SAP HANA and a new visual discovery tool Visual Intelligence took center stage at Sapphire this week. But more noteworthy to me is the trend that SAP is once again innovating in BI, not just integrating.
Visual Intelligence is the vendor’s new desktop tool that allows HANA users to visually explore and manipulate data. The tool is positioned for power users, a key difference from the vendor’s lightweight, Web-based visual discovery tool Explorer. Visual Intelligence using HANA as the data source is GA as of this week and is included as part of the SAP BusinessObjects BI suite license. An individual named user license not tied to the BI server is planned but not yet finalized. With HANA in production not-quite a year, that means only a few hundred customers can immediately deploy Visual Intelligence. CTO Dr. Vishal Sikka cited 353 HANA customers, with 145 live HANA deployments.
But this is just the beginning, both because SAP has big plans for HANA and big plans for Visual Intelligence. This week, SAP also announced a developer version of HANA in the Amazon cloud, with over 2000 instances ready immediately. I expect this seeding approach to help HANA’s uptake.
For Visual Intelligence, a subsequent release due in June will support additional data sources such as flat file, free hand SQL (for Web Intelligence users who have been mourning the loss of that feature, I can imagine some resounding cheers!), and Excel data sources. A third release, expected by year end, will bring support for universes, the vendor’s semantic layer. I hope there is support both for the newer .UNX and older .UNV files, as they have done with their new predictive solution. While such dual support may be harder for the vendor to deliver, it certainly helps with customer uptake.
Based on initial demonstrations, Visual Intelligence is strong on its data manipulation capabilities, automatically guessing at measures and dimensions, as well as hierarchies such as time and geography. If the data is not clean, users can perform transformations with no scripting, a point of differentiation from QlikView. The models can be saved back to HANA for other power users to access. I have not yet seen how well Visual Intelligence merges multiple data sources together.
The breadth of visualizations – ranging from standard bar charts to newer tag clouds and trellis charts – seems to compare with some of the best of breed visual discovery tools such as Tableau and TIBCO Spotfire. Lacking, though, is the ability to share discoveries while also preserving the interactivity. A power user, can for example, email an image to another user, but there is not an ability to publish a collection of analyses as a type of dashboard or exploration view that decision-makers can then consume and interact with via an iPad or Web. Expect these improvements to be a theme of the end-of-year release.
While Visual Intelligence took to the main stage, improvements in dashboards and predictive were the themes of one-on-one briefings and booth demos.
Adam Binnie, GM & VP of Business Intelligence Solutions, and Jason Rose, VP of Business Intelligence Marketing, outlined the key drivers for SAP to maintain its BI leadership and improve its capabilities:
- BI core: SAP BusinessObjects 4.0 and the subsequent Feature Pack 3
- Creative BI: provide fast time to value for both line of business and IT (Visual Intelligence)
- Mobile BI: develop first for mobile users and expand BI to untapped users (SAP Mobile & Zen)
- Extreme Analytics: Big data, real time, predictive (Hana, IQ, Predictive Analysis)
- Social: capture the decision, leverage the network. (Streamwork)
Binnie promises all of this Innovation with minimal disruption. That’s a nice vision, of course, but for those customers currently going through a 4.0 migration, I’d suggest reality is a bit more disruptive, particularly for those customers with large Desktop Intelligence deployments. Change is disruptive, like it or not; it’s more a matter of degree of disruption and the quality of the migration utilities.
To elaborate on how SAP is innovating in these five areas, SAP Mobile, for example, was showcased throughout the conference. While SAP executives may be able to claim leadership in mobile as a business application and development platform, the company’s story for Mobile BI is a mosaic, dependent on the device and the BI content. SAP has been caught in the market dynamics of the decline of Flash for animation as well as RIM in the mobile market. Meanwhile, SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (aka Xcelsius) relies exclusively on Flash, and what was breakthrough technology in 2005, has become a burden today. In this regard, SAP recently published a statement of direction for its dashboard strategy, with a new product, code-named Zen planned for release this year. Zen will bring HTML5 and long-awaited drill down to dashboards, but initially is for BW content only. SAP has committed to maintaining and enhancing Dashboards (aka Xcelsius) so I was also pleased to see an HTML5 version of Dashboards at the pods, expected in SP5, also later this year. Zen and Dashboards are expected to come together, eventually. One consultant aptly described it the” dashboard quagmire,” a valid comment. However, as I have been critical of SAP’s dashboard product with low scores in the BI Scorecard for years (seemingly going against the grain), I am also glad that SAP now has a plan to address the limitations and seems well on its way.
I previously wrote about SAP’s new Predictive Analysis solution, and in addition, HANA SP4, released last week adds support for R algorithms to run natively.
As I previously wrote about Feature Pack 3, currently in ramp up, support for collaboration via StreamWork integration is noteworthy. Users can directly annotate content and view discussion threads from within the SAP BusinessObjects BI Launchpad. If a user is working within StreamWork, they can also import reports to support a decision process. A new ability to auto update such reports from within StreamWork will be useful say for a weekly planning or strategy meeting. Beyond StreamWork, SAP Hana SP4 also includes support for unstructured data, ideal for analyzing social data.
Last year at this time, customers were waiting for SAP BusinessObjects 4.0, late, and three-years since a major release. One year later, there seemed to be improvements on multiple fronts with SAP once again innovating in BI.
And in case you are wondering, no I didn't stay for the Van Halen concert, which I heard was amazing. Seems I only make to Bieber and Swift concerts these days. Now if Barry White were still with us, or Gordon Lightfoot still touring, I'd have to adjust my travel schedule.
Cindi Howson, BI Scorecard