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Extreme Makeover

BusinessObjects XI is the company's most distinct release in a long time, a fusion under one server architecture of the best that two product lines had to offer

Scheduling has been completely revamped in XI to provide integrated scheduling for both Crystal Reports and WebIntelligence documents. Scheduling is now a process on the Enterprise server, not a separate product or server. Users can schedule reports based on calendars or on events such as when a file appears. Results can be output to Excel or PDF (Crystal reports continue to offer more output formats) and sent to e-mail recipients or the enterprise server. Bursting to email, previously available only in Broadcast Agent Publisher for full-client documents, is now more integrated and available for WebIntelligence. However, multiple queries are submitted to the data source, a weakness compared to other BI tools.

Interactive Reporting

Business Objects says XI stands for version 11 but also "eXtreme Insight," because of its new report interactivity.

Report interactivity is crucial to getting more business users to embrace BI. Interactivity encompasses multiple features, from viewing a table of contents within a report to interactively sorting, filtering and drilling through to details. Without it, business users have to export data to a spreadsheet to perform any kind of analysis, ask an analyst to modify the report and complete the analysis or tediously proceed with paper and highlighter.

XI makes interactivity and analysis happen at the click of a mouse. While viewing a WebIntelligence report, users right-click to sort, filter, remove columns, add calculations or turn a table into a chart. (See screen capture below.) These capabilities free more casual users to perform better analysis and push the boundaries of what we mean by "standard report." One beta customer I interviewed said this is a "big, big step and will allow users to fine tune a report." Fine tune is an apt description. With so much capability available via a simple pop-up menu while viewing a report, I almost never had to launch the report editor to accomplish a task. In fact, I launched the report editor only when creating a new report (and it loaded much faster than in version 6.5, by the way).

As a bonus, discussion capabilities are also built into the InfoView portal. Thus as a report consumer discovers a new trend or has a question about an anomaly, his or her thoughts and actions are captured in one common BI environment. With this, Business Objects offers a rare capability in the BI space. All too often, such textual information is stored separately in company e-mail systems, when it makes much more sense to store it with the original analysis that led to a decision or action.

Mission Accomplished

Business Objects has done well to seamlessly integrate the two product lines at both the architecture and user-interface levels, selectively picking the best capabilities from each product line. Companies new to BI can get a full spectrum of capabilities, from presentation-quality reporting to integrated OLAP and dashboarding, on one integrated architecture with common security and metadata.

The integration, however, is by no means complete. I'd like to see the same level of interactivity that exists for a WebIntelligence report provided for a Crystal report, for example. Better yet, create one file format with fewer idiosyncrasies about what can be done where. But call me impatient: It has only been a year since the acquisition, and few competitors can lay claim to such level of consistency.

In addition, there are thousands of BusinessObjects full-client users who are faced with a difficult choice: upgrade to XI to begin leveraging the improvements or wait until full-client documents are available on XI, to minimize report redesign efforts. In this respect, BusinessObjects XI is good news for new customers and existing Crystal users. For long-time Business Objects customers, it's a tantalizing view of things to come.

PIECE BY PIECE

BusinessObjects XI is a suite of BI products overlaid on a common infrastructure. Some of the core products include:

  • BusinessObjects Enterprise: enterprise server*
  • WebIntelligence XI: Web-based ad hoc query and analysis*
  • Crystal Reports XI: desktop-authored, presentation-quality reports
  • OLAP Intelligence XI: a front-end viewer to OLAP cubes such as Essbase and Analysis Services
  • Live Office XI: add-in for accessing BI content within Excel, PowerPoint and Word
  • Data Integrator XI: ETL solutions

*Reviewed here

• BusinessObjects XI is available from Business Objects, www.businessobjects.com. Currently, OS support is limited to Windows; broader OS support is expected this year.

Update, Feb. 10, 2005:

After this product review went to press, Business Objects announced it is accelerating the availability of full-client documents within XI. Per the roadmap published last year, the company initially planned to support full-client documents in version 12, due at the end of 2005. Customers on version 5 would first have had to upgrade to version 6 before being able to take advantage of the newly combined architecture in version 12. However, the company is now saying that the synergies between Crystal and Business Objects developers is making it possible to deliver this integration earlier and with an easier migration path: Existing customers will be able to upgrade directly from version 5 or 6 to XI.2 with full-client support, now due sometime in Q3 2005. This is good news for customers, and I suspect it will speed adoption of XI! — Cindi Howson

Cindi Howson is the president of ASK, a BI consultancy. She teaches The Data Warehousing Institute's "Evaluating BI Toolsets" and authors independent BI research for BIScorecard.com. Write to her at [email protected].