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Archive for September, 2009

A new BI company

September 22nd, 2009
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Just a quick one – recently I learned that three former colleagues of mine had formed a new BI company in Australia – Naked Data. What makes it slightly different is that it is based on an open-source platform; and what makes this venture interesting for me is the people who are involved. All of them are exceptional professionals and I believe that if anyone can make it it is them.

I am curious!

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On the search for the perfect OLAP browser

September 22nd, 2009

Browsing Analysis Services cubes is typically done by power users in SQL Server Management Studio or Excel. However, because of a requirement stating that intranet and non-intranet users need to be able to access and browse an OLAP cube I had to go out there and try to find the best OLAP browser on the market. The client had been using Dundas OLAP Services with mixed success, and had purchased PerformancePoint with ProClarity but never used it because of infrastructure issues. That is why they used Dundas as an interim solution. Dundas’s OLAP Services is a user-friendly tool, but tis performance is not ideal when it comes to large grids, so my client wanted something combining Dundas’s usability with Excel’s performance, which could be used both internally and externally.

I contacted Microsoft with a question: “What tools can I use?” They came back to me with the following suggestions:

  • IntelliMax Solutions OLAP Browser (an Australian partner)
  • BI Companion
  • Panorama
  • Dundas
  • ProClarity

I added PerformancePoint to the list, as well as Radar-Soft’s OLAP Browser, so my final list was:

  1. IntelliMax
  2. BI Companion
  3. Panorama
  4. Dundas
  5. ProClarity
  6. PerformancePoint
  7. Radar-Soft

IntelliMax Solutions

A sales guy told me that they will organise an online demo for me, and then if I am interested, they will organise an evaluation installation of their product on our servers. That just happened half an hour ago and it immediately became apparent that the product lack one critical piece of functionality – it does not support attribute hierarchies. So, I cannot use anything but user-defined custom hierarchies, because according to the support person, including attribute hierarchies make the grids and reports “too big”. I, however, definitely need these big grids/reports. Otherwise, the tool is nice and simple with very obvious support for Custom Data – you can define this property from the UI, which makes it easier to work on non-Kerberos enabled environments. It also should integrate with PerformancePoint and Reporting Services, but I did not test those parts, because of the aforementioned problem with attribute hierarchies.

BI Companion

They were very friendly and responsive. I got an evaluation install, tried it out and it worked fine, apart from a small bug with non-aggregatable dimension hierarchies, which they fixed immediately. I was quite impressed with the product. It seemed to perform slightly better than Dundas, but it also was slightly less user-friendly. The interface imitates Cube Browser and is very feature-rich. Unfortunately, the HTML version did not work with Firefox, so they suggested using a SilverLight version, which was not supported by my client. As one of my requirements was cross-browser operability (IE and Firefox at least), BI Companion became a no-go-to for me.

Panorama

Panorama’s NovaView product competed with PerformancePoint as a dashboard creation tool and I have no idea why Microsoft recommended a competitor. I contacted their reseller in Australia and the sales person organised an online demo. I could play with their grid analytics components and it seemed OK. NovaView comes in two versions – a legacy Java version, as well as a new Flash version still in development. The Flash version is quite nice, but still harder to use than BI Companion or Dundas. As a big miss in the current version, Panorama NovaView does not let the user to add/remove dimension hierarchies from its grid columns. It can be done on rows, but not on columns, which is frustrating and ultimately a critical lack of functionality in my case. The Panorama support person told me that “they did not want to release all features yet” and that they have it going in their lab. He also advised me to use the Java version until the Flash version gets updated. I did and found out that the Java version is indeed fast, but not as fast as Excel and ProClarity. Furthermore, Panorama’s product is just too big for our needs and all of its administrative functionality, which includes user management, security and what-not, is just not necessary. Otherwise it looks nice.

Dundas

The Dundas OLAP Services OLAP grid is very usable – all the users need to do is drag and drop dimension hierarchies to browse the cubes they have access to. Unfortunately, it is a bit buggy and very slow when the cells, which need to be displayed, hit the > 10 000 range. After performance testing, we found out that about 50-80% of the processing time takes place on the client machines, where the browser renders a huge HTML table. It turns out that it is not only Dundas which has the same issues. Any HTML OLAP tool I tested suffers from exactly the same problem. This includes Dundas, BI Companion and Radar-Soft. Nothing we can do. Dundas supports paging, so the results can be split in a number of pages. It performs better if that feature is turned on, but requires hacking when exporting to Excel, because in order to export the whole grid, by default the user needs to export all the pages individually and then manually concatenate them in Excel. Since the HTML table problem cannot be rectified by Dundas or us, Dundas’s OLAP Services remain what they were intended to be – an interim solution.

ProClarity

Dated, but FAST. ProClarity still beats all other solutions with its performance. It was as fast as Excel and much, much faster than anything else. Although it lacks the apparent user-friendliness of some of the other solutions, it does allow users to conveniently browse OLAP cubes. Furthermore, it integrates well with PerformancePoint. Unfortunately, 6.2 is its last ever version. Whether its functionality gets implemented as a part of SharePoint 2010 is still to be announced by Microsoft. By the current way things look, ProClarity is still the best solution for ad-hoc OLAP browsing. It is stable and even though its installation is not quite smooth (e.g. requires IIS to be running gin 32bit mode), it does offer what most users would feel comfortable with. Its drawbacks are: tabbed interface, no drag-drop, and outdated graphics. Not perfect, but good enough. Oh, and it works with Firefox.

PerformancePoint

The Microsoft dashboarding tool offers an Analytics Grid part, which can be used for ad-hoc analysis. Unfortunately, it does not allow the users to add more dimension hierarchies on rows or columns. What is does well is drilling up or down the hierarchies and slicing by other hierarchies. Unfortunately this is hardly enough when it comes to full-featured ad-hoc reporting.

Radar-Soft

The small OLAP browser Radar-Soft is offering seems fast at a first glance. It would have been a nice small tool if it did not have one major problem – paging. It pages everything. It even creates a number of pages within cells. This improves performance but makes it impossible to use if we want to export a whole grid to Excel. I guess that some of the paging can be disabled, but I am quite sure that, since it is HTML, it will have the aforementioned issues with performance when it comes to displaying a relatively large HTML table.

Conclusion

The three HTML solutions – Radar-Soft, Dundas and BI Companion all had the same issue with performance. My guess is that there is no HTML solution which is faster, because in the end it comes to browser performance rather than MDX or .NET implementation.

Panorama with its Java and Flash versions is maybe a good solution for a full-featured dashboarding and reporting, but is a massive overkill for our circumstances. Also, it is not very user-friendly and not very fast.

PerformancePoint and ProClarity are my favourite and I believe that Microsoft’s offering provides the best capabilities for our users at least until something better comes from the Microsoft workshop. These integrate nicely with SharePoint and perform very well. While PerformancePoint is very user friendly, I would not say that for ProClarity. Hopefully in the future we will see nicer OLAP browsing by Microsoft based on these two tools.

A word about SilverLight and Excel

While SilverLight OLAP browsers are available by various software houses (most notable BI Companion has one in Beta), it is a relatively new technology and was not an option for me as it was not in my client’s SOE. Also, from my testing it does not seem like it is much faster than HTML, but definitely looks nicer.

Excel is, in my opinion, the best tool for browsing OLAP cubes inside the organisation. It is fast, and provides a rich set of analytics capabilities. There are a lot of discussions about Excel as a report authoring tool on various blogs, but I believe that for ad-hoc reporting there is nothing out there which beats Excel. Despite this, I could not recommend it to my client, as the solution is exposed to external users and letting them connect to our cubes directly though Excel is just impossible considering our security infrastructure. Also, Excel Services does not provide enough ad-hoc functionality, as it does not allow users to modify the Pivot Tables.

Wishes

I wish and hope that Microsoft releases a full-featured, user-friendly and performant OLAP browser as part of Visual Studio and .NET or as a part of SharePoint 2010. Such a tool is just a must and a serious miss in the Microsoft BI stack. The combination of Excel+PerformancePoint+ProClarity does the trick for now, but as ProClarity is getting discontinued, there must be something in the future toolset, which takes its place.

A few other bloggers wrote posts closely related to this topic:

Richard Lees – Which cube browser for Microsoft OLAP
Richard Lees – What’s preventing Excel from being the ubiquitous cube browser
Chris Webb – Proclarity Migration Roadmap (or lack thereof)

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