Last week's Sapphire Conference marked my fourth since BusinessObjects was acquired by SAP in 2008, and this year's event stands out as one of the most exciting in terms of business analytics developments. Perhaps it's because the company has moved beyond three years of integration and beyond last year's apologies for SAP BusinessObjects 4.0 delays and quality issues. This year, many more customers are live on the latest products.
SAP's biggest business analytics news was all about visual data discovery and mobile big data. Visual data discovery continues to be one of the hottest segments in business intelligence, as indicated by the buzz around last week's IPO by data-visualization specialist Tableau Software. SAP's big news on this front at Sapphire was the rebranding of its Visual Intelligence product as "Lumira."
The name change is meant to signify a broader solution that will include Lumira Cloud, which is currently in beta and expected to be available by this summer. Lumira Cloud will allow business analysts to publish and share their visual data discoveries with other cloud users, similar to the way Dropbox users can share files and organize work groups, explained Adam Binnie, SAP's VP of Business Intelligence Solutions. Web-based exploration is one of Lumira's biggest weaknesses, as it's primarily a desktop product.
[ SAP says it's time to take the leap, but are there risks? Read SAP Vows Hana Is Ready To Run ERP. ]
Compared to Tableau, QlikView, SAS Visual Analytics, and TIBCO Spotfire, SAP's product lags in Web-based exploration (see the BI Scorecard side-by-side comparison for more detail). With Lumira headed into the cloud, running on the SAP Hana in-memory database, I expect SAP to continue to improve to close the gap.
SAP has been beating the drum on mobile applications since it acquired Sybase back in 2010. But in the analytics and BI world, SAP's capabilities have been a mixed story. The company had multiple mobile BI clients: one for BusinessObjects Explorer, the lightweight visual-data-discovery interface, and another for Web Intelligence, the business-query module. In addition, the Dashboards module (previously known as Xcelsius) used Flash and thus could only be rendered as static images on iPad and iPhone devices. Dashboard mobile viewing improved in a December 2012 release (SAP BusinessObjects Service Pack 5 / SAP Mobile 4.4) that allowed designers to render dashboards in HTML5.
SAP's Mobile 5.x release, due this summer, will bring all content types into one mobile client. The interface includes navigation enhancements, similar to the Facebook left-panel interface, that make it easier to find reports by content type. There is currently limited support for content on Android devices, but SAP says this, too, will improve (as explained in SAP's Mobile Roadmap blog.) With these improvements, I expect SAP to have among the best mobile capabilities of the leading BI vendors.
So SAP is executing on its strategy for visual data discovery and mobile, but customer adoption continues to be a tale of two worlds. There are the traditional SAP Business Warehouse (BW) customers, who are still heavily entrenched in using the BEx spreadsheet-style interface, a legacy product. And then there are the BusinessObjects 3.x and 4.x. customers. The combination of the two product lines is so complex that many customers feel safer simply staying put, even if they're using legacy products that lack mobile options.
Customer eBay, for example, went through a major SAP ECC (ERP) implementation three years ago and initially leveraged BW with BEx. Now it uses the SAP BusinessObjects Analysis for Office interface instead of BEx. Silvia Vasquez-Lavado, head of Global Financial Systems at eBay concedes that it was painful to get the users to let go of their spreadsheets. With SAP BusinessObjects version 4, users can directly access data on centralized InfoCubes, "but we are learning with the users that it is a transition from their beloved spreadsheets to trusted information," Vasquez-Lavado said.
An executive from Sigma Aldrich, a life sciences company that also favored BEx, noted that there are some things that BEx handles better than the newer Analysis for Office interface, such as calculated key figures, time slices and hierarchies.
Meanwhile, a customer that recently implemented BW customer told me her consulting provider only included BEx in the implementation, so now senior management isn't sure why they need to purchase newer SAP BusinessObjects software as well. Migration challenges are to be expected in a legacy deployment, but introducing legacy tools (like BEx) in a new deployment is not in the customer's best interest. I think SAP should include SAP BusinessObjects software in any new BW deployment, but this remains one of the company's ongoing BI pricing and packaging challenges.
In contrast to the confusion in the core BI product line, Hana's role is clear: it's about more than business analytics. During a panel discussion at Sapphire, an executive from Maidenform, which uses Hana as its data warehouse platform, said it's loading 1.8 billion records from point-of-sale sources, such as Target and Walmart stores, in just eight seconds. This allows the company to quickly forecast sales trends, analyses that previously took months.
An eBay executive said Hana will enable the company to analyze hundreds of terabytes of data and look for currency fluctuations that will allow them to quickly change hedging strategies. Utility company CenterPoint Energy is using Hana and SAP BusinessObjects Explorer to monitor demand and track outages, reading 2.2 million smart meters every 15 minutes, for a total of up to 76 million reads per year.
"We wouldn't have a big data problem if we didn't have sensors," said CenterPoint CIO Gary Hayes. "The majority of the data may be noise, but we need to manage that noise."
SAP co-CEO Bill McDermott also gave one of the best keynotes, offering some very simple examples of big data analysis and bringing sports star power to the event, with "NFL Today" host James Brown, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, 49ers CEO Jed York and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. As Plank noted, years ago, sweat-soaked cotton T-Shirts slowed players down. Today's quick-drying, sensor-enabled replacement for that T-Shirt also captures biometric data in real-time, making every professional athlete and even casual runners contributors to the big data explosion.