Many SAP BusinessObjects customers are still sizing up the 4.0 release of the vendor's business intelligence suite, just released last month. At last week's ASUG (Americas SAP User Group) conference in Florida, Steve Lucas, SAP's senior vice president and general manager business analytics, gave those customers more to think about, detailing a BI 4.0 Feature Pack 3 upgrade due out in the first half of 2012.
The biggest improvements in Feature Pack 3 (formerly known as 4.1) will include advances in mobile BI, analytic views, and collaborative BI by way of SAP's Streamwork tool. Here's a peek inside those expected upgrades along with a summary of the key new capabilities of last month's big 4.0 release.
- Mobility, mobility, mobility: With SAP's acquisition of Sybase, the vendor has access to technology that most other BI vendors lack. One of the biggest concerns with mobility is security. With Feature Pack 3, SAP BusinessObjects products will be prewired with Afaria, security controls from the Sybase Unwired platform that support mobile device management capabilities such as authentication and remote wipe.
The feature pack will also bring significant improvement to the SAP BusinessObjects native iPad apps in terms of interactivity and user experience. However, looking at some of the offerings from partner vendors exhibiting at ASUG, the solutions from RoamBI, Antivia, and Exxova were pretty compelling, and they are available today. Right now, SAP BusinessObjects' mobile story is a complicated puzzle depending on the device and content. Dashboards, for example, rely on Flash, which is not supported by Apple on the iPad. Content, security capabilities, and device support all seem to improve in the next release.
- Analytic Views: Analytics views are an extension of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, the combination search and basic visual discovery tool. With analytic views, users can create individual visualizations and save them into a briefing book. Explorer will also be usable offline in the next release.
- Collaborative BI: SAP Streamwork is SAP's collaboration tool. Feature Pack 3 will provide better integration with BI content. While viewing a report, for example, someone can initiate a threaded discussion or action within Streamwork.
You can watch the keynotes here, after registering. The 4.0 release did get some attention during ASUG's keynotes and, certainly, in the track sessions. Herein lies the problem with a later-than-expected release: all the excitement around 4.0 was largely experienced around the launch last February. Lucas cited the product's ramp up as one of the most successful ever, with 400 live deployments and 4,000 downloads (though few customers with live 4.0 deployments presented at ASUG, so I'd love to hear from you!).
Given that 4.0 only reached general availability in September, many customers are still trying to understand this version. Do they now wait for Feature Pack 3 or immediately implement 4.0? SAP is recommending customers upgrade now, but in my opinion, they should decide their upgrade plan based on which functionality is most important. (see the SAP blog for release plan details). There are dozens of improvements in 4.0 but the biggest ones are:
- Multisource universes: An administrator can build a universe (the vendor's term for a data model) drawing on multiple relational data sources. This has been a big competitive weakness in SAP BusinessObjects when compared to Oracle, IBM Cognos, and MicroStrategy. I've tested this capability in 4.0 and feel that other products still seem to have a more robust approach. Nonetheless, this is still a big improvement for SAP BusinessObjects customers.
- Direct SAP BICS Connectivity: The 4.0 release lets SAP Business Warehouse (BW) customers access BEx queries directly via the BICS (Business Intelligence Consumer Services) layer, a proprietary communication interface for BW, using either Web Intelligence, Dashboard Designer, or Crystal Reports. Going through the BICS layer provides better performance than the APIs previously used. There had been talk of SAP BW being supported as a data source in the universe, but that does not appear to be the case. (I have received conflicting information from SAP on this point, so I'm awaiting clarification.)
- Dashboard Improvements: Xcelsius has been rebranded as Dashboards in 4.0. In earlier releases, designers had to use Live Office or Query as a Web Service to bring data into the design tool. Now designers can invoke the query panel directly from the dashboard designer, streamlining the data flows and design process. The vendor has made additional performance improvements as well, with a separate server process to cache results.
I have discussed other improvements in 4.0 in previous blogs or for BI Scorecard subscribers here.
Beyond the product roadmap, an ongoing discussion among BusinessObjects customers is the role of ASUG and regional user groups: should they join ASUG or not. ASUG was formed 20 years ago by SAP applications customers. When SAP acquired Business Objects, it also gained a number of self-running user groups. It seemed a natural evolution for those user groups to fold into ASUG. But the customer bases are different, and it's a tough sell for previously autonomous groups to now be told there is an additional layer of communication with the vendor. The idea behind ASUG is to bring influence in numbers--organized numbers--but also to provide content in the form of mentors, webinars, training, and knowledge bases.
Some user groups have joined ASUG. Others have not. The idea of paying for membershipseems to go against the grain. Membership to ASUG for BusinessObjects customers is currently free, a temporary gesture that has been extended for another year. User groups worry that independent contractors and smaller companies will ultimately be disenfranchised when the fee waivers end. It was noteworthy that roughly 80% of the 1,200 attendees at this year's conference were not SAP customers before the acquisition, dispelling concerns that the ASUG group is only focused on SAP applications customers.
That ASUG even holds a BusinessObjects conference is a benefit to members and non members alike. While BI is a big part of SAP's Sapphire conference, it is but one of many tracks. Sapphire itself can be rather overwhelming, particularly for a customer who only buys BI from SAP.
One session that was packed at ASUG was a panel on using social media for influence and leadership, and that I was honored to participate on. BusinessObjects Board Forum founder Dave Rathbun, SAP executive Timo Elliott, WNBA star and Olympiad Lisa Leslie, public relations expert Mary Erangey, and analyst Bruce Richardson were my fellow panelists. Everyone had some useful recommendations, and sometimes humorous experiences with Twitter and blogging.
Elliott suggested being quotable without "feeding the trolls." In other words, don't spew just the negative tweets that grab attention but not necessarily credibility or value. I liked Leslie's advice to remember we are always a role model and that we wear multiple hats: she can just as soon chat up Charles Barclay as pep talk new moms.
With that advice, I have added a new twitter handle. If you want to follow my BI tweets, follow me on @BIScorecard. If you are interested in juggling work and motherhood tweets (in a largely man's world!), follow @BI_Lady.
Cindi Howson, BI Scorecard