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Business Intelligence and Excel: Happily Married?

Are spreadsheets a good match with business intelligence systems entrusted with providing consistent, reliable insight? The latest BI-Excel integrations let you have your spreadsheet-based analysis and always-validated, up-to-date data, too. Which add-in, plug-in or native link is right for you?

Integrations Improve

Over the last three years, leading BI vendors have introduced new products and capabilities that let users have their data in Excel while ensuring data integrity. For the most part, the products are Excel Add-Ins or Plug-Ins, with the exception of Microsoft, which provides native data access via Excel. Vendors have been steadily improving these add-in capabilities with each new release. Recent examples include:

Cognos 8 BI Analysis for Microsoft Excel
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- Cognos 8 BI Analysis for Microsoft Excel (set for release this week) adds the ability to slice, dice and drill on OLAP data sources, whether Cognos PowerCubes, Microsoft Analysis Services or relational data that is dimensionally modeled. As shown in the screen shot at right, the same Framework Manager model displayed to Web-based BI users appears directly within Excel.

Business Objects Live Office lets you create new queries from within Excel
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- Business Objects XI Release 2 Productivity Pack and Live Office (released this Spring) introduced the ability to create new queries from within Excel while leveraging the product’s "Universe" business metadata layer, (shown at left). Previously, users could only access existing report definitions in either Crystal Reports or Web Intelligence documents. Also in the latest release, users can bring in individual report parts from Web Intelligence in addition to Crystal Reports. So, for example, a chart created in either module can be presented and refreshed directly within PowerPoint.

- Niche BI-Excel vendor XLCubed acquired MicroCharts in August, adding its advanced visualizations such as spark lines (a trendline the size of a word) and bullet graphs (horizontal bars that combine actuals and targets).

- Excel 2007 (released last year) provides more intuitive access to OLAP data, displaying attributes as tool tips, with conditional formatting based on targets of key performance indicators. In this release, Microsoft has focused on usability, replacing the former drag-and-drop capabilities with a simpler point-and-click interface in which users readily see all available cube content from a new PivotTable Field List dialog. This same dialog helps users design report layouts and filter data. Using technology acquired from SoftArtisans in June, Microsoft plans to extend BI-Office integration beyond Excel to Word and PowerPoint.

The joint Microsoft-SAP Duet tie with Outlook
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- Also looking beyond Excel, SAP and Microsoft jointly released Duet, which provides access to reports and alerts through Outlook (as shown at right). When users open a Duet-powered report or alert via email, the content is refreshed live with data from within the Netweaver BI environment.

All of these innovations would make it sound like the road to BI-Excel integration is now wedded in bliss. And yet, the usual squabbles prevail. From a technology point of view, there is little consistency in how these add-ins arrive at users’ desktops. Some products use Smart Client technology that lets users self-install. Other products require an IT-push install. With Smart Client technology, users must first ensure a compatible version of the .Net Framework is installed and that upgrading to a compatible version doesn’t interfere with another application.

Ease of use is sometimes forgotten in the race to make all this integration better. For example, with one product, a new feature is meant to make it easy to filter BI queries based on values in a spreadsheet cell. Instead, a confusing dialog about “bounded” and “unbounded” properties appears to confuse. Another tool requires explicit changes to Microsoft Office Templates in order to work correctly. There is also the issue of product packaging and pricing. Why should users pay for an add-in when the export capability is free? All of these issues have led to modest adoption of the latest solutions as users say doing a conventional export seems easier and cheaper. If only more companies did a cost-benefit analysis of the ensuing data chaos!

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