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SAP Business Warehouse & Business Objects front-end Integration: What is available today ?

Introduction

BI –Business Intelligence– can be defined as a range of applications, technologies and methodologies to disclose information to end users for decision making. It encompasses functionality in the area of Query, Reporting, Analysis & Dashboarding. This insight aims to give an overview of the current integration between SAP and Business Objects for delivering BI to an SAP (BW) user community. This insight does not deal with the SAP / Business Objects integration "at the platform” level, from an architectural point of view. This will be the topic of a separate, follow-up insight.

The different flavours of BI serving different user profiles

A typical BI user community can be segmented in different user profiles. In this insight we will distinguish "Power Users”, "Analysts” and "Information Consumers”. The below image indicates the particularity of each user type.
 
Figure 1 : the different user profiles for Business Intelligence

Powers users & Analysts are the users who extract the most value from BI by efficiently and intensively exploiting the information resources of a company. Given their specific role in an organisation, they are typically not the biggest audience in terms of numbers of users. Information consumers on the other hand, do not have the same requirements in terms of functionality, they are however the biggest audience in terms of numbers. Information Consumers will be mainly served by (distributed) reporting. Analysts & Power Users might require additional Query & Analysis functionality.
 

"Business Objects BI” today : a complete platform

Where "Business Objects BI” in the early days mainly stood for one client tool (currently called "Desktop Intelligence”), it has evolved through the years to a complete BI platform, delivering all of the above BI functionalities to the different user communities. This platform is called "SAP Business Objects Entreprise” today. Nowadays there are several tools making up this BI platform. Below paragraphs will highlight them one by one.

Report Distribution – SAP content through the Business Objects platform

SAP - BO Integration both is the easiest to understand from the distribution side and also is the area where most progress has been made since the acquisition of Business Objects by SAP in 2007. There are several ways to distribute BI content with SAP BusinessObjects Enterprise. Examples of BI content are reports, analysis worksheets and/or dashboards. The most prevalent distribution channel is "the Web browser". Even in this category, there are several options :
  • Business Objects InfoView
  • SAP Entreprise Portal
  • Other portals like Microsoft Sharepoint
  • Custom built web application

The focus of this insight is on the first option. Business Objects Entrepise comes with a pre-packaged web portal solution, called "SAP BusinessObjects InfoView”. InfoView has quite some built in functionality. It amongst others allows to share content with other people in a folder like environment. It allows– by means of publications – to schedule static reports (pdf, xls, …) to various channels. And It is one of the option to give analysts and power users access to Business Intelligence functionality.

In terms of current integration with SAP , content picked up through InfoView can be considered transparent in terms of the data source, once the necessary installations & configurations have been done. One of the few places where there still is a reference to "SAP” is at logon time. SAP BW credentials can be used to logon (as of version XI 3.x) as can be seen on below screenshot.
 
Figure 2 : SAP BW credentials to log on to SAP Business Objects Enterprise

Business Objects as master of "the Universe” – SAP BW OLAP Universes

The concept at the heart of Business Objects success, has been (and partly still is) its sematic layer, called Universe. A universe is a collection of objects, making abstraction of the complex database structures holding the actual data. Building a universe greatly depends on the type of database that is being accessed. For SAP BW, the universe is of the "OLAP”-type. For a relational database such as Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle, the universe is of the type "relational”. Relational universes are available since the inception of Business Objects, connecting to OLAP sources via universes has only been added in more recent versions.

Being able to build an OLAP universe on top of SAP BW is probably the nicest integration aspect between SAP & Business Objects, as it stands today. The OLAP universe is generated by means of reading the SAP BW metadata and translating this into a universe. This process is wizard driven. Although you can build a universe straight on top of an InfoCube or a MultiProvider, best practise is to work off a BEx Query. Note, this implies that one BEx Query translates to one Universe. As below picture illustrates, quite a bit of components from SAP BW can be used by Business Objects :
 
SAP BW Object Universe Object (Generated)
Dimension Group Class
Characteristic Subclass with dimension and detail objects
Characteristic with hierarchy
If data source is a BEx Query: Subclass containing dimension and detail objects for each hierarchy level in the currently defined hierarchy
If data source is an InfoCube: Subclasses containing dimension and detail objects for each hierarchy level for all hierarchies defined for the characteristic
Structure based on Characteristics (BEx Queries only) Class with single dimension object for the structure
Navigation attribute Subclass with dimension and detail objects (same as Characteristic)
Display Attribute Detail object for the dimension
Key Figure structure Class
Key Figure Measure object in the class for the structure with dimension objects for units/currency
Calculated Key Figure (BEx Queries only) Measure and dimension objects (same as Key Figure)
Restricted Key Figure (BEx Queries only) Measure and dimension objects (same as Key Figure)
Variables (BEx Queries only)
Filter mandatory in query
In the class for the dimension to which the variable applies, two dimension objects supporting the list of values, one for caption, one for description.
Key date variable (BEx Queries only) Universe parameters defining key date variable in the universe
 

If you are wondering if the distinction between a Relational universe and an (SAP) OLAP universe matters, the answer is : yes it does !

At the positive side, an SAP OLAP universe is generated automatically, so (almost) no "designer work” is needed. Once you have your BEx Query, generating your universe from scratch or syncing it with the changes made, is mainly "computer time”. Setting up and maintaining a relational universe yourself is a bit more work (although this is relative, universe design is most often only a small part of the job when delivering data warehousing projects).

Relational universes offer the upside of the SQL standard : you can use the SQL functions available in your RDBMS for definition of objects (like for example date functions on system date). At this moment, this is a feature not fully available for OLAP universes. Why this difference? OLAP universes are based on MDX, whilst relational are based on SQL. The issue here is not so much the status of integration between SAP and Business Objects, but rather the support of SAP for the MDX standard itself.
 
Is this important when deciding on deploying Business Objects on top of Business Warehouse? Well, yes and no. It depends on the needed functionality. If it is something BEx Query can easily deliver, the answer is no. Implement it in the BEx Query and the SAP BW universe will "inherit” it. If it is functionality not possible in BEx Query, the answer is yes. A "workaround” solution might be needed, possibly spanning BW, BEx ánd BO. For example: report scheduling based on system date (eg. Report run of report for April fetches data January to March, run of May fetches data January to April, …). In the "relational world”, this easily can be solved by basing an object on the systemdate at the universe level. In the "SAP BW world”, this type of functionality is possible, however a more "customized” solution is required. To work out this solution, a combination of both in depth Business Objects and BEx / BW knowledge is needed.
 
Figure 3 : An example of a relational universe in "design mode”

Figure 4 : An example of an OLAP universe in "design mode”
 
The folder like structure on the left is what's called a universe. Blue and green objects are dimension objects. Orange are measures / key figures.
 

Reporting – A different "History” of integration

In the area of reporting, Business Objects has historically a "rich" offering with both Crystal Reports and BO Web Intelligence. We are not mentioning Desktop Intelligence -still is an important legacy reporting tool- as it is not relevant to SAP integration. The "DeskI” application does not work on top of OLAP universes.

Crystal Reports, has been around for quite some time. It historically has had strong integration with SAP, not in the least, because of its past OEM agreement with SAP. It has native connectivity to both SAP ERP (on the left, SAP ECC) and SAP BW (on the right in below picture, SAP BW).

Figure 5 : Connectivity of Crystal Reports with SAP

Crystal Reports can be considered as highly integrated with SAP for all aspects of (mainly operational) reporting functionality. You can - for example - save Crystal Reports to BW roles. This means users having access to this role can get to the Crystal report via eg. the SAP Portal. Crystal reports can also work directly off BEx Queries.

For Web Intelligence, the situation is somewhat different. For one, Web Intelligence generally will work off (OLAP) universes. In terms of connectivity to SAP, this is reflected in the below scheme.
 
Figure 6 : Connectivity of Web Intelligence with SAP BW

There is still room for improvement here. Especially when looking at Web Intelligence in comparison to BEx Analyzer. Although in terms of BI functionality this is more or less comparing apples and oranges. Nonetheless, there is some overlap in functionality and in any case, people currently on BEx Analyzer definitely will take this point of view. For example, BEx Analyzer automatically makes use of format information set up in BEx Query. This is not automatically so for SAP BW OLAP universes and hence Web Intelligence reports. This makes the action of displaying scaled key figures (eg. thousands = 1K), more cumbersome with Web Intelligence. Also, when refreshing in BEx Analyzer, you can make use of variants (predefined set of prompt values). This is not (yet) available in Web Intelligence.

Performance, especially for Ad Hoc Query purposes, can also be perceived as slower than BEx Analyzer. The comparison on performance however is not easy, given the differences in tool architecture. You can kind of compare it to the differences between BEx Analyzer for Excel versus BEx Web Analyzer. The Web version for example does not need to render the data into Excel and hence often is faster. Same type of arguments apply to comparing Web Intelligence and BEx. It also is not a major issue because reports can be pre-refreshed, even for on report analysis / slice & dice functionality. If the data you need is already in a Web Intelligence report, working off this data almost always will be faster than with BEx Analyzer and for a lot of use cases, also easier for the end user.

Figure 7 - Business Objects Universe - Web Intelligence Interactive Reports with Input Controls
 
As an example, Figure 7 shows an on report analysis – with data already in the Web Intelligence report – by means of "Input controls” (on the left side).
 

Analysis – Major step in integration is still to come: "Pioneer”

An area in which the integration probably has least progressed (at this moment), is Analysis. Here the SAP products stand separate from the Business Objects product(s). SAP Business Objects Voyager is the tool of Business Objects for Analysis on top of SAP BW.

SAP Business Objects Voyager can connect directly to SAP BW. Performance however is the main integration issue here. This issue can be addressed in several ways. One option is to tune the SAP BW back-end (aggregates, indexes, …). Chances are this is a costly effort and although it will yield performance gains, it is likely these will not be sufficient. In most cases, Analysis functionality requires sub-second response times for all major drill paths. Getting there by only tuning at the SAP BW level, is a tough job. Another option SAP has, is to deploy (at an additional cost) SAP BW Accelerator. This in-memory platform is a sure bet in solving the performance issue and if you are willing to do the investment, most likely the best choice. When the investment is "out of your league” for the time being, an alternative could be offloading the data into a multi dimensional database (like Microsoft Analysis Services or Oracle Hyperion Essbase). This of course implies you already have such technology in house. It is interesting to note for example MSAS is part of the MS SQL Server platform, so depending on the MS SQL Server licence type, this option may be easily available to you. Given these multi-dimensional database platforms are proven technology, they also are a major improvement in solving the performance issue.

When taking BO Voyager out of the picture, the obvious thing to do is to use BEx Analyzer for analysis on SAP. The drawback here is the learning curve of the tool. It is considered less intuitive compared to BO Voyager. This is a non issue when you've already invested in its deployment through training and a support organisation for the end users. Although reaching out to a larger audience, has not always been the strong point of the BEx suite.

If this is the case and Analysis functionality is priority n°1 for you, probably best thing to do is to wait a bit longer for upcoming releases. The same applies if you have deployed BEx Analyzer for Excel and are looking at (even taking initial steps for) BEx Web Analyzer. The next big step in SAP / Business Objects integration is on its way, it is called "Pioneer”. "Pioneer” – the code name for the 2010 release in the area of OLAP analysis – is intended to provide a superset of capabilities from SAP BEx Analyzer (Excel), SAP BEx Web Analyzer and BO Voyager.

The slide below describes the product direction for BI Solutions (as published by SAP in 2009). It positions Pioneer in SAP Business Objects offering (and gives an indication on release date).

Figure 8 - SAP Business Objects Product Directions, positioning Pioneer
 

Dashboarding – Connectivity to SAP BW, visualization by Business Objects

The dashboard offering of SAP Business Objects is composed of 2 products. On the one hand you have SAP Business Objects Xcelsius, on the other you have Dashboards & Analytics. Both tools are complementary, with a small overlap.

Dashboards & Analytics is part of Business Objects Entreprise and is accessed through InfoView. It mainly is a solution for building a "framework” for dashboarding to be distributed via the web. The framework presents a set of tabs and windows in which you can display several types of content. This ranges from Web Intelligence reports, Xcelsius flash files, … to "Analytics”. Analytics are the 2nd part of functionality of the tool (speedometers, traffic lights , …). Interesting to note, analytics make use of (OLAP) universes. "Dashboard and Analytics" is well suited to make so called "Mashups”. A "Mashup” is a web application that combines data or functionality from several sources (possibly both internal as external). Given the nature of the application, there is not so much to say about the integration between SAP and Business Objects. The level of integration depends what components are used in the dashboard.

Below picture gives an idea on what a "mashup” dashboard can look like. The "Home” tab, combines an Xcelsius visualization with a analytic and a "What can be displayed” text box.
 
Figure 9 - Business Objects - Xcelsius Dashboards

Xcelsius on the other hand is a pure dashboarding/advanced visualization tool. The Xcelsius designer allows you to build highly visual (speedo meters, traffic lights, …) interactive dashboards. The end product is a Adobe Flash file (optionally embedded in pdf, ppt, … ). Within the flash file, the refresh frequency and connectivity (to SAP) is embedded. Flash is in principle highly suitable for distribution via the web.

There are a lot of demo Xcelsius applications out there, for example see the SAP-website to check out demos.

Xcelsius is a special case in terms of integration with SAP. There is a dual approach for this tool. Broadly speaking, you can deploy it; or "via” the Business Objects Entreprise platform or "via” the SAP Entreprise Portal. The first connectivity basically works via OLAP universes (and hence BEx Queries). The last one directly on a BEx Query. The difference between the 2 options lies within the distribution platform. For the first option, the Business Objects platform itself is needed. The second option does not require that but has very specific requirements for the SAP NetWeaver platform on which it can be deployed. The SAP NetWeaver platform needs both Java+ the Abap stack and only has been added in the latest version of Xcelsius (SAP BusinessObjects Xcelsius Entreprise SP3).
 

Conclusion

SAP and Business Objects integration has come a long way. Where initially the biggest (historical, pre-acquisition) integration was available through Crystal Reports (hence (operational) reporting functionality focused), it now has been introduced across the whole Business Objects BI platform. Especially the latest releases have boosted the integration to a "production ready” level.

Depending on what audience is targeted with SAP/BO, there are some differences in maturity. The group "Information Consumers” are by far the most ready to be served by the integrated SAP Business Objects offering, as it currently stands. As this often is the largest part of the "BI audience” and probably the part less served by existing BEx suite, this already is a big step. It also indicates SAP/Business Objects is managing the integration in a good way (right priorities, step by step approach).

The solutions for Analysts and Power Users are lagging a bit. Although even here structural integration work has been done, some important issues still remain. If a solution is in place for optimizing performance of Business Objects Voyager on top of SAP BW, Voyager definitely delivers added value in the area of an easy to use analysis tool deployed via the web. Only downside still remaining, is a few interoperability options of Voyager with other tools from the BI stack (like Business Objects Web Intelligence).

To fully use the advanced ad hoc reporting & analysis functionality of Web Intelligence, a high skill set is still required at the (power) user side. If your company already has a long standing history in BI, with for example a well functioning "BI competence center”, the integration with SAP BW might already be sufficient to deploy this tool in this area. If this is not the case, the better choice might be to hold out a bit longer: keep an eye on the "Pioneer release” (currently planned for the 2nd half of 2010).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010