Business Objects' Xcelsius and Xcelsius Workgroup are two programs for creating dynamic presentations of increasing flexibility – from PowerPoint slides up to dashboard and portal content.
The critical feature of Xcelsius is that it works with Microsoft Excel and is accessible to Excel power users as a means of developing not just power presentations, but also useful dashboard and portal content with all the usual Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), drill-downs, and "what-if" analyses. A second key component is that its output is a Flash small Web format (SWF), self-contained program that can be embedded into HTML, PDF and a number of portal systems.
Portals deliver information at your finger tips -- but the ease and timeliness with which those dashboards and portals can be created is still quite mixed. Ease of development often brings proprietary platform restrictions, long lead-times to get new portal views implemented, or expensive per-user licensing costs. Business Objects' Xcelsius provides power users with a little latitude: They can do it themselves with a cross-platform deployment option, at a reasonable (though hardly cheap) cost per user.
Xcelsius is the original brainchild of Infommersion, a software firm that was bought by Business Objects in October 2005. The product is available in two versions -- Xcelsius, which is primarily designed for delivering highly flexible but data-static presentations that can be viewed stand-alone, or as part of a PowerPoint Presentation. Xcelsius Workgroup adds output to an Adobe Acrobat file, an Outlook or any HTML-aware e-mail or embedded in a Web Page. In the latter case Xcelsius Workgroup also can be given dynamic data input capabilities.
But Xcelsius Workgroup is really designed to accommodate the creation of dashboard and portal applications with associated features for security, sharing, performance and management control. Xcelsius Workgroup provides the same design or Analytic Workbench as the one offered by Xcelsius, though with added features for data management and group use. The Analytic Workbench definitely simplifies presentation layout.
Excel and the Analytic Workbench
Xcelsius uses the Excel infrastructure to make the design of dashboards and presentations more straightforward. Consider that information that has been brought into a spreadsheet has already been sorted, filtered, laid out, and finished with formulas and calculations. Xcelsius takes advantage of this by reading the Excel data into its own model file, which contains additional info on data sources, formatting and features that have been added to a model.
Xcelsius then uses the familiar Excel layout to act as a dialog in filling in a presentation's design details. Users drag and drop pie charts, line charts, and up to 11 other chart types onto Analytic Workbench's design canvas. The user then fills in the info required to display the chart with simple clicks. Nothing extraordinary there.
What is extraordinary is that all the charts elements are potentially active as drill-down buttons. Click on a piece of a pie chart, and data can be displayed in a line chart showing the breakout of the pie value as a series of monthly values or major customer orders or whatever else makes up the underlying data. Drill-down data can reside in a separate book in the spreadsheet, or as close as an adjacent row of values.
Doing what-if analysis and creating alerts is just as easy. Xcelsius provides a whole collection of slider controls -- which look like the slider controls you might see on an audio amp -- gauges, dials, process bars, spinners and LED displays that can act as input to drive what-if analyses or alerts that flag values outside a normal range. The key here is that Xcelsius is able to feed new values into spreadsheet cells based on users' settings, and then dynamically redisplay the data. This is where Xcelsius really shines -- automatically rescaling charts and keeping up with sliders as fast as users change the slider input. It provides real-time results.
Xcelsius also can display to maps, provide traditional Web-input forms, and allow extensive size-customization of components -- charts, sliders, gauges, maps and more. In addition, the appearance of chart data and text can easily be altered in the Analytics Workbench. Another encouraging trend is the availability of Xcelsius add-ons, including maps and other components. There are also a number of third-party VARs specializing in BI with Xcelsius. Additionally, Xcelsius has a very rich, detailed "getting started" application that co-runs with the Analytic Workbench, making it simple to get up to speed very quickly in the technology's basics.
As a developer who has used Macromedia Breeze and Flex for developing BI analytical front-ends, it's my judgment that Xcelsius has the power to expedite such development. Power users that might tend to shy away from FlexBuilder will try Xcelsius because of the Excel interface. Most information workers feel comfortable with Excel. In fact, given Breeze's ease-of-use features, I was surprised to learn from industry insiders that Excel power users prefer the more involved steps in Xcelsius. In sum, the Excel connection is just as important as the Flash output. Xcelsius refuses to install unless a version of Excel 2003 is available on the PC being used. This is a strong commitment to Excel, given the fierce pricing pressure Microsoft is inflicting on the rest of the Business Objects BI stack.
Not everything about Xcelsius is peaches and cream. My test-runs through the three example tutorials went well, but when I used data supplied from a MySQL database source, Xcelsius refused to see the data in them despite Excel 2003 being able to read the spreadsheets. Xcelsius also doesn't check that input ranges match output ranges in number and cell content. And because the import of Excel data is into Xcelsius' own spreadsheet model, Xcelsius remains blissfully unaware of any subsequent updates to that original Excel spreadsheet.
Xcelsius Workgroup is designed in part to address the issue of data updates in Excel, but updates to formulas and layouts in a spreadsheet remain a thorny problem for Xcelsius. But as the Xcelsius motto goes, users are likely "to steal the show" with their Xcelsius-powered PowerPoint, Adobe, HTML or stand-alone presentations. I had no problems using all the output options for presentations. I was surprised, however, that Business Object did not use Macromedia's Flash Paper as another powerful delivery vehicle.
Besides the dependence on Excel models and the inability to auto-update altered Excel spreadsheets, another key concern is how Xcelsius fits into the larger Business Object framework. Xcelsius does not take advantage of Crystal Reports or any other Business Objects BI capability such as metadata resources or Report Server, among others. But given the speed at which Crystal was adopted into the Business Objects framework, I would not be surprised to see Xcelsius follow suit.
There are a number of competitors to Xcelsius. At the high end there is the excellent Spotfire Decision Site, as well as SAS Insight. For those looking for a less expensive system, Hyperion's Visual Explorer and Cognos' PowerPlay come to mind. But none of these has the same feature set and price performance as Xcelsius:
Given the viral nature of Xcelsius adoption, IT managers will have to decide whether the future direction of Xcelsius Workgroup is going to fit well into a broader Business Objects portal/dashboard strategy -- or if Xcelsius will be kept in the trenches, limited to top-flight presentations.
Jacques Surveyer is a writer and consultant, see some of his work at theOpenSourcery.com