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SAP Business Warehouse & Business Objects front-end Integration: What is available today ?
The different flavours of BI serving different user profiles
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
Report Distribution – SAP content through the Business Objects platform
- 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.
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.
|SAP BW Object||Universe Object (Generated)|
|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).
Figure 4 : An example of an OLAP universe in "design mode”
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).