Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mind your own business (intelligence)

As I mentioned previously, I’m not a BI power user.  Until twelve months ago, I couldn’t have told you the difference between HOLAP, ROLAP or MOLAP, much less explained what a slowly-changing dimension was, or what the difference was between star and snowflake schemas.  

Nevertheless, I do have a technical background and I’ve learned a boatload about BI in the past year.  In the past months, I’ve been trying to put myself in the mid-market LOB user’s shoe by using all and any available tool I could find to “do BI” using our ODBC-talking analytical database as the backend (I wanted to do this from a non-enterprise perspective).  

I tried to get my hands on every product I could get from front-end analysis packages (either thick client or web-based) to ETL tools, both proprietary or open source.  Those are part of what I call the BI “ecosystem”.  My testing had several goals:

  1. How easy is the tool to install, setup and use without direction, manuals or training.
  2. How easy is it to connect to our database engine via ODBC.
  3. How easy is it to extract data from our engine and do some very basic analysis.

So I loaded the small Pentaho Mondrian sample database (FoodMart) into the XSPRADA engine and went to work.

Microsoft Excel  --

With Excel 2007, I generated an ODBC connection and quickly pulled in a data subset using Microsoft Query.  Then, I inserted a pivot table based on that data island in a new sheet, and did basic slice/dice analysis on the data.  Total time spent: all of maybe 5 minutes.  There’s a small instructional video on how to do this at  Not rocket science.

QlikView  --

You can download evaluation copies of QlikView from the website. When I first ran it, I thought, hey, this is MDX for dummies with an Excel twist (workbook paradigm).  QlickTech actually bills itself as “Excel on steroids”.  You can get results with QlikView fairly quickly out of the box.  Yes it takes a bit of training and practice to do anything really significant, as the product is very rich (and can do some serious ETL in the process) but overall it’s very visual and intuitive.  And if you run into any issues, their sales engineers are readily available and quite effective.

Tableau --

I pulled Tableau evaluation bits from their website and also attended one of their webinars.  Unfortunately, Tableau doesn’t talk to ODBC. I’m not sure why.  That pretty much ended my evaluation right there.

AltoSoft  --

I tried Insight Studio but I couldn’t extract table schemas from our system via ODBC.  Quite honestly, I think it’s because our driver probably doesn’t support some level 1 API the tool is using.  So then I tried pulling from my FoodMart database inside SQL Server 2008.  Even then, I never “got” the tool.  It requires some training and/or patience I simply don’t have.  It’s too complicated right off the bat.  I see I can create some PKIs, but then the UI isn’t really obvious or smooth.  It just doesn’t “flow” and there’s some web-based dashboard stuff too which itself isn’t exactly self-explanatory and pops up tons of little Cassini web server on my system.

Panorama --

For obvious reasons, these folks only talk to Microsoft SQL Server and SAP back ends.  Sharp UI and good usability, but, in my case, of little use.

Talend  --

Talend is a French open source (OSS) company. (Incidentally, in this economy, they managed to recently score a $12M round --  not too shabby).  I tried their Open Studio tool and was able to do some very basic ETL to generate and convert CSV files to XSPRADA CVS specifications. This is important because at the moment, this is the only format you can present to our engine. So I wanted to see how easily someone could extract data from say Oracle or SQL and convert it to our specs.  The answer is: easily. That tool has a lot of knobs and switches and deep functionality but I was able to do simple stuff fairly quickly without diving too deep into Java code.  Given my OSS biases, I was impressed.

Pentaho  --

Pentaho distributes an open source OLAP platform called Mondrian that talks SQL via MDX to numerous underlying databases, including ours.  I’ve been using Mondrian on Windows with the built-in JDBC-ODBC bridge to our database for months now without a problem.  With Mondrian’s web-based UI you can slice and dice FoodMart data any which way you like.  Where it gets a little hairy is actually setting up the cubing structures for your own data.  That does take expertise and is not for the casual LOB user (think: lots of trial and error) . But with enough effort and community support, numerous people and organizations have apparently done just that.

Birst  --

I was very excited to hear about this new company because it seemed they had a really new approach to hosted on-demand BI.  They have a subscription-based service.  So I quickly created an account and tried to upload some simple data (SQL’s from my ODBC connection) and see immediate results. Unfortunately that was about a week ago and since then, I still haven’t been able to either load or analyze data on their site due to various technical glitches.  This is really unfortunate because Birst’s claim to fame is “ease of use” but if they can work the quirks out (and find some really good UX people) I think there’s huge potential in their “hands-off” approach which is basically what I was looking for, namely “here’s some data, here’s a question, show me something quickly without my having to become a cube expert”.

Gooddata  --

This company is another “on-demand” hosted BI offering.  The application is in beta mode and it shows.  Nevertheless, I was able to upload data and run slice/dice charts in a very intuitive manner within minutes.  One of the major issues I see is performance.  Even with small data sets, upload and processing operations are very slow (I believe they run off of Amazon cloud services).  I am hopeful the UI/performance/usability quirks will be resolved in a production version because this is the only on-demand player I’ve seen that seems to “get it” so far.  Ironically enough, they offer the Mondrian sample data set as a “default” project to play with when you create an account.  Felt right at home.

I draw the following conclusions/recommendations from this little experiment:

·        Doing BI is not easy (duh).  Although some of these tools are more intuitive than others, we’re still a long way from “easy” BI.  Even with Excel you still have to know something about pivot tables, cubes (if you’re connecting to SSAS) and connections.  With Mondrian, it really helps to know MDX.  In that context, the on-demand solutions are simpler.  And of course with hosted approaches, you don’t need a license key for Office.

LOB users can’t use OSS tools without “expert” help.  There is no way a typical business person can suffer the slings and arrows of Mondrian or Talend quirks and “gotchas” on his or her own.

A lot of vendors are really very confused about what constitutes good UX.  In some cases, I truly wonder if these folks ever run usability studies.  Please take the app home to a spouse or parent and have them use it.  I swear that’s helpful.  My mom is an Excel wizard yet can barely plug in a USB wireless mouse.

Unless you have a tool that is easier to setup and use than Excel, don’t bother!  I mean what’s the point? Excel has massive market penetration.  Nobody is going to care about a new application unless it can beat Excel hands down in usability and performance.  Also, you can share Excel spreadsheets and data in the “cloud” nowadays using various providers (like google) so again, unless you have some compelling collaboration features to beat that, think again.

On the enterprise side, people are pegged into lock-in situation driven by licensing discounts and vendor pressure.  If you’re an Oracle, IBM or Microsoft shop, chances are you will be using a certain set of BI tools no matter what.  And I don’t think a Microsoft shop will be running Cognos, or an IBM shop SSAS.  Companie like QlikTech have a really tough time penetrating the large enterprise I believe.  

But everywhere else, new approaches are not only available, but also politically possible.  So I think the commoditization of BI will have to come from the bottom up. In that respect, the foundation currently being laid by on-demand and hosted BI services is much more important to the future of BI than meets the eye.


  1. Hi,

    Might be interested to checkout Zoho Reports, which is a Online Reporting and BI service.

    Zoho Reports

  2. Thanks, I will do that and report back :)

  3. Just curious...for what company do you work? Your profile says Presales Engineer, which implies that you are involved with a firm in the space. Which one?

  4. Dear Anonymous,

    I think if you go back to my initial posts I mention that I work for a company called XSPRADA based out of Austin, TX :)

  5. Hi Jerome,

    Nice writeup.

    You may also want to take a look at Wabit.

    It's an OSS BI tool available at

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this one.

  6. Ok sorry I tried this Wabit thing and it's sloppy at best. Can't connect to ODBC (of course) and can't connect to SQL 2008 you get a "not supported" error.

  7. SQL2008 connectivity is a bug according to the Wabit forums.

    And I've been able to use a JDBC/ODBC bridge to make an ODBC connection. Not sure if you've tried it with your product.

    I would be interested in hearing more of why you think it's sloppy.

  8. Well where to begin...Let's see -- you cant run the product w/o a link in the start menu or on the desktop (because it invokes javaw) so if you opt out of these during install, bummer. Even if you opt in, you get a link to C:\Windows\system32\javaw.exe -Xmx600m -jar wabit.jar
    which doesnt work on 64-bit Vista (for example) because you need C:\Windows\sysWOW64\javaw.exe -Xmx600m -jar wabit.jar

    The in the app connection, you have options for SQL Server, SQL Server 2000, SQL Server 2005...what is "SQL Server" if not one of the last 2.

    Then supposing you can connect somewhere, you get this screen with QueryPen and SQL tabs. Now what? This is neither intuitive or remotely helpful. Oh, I can play with a slider and zoom in on the view.Ooookay.
    The icons are unintuitive -- What's the J with hook? There's no hover bubble on that.
    Now granted I did not look at manuals, instructions or videos but I was trying to evaluate products that allowed me to get working very quickly and very intuitively right out of the box -- My experience with Wabit was the total opposite. Just my 2 cents.

  9. Hi,

    Maybe you should also give ReportPortal a trial.

    You can download a free 60 days working copy from

    SQL Server 2000, 2005, 2008 and Analysis Services 2000, 2005, 2008 are supported by default with ODBC and XMLA

    Regards, Marco

  10. Does ReportPortal do more than just reporting?

  11. I am curious, is there a reason that you left out Jaspersoft.

  12. Hi Anonymous -- no other reason that I simply didn't have the time yet.

  13. Hi, I just saw your comments on Wabit and the Playpen. Which version did you try? Since this weekend there is a new release available. The "J" now has a description, it's for joins. And you can add tables to your query by just dragging them in from the right panel where you have your database connection. With the new release of Wabit you can now also use Mondrian (or any XML/A server) as a datasource. Hope that helps you a bit.

  14. Guys - you should try Prism of