method of data analysis today. Spreadsheets have been a key driver of the desktop computing revolution, establishing a break for office workers from the centralized data management paradigm that existed previously. Yet spreadsheets are not all air and light. Duplication of spreadsheets has lead to decision delays as mutation of data creates disagreements on what the truth is. Moving data in and out of spreadsheets is still mainly a manual, time-consuming process, and creating and maintaining calculation formulas within spreadsheets is still equivalent to eighteenth-century rifle manufacturing — they're done one at a time.

Actuate's e.Spreadsheet aims to tackle many of the previously described weaknesses of spreadsheet technology. Rather than attempting to replace spreadsheets, Actuate addresses the need for analysis in businesses by complementing and enhancing the most often-used analysis tool. Organizations that depend on spreadsheets for key analysis and business decision making and have many employees involved should consider e.Spreadsheet as a productivity enhancement technology.

Actuate e.Spreadsheet Version 7

Version 7 of Actuate's e.Spreadsheet solution provides unique and robust support for distributing reports as spreadsheets. Users can define reports in the form of spreadsheets, define queries that auto-populate those spreadsheets, and then use them for what-if analysis. One of the greatest benefits of this approach to distributing reports is that spreadsheets are broadly used and therefore have little or no learning curve by analysts. e.Spreadsheet is part of a larger suite of reporting and business intelligence products from Actuate. (see "Actuate Moves Beyond Information Delivery").

Ventana Research recommends Actuate e.Spreadsheet for organizations that depend upon spreadsheets for analysis but desire centralized spreadsheet version control, automated spreadsheet population and streamlined what-if analysis.

Actuate e.Spreadsheet Version 7 consists of:
iServer System with the e.Spreadsheet option — Administrators use the iServer System to manage, generate, and control access to Actuate reports and other files in an encyclopedia volume. The iServer System includes:

  • iServer, the underlying software that manages Encyclopedia volumes
  • Management Console, a web application that administrators use to maintain Encyclopedia volume user profiles, reports, and report generation schedule
  • Actuate Active Portal, the interface between a web server and iServer
  • Encyclopedia volumes that give users web browser access to e.reports.

e.Spreadsheet Designer — Users and developers use e.Spreadsheet Designer to create spreadsheet templates, to populate spreadsheet templates, and to do analysis.

New in the Latest Release

Version 7 of e.Spreadsheet added a handful of new features to the functionality of version 6:

  • Range Wizard — guided creation of basic spreadsheet reports
  • Range Editor — spreadsheet style sheet (template) development
  • Query Editor — database query editor

Functionality

Ventana Research evaluates functionality to provide a distilled understanding of a product's capabilities. We summarize key functions that are essential to the product's use. These then provide the basis from which we derive other evaluation category assessments in this profile.

Actuate e.Spreadsheet enables organizations to deliver data to users via the web in spreadsheet form. Delivered spreadsheets are automatically populated and distributed via the Actuate iServer. Spreadsheet templates are created using the e.Spreadsheet designer. The following is a summary of key e.Spreadsheet functions:

  • Excel compatible formatting: Spreadsheets may be loaded and edited in Excel.
  • Live hyperlinks: Live hyperlinks allow end-users to navigate to and from spreadsheets via the web.
  • Multi-directional data drilling: Flexible drilling options so users can get detailed or summary data.
  • Embedded formulas: Users can embed formulas into spreadsheet templates prior to data population. Once embedded, each spreadsheet published comes with built-in what-if analysis capabilities.
  • Embedded graphing: Fully functional Excel graphing including Excel's 2D chart types, column, line, area, step, bar, combination, pie, doughnut, XY (scatter), bubble, and stock. These fully functional graphs are preserved and updated when deployed.
  • Centralized versioning, scheduling and archiving: Actuate iServer handles all of the "housekeeping" chores of maintaining and securing e.Spreadsheet, including automatic version control, scheduling of updates, email alerts to users when new spreadsheets are available, and automatic archiving of enterprise spreadsheets.
  • Server-controlled security: Actuate iServer provides role-based security, authentication, and access control.

Usability

Usability enables software adoption. Usability is the measure of usefulness and convenience the software provides to users as they execute their primary responsibilities. Useful software facilitates or enables execution of difficult or impossible tasks. Convenient software streamlines the interaction requirements of its users to accomplish tasks. Convenient software is easy-to-use. Usability of business intelligence software relates to its ability to facilitate decision making for multiple roles including managers and analysts.

Actuate e.spreadsheet addresses business intelligence software in three key and useful ways; 1) data extracts, 2) automated reports and 3) what-if analysis. Spreadsheets are the most common software environment in which people conduct numeric analysis. Unfortunately, spreadsheets have been limited in several ways including the input of data. Over the years, data import and query functionality has been added, yet it has not always been as user-friendly as the basic tool itself. e.Spreadsheet overcomes this drawback by providing a user-friendly, simple interface for defining data queries against a database and then loading the data into the spreadsheet. This capability enables users with average spreadsheet skills to now load organizational data from shared databases into their spreadsheets easily.

When coupled with Actuate's iServer, e.Spreadsheet enables organizations to automate the loading of data into spreadsheets and the distribution of spreadsheets to recipients. This streamlines the data extraction and spreadsheet loading required for data analysis. Because users do not have to hand copy and paste data from reports to spreadsheets, a significantly cumbersome task is eliminated from the analytic process.

Many business intelligence products provide means to integrate with Excel. They vary from simple data export to operation within Excel. However, most of them do not have a critical feature that e.Spreadsheet has, the ability to add aggregate and other derived formulas for totals, subtotals, variances and so forth. Users have to add these after the data is loaded into the spreadsheet. e.Spreadsheet eliminates this time-consuming and repetitive task by enabling the spreadsheet template to be designed with the aggregate and other derivative formulas embedded. As the iServer populates the spreadsheet, these formulas are executed to determine their output values. Users can then make changes in data detail and observe changes in the derived results, allowing sensitivity and other kinds of what-if analysis.

Integration

Robust integration between software enables streamlined business processes that ultimately reduce cost and time for an organization to execute. The result of software's ability to integrate is the streamlining of business processes and software administration. Ability to integrate with data sources, the web, security and other enterprise software services, and transactional applications are important capabilities for business intelligence software.

Intrinsic to e.Spreadsheet is its integration with spreadsheets (Excel). This integration enables streamlined data access, automated execution and what-if analysis. Along with these benefits, e.Spreadsheet leverages the user community's broadly shared skills and understanding of spreadsheets. Issues relating to sub-optimal information deployment are minimized as users leverage their existing spreadsheet skill sets.

Within e.Spreadsheet's design tool or on the server, access to data sources is done through Java Database Connectivity (JDBC). JDBC connectivity provides access to most -- if not all -- merchant databases as well as various non-relational data sources. Further, e.Spreadsheet allows access to file data in delimited, fixed-width and XML forms. Queries can be defined in SQL or via Actuate's Information Objects and Actuate Query. The later two components enable end-users that are not skilled in SQL to easily define queries as noted in the usability section.

Via iServer, Actuate's e.Spreadsheet system gains multiple integration points into an enterprise software environment. Support is provided for third party portals, security servers, application servers, scheduling systems and enterprise application interfaces. Included in this mix is support for JSP, .NET, UNIX, Windows, and portlets.

e.Spreadsheet's distinctive integration point is Excel. This provides unique value to organizations. iServer rounds out e.Spreadsheet's capabilities by providing integration to most data sources and services. Overall, e.Spreadsheet has robust integration capabilities.

Manageability

Manageability measures the ability to configure and direct the operation of software. Software's manageability can be measured by its ability to leverage administrative actions across the broadest possible set of objects in the shortest amount of time for all administrative tasks. Business intelligence software must also fit within the overall software management environment within an organization.

Management capabilities for Actuate's e.Spreadsheet solution center primarily on iServer. Management can be done via the iServer Management Console, or via the iServer Information Delivery API if done from a separate application. Management tasks address services within the server; data volumes (encyclopedias) and partitions; users and security; report objects; interfaces with other applications such as e-mail; printers; resource groups; and clusters. Management control can be done either via GUI dialogs or via scripting.

Actuate's e.Spreadsheet solution provides comprehensive management control of the system's functionality, enabling administrators to address performance, security, reliability, integration, usability and other capabilities in an efficient manner.

Reliability

Reliable software assures consistent, continuous operation regardless of expected and unexpected events. Software reliability can be evaluated to some degree by features that assure consistent and continuous operation. Business intelligence software should provide equivalent results assuming equivalent inputs. Business intelligence software should be available for use when required. For this profile, we highlight specific features of the product that contribute to reliability.

Actuate's e.Spreadsheet solution leverages the reliability features found in the iServer. Recoverability and availability are addressed through iServer's multi-node fail-over and restart capability as well as its load balancing capability. User authentication can be handled by iServer's security server, by an external LDAP server, or by another external security server. User authorization is granular, covering various operations and report objects. User authorization can be managed via groups. Extensive system logging is performed to assist debug and repair activities. Report objects can be versioned to aid with report quality and enhancement. Report components can be referenced across multiple reports while existing as a single object, enabling one-time component maintenance, which is then leveraged across multiple reports.

Actuate's e.Spreadsheet solution provides robust administrative features. Additionally, administrative tasks can be initiated by other applications and then communicated to the iServer via an API. The reliability features of the e.Spreadsheet product are extensive and robust.

Adaptability

Adaptable software supports unforeseen requirements. Users expect software to adapt to any required usage mode. Administrators expect software to adapt to any configuration requirement. Software's adaptability can be measured by its ease of adaptation. Business Intelligence software must adapt to any and all business analytic and decision making needs.

Because e.Spreadsheet combines the data management of merchant databases with the analytic flexibility of spreadsheets in a streamlined fashion, it is adaptable to a wide variety of analytic tasks. e.Spreadsheet enables analysis of finances, sales, marketing, manufacturing and other related organizational data.

Some analytic limitations do exist with this architecture, however. Data sets that are larger than 65,000 members will not fit into a spreadsheet. Analyses that require OLAP-style pivoting amongst multiple dimensions are not supported. Analyses that require detail level calculations -- such as deciles, n-tiles, weighted averages and market basket associations where data sets cannot fit within the spreadsheet -- will require more direct SQL work. All of these analyses may be better performed by analytic tools where computations are performed directly in the database, but initiated and constructed by an ad-hoc query in an analysis tool.

Performance

Software must perform in a way that all active users experience minimal delay as they use the software to meet their role responsibilities. Good software performance enables users and administrators to accomplish their jobs within the constraints of their business. Business Intelligence software performance minimizes the decision making cycles through fast information delivery and analysis along with streamlined decision making.

e.Spreadsheet and its iServer provide a range of query performance enhancing features. Reports may be pre-scheduled, cached and bursted (multiple users are served from one report). Various iServer services can be distributed amongst multiple computers (a cluster) to optimize parallel processing and throughput. Delivery of summary data within a spreadsheet enables users to do local what-if calculations without having to re-run the spreadsheet 'report'. Reports are compiled at design time into a binary structure that is optimized for processing during report execution.

Cost of Ownership

Software efficiency can be measured by aggregate ownership costs. Total cost of ownership includes software costs, hardware costs and personnel costs. Personnel costs can include cost of usage and administration. Low cost of ownership assures that software (including business intelligence software) minimizes cost impact on organizations while meeting its stated requirements.

Actuate's e.Spreadsheet solution total cost of ownership (TCO) was measured in Ventana Research's Business Intelligence Vendor Benchmark. Compared to Cognos, Informatica, Information Builders and MicroStrategy, Actuate's solution provided lowest cost of ownership when the usage scenario was for distribution of pre-defined spreadsheets. This scenario provides pre-populated and personalized Excel spreadsheets to a large population of users via web access. Both spreadsheet invocation and presentation were via the web. Solutions proposed for this scenario were able to continuously serve reports to the population while meeting response time and throughput performance standards.

Recommendation

Actuate's e.Spreadsheet Version 7 is a differentiated and useful business intelligence solution. It addresses critical needs by users who analyze data via spreadsheets. e.Spreadsheet, along with Actuate's e.Report and e.Analysis, comprise a robust, integrated business intelligence suite that can serve a wide range of users including executives, power users, analysts and casual users. Organizations that must serve a large population of workers that analyze data via spreadsheets should consider e.Spreadsheet. Organizations that require reporting and OLAP analysis should consider the whole Actuate suite.


Eric Rogge [[email protected]] is research director of Business Intelligence and Analytics at Ventana Research. Rogge has more than 20 years experience with technology and software vendors in the analytic applications, enterprise software, and database software segments.

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