Sophisticated Reporting Bolsters An Enterprise-Ready BI Suite - InformationWeek

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Sophisticated Reporting Bolsters An Enterprise-Ready BI Suite

Information Builders' WebFocus 7 boasts scalablity and flexible reporting.

Operational BI is the impetus of many data warehousing projects these days. Information Builders' version 7 release of its flagship product, WebFocus, keeps step with this trend by providing a scalable architecture, comprehensive data integration tools, flexible reporting and ease of use — all of which support operational BI needs. Information Builders (IBI) has been around for more than 25 years with WebFocus and its mainframe predecessor, Focus, but it hasn't gone stale.

PROS
•Scalable architecture, easy to administer
•Natively accesses many data sources
•Lets casual users create complex reports and offers flexible report delivery options
•Tightly integrated with Excel
CONS
•Metadata stored in a file rather than a relational database
•Data isn't stored in an OLAP cube, slowing in-depth slicing and dicing performance
•Data cleansing capabilities are basic

Data Integration

Most top BI vendors have moved beyond front-end reporting to hard-core data integration. IBI is no exception. It combines an excellent extract, transform, load (ETL) tool with a scalable autonomic reporting server. It can run reports in multiple formats (PivotTables in Excel, full-fledged OLAP and so on) and deliver them by various means, including real-time mobile device alerts or intelligent processes such as report bursting.

A good BI solution should be able to connect to and extract data from a number of disparate sources. WebFocus can natively access 280 distinct data sources, which is probably an industry record (for a comprehensive list, see www.informationbuilders.com/products/WebFocus/data_access.html). WebFocus embeds a complete ETL solution from IBI's integration subsidiary, iWay Software. Unfortunately, the data integration component doesn't include more than a rudimentary data cleansing capability, so you may need to supply your own.

WebFocus's ETL tool has a graphical user interface that lets developers create and run complex transforms with point-and-click ease. WebFocus also provides adapters to common ETL tools such as IBM WebSphere DataStage and Informatica, and it provides a single metadata layer that can be used for ETL, reporting and analysis. The metadata is stored in a file system instead of a relational database, which is a disadvantage because developers can't access the metadata directly with SQL. It's some consolation that WebFocus provides a built-in metadata browser.

Administration

WebFocus installation requires set up and configuration of several server components, so it's best to use the vendor's installation services (which are included with the software purchase). Once installed, WebFocus is scalable and easy to administer. Its load balancing features let the servers grow and shrink as loads change. It supports n-tier processing, which enables developers to partition the application logic across multiple platforms. The fail-over functionality automatically reroutes users to another available server in the event of a problem.

ReportCaster, the report delivery engine, is a single point of control for automated scheduling, distribution and report storage. The Report Library lets users logically organize information by category, making it easy for them to find the information they need. It also can store multiple versions of the same report and set an expiration date for the content. When a new report is added to the library, an e-mail can be sent to the authorized users with a link to the new information.

WebFocus provides security at many levels — data, report, role and function. Administrators can limit users to performing certain functions such as running ad hoc queries or OLAP reports. WebFocus supports external security systems at the operating system and database levels as well as packages such as ADS, SecureWay, nTrust and VeriSign.

The Developer Studio provides a GUI drag-and-drop environment that enables rapid application development, while a report wizard lets developers create complex, parameter-driven reports. The Resource Layout Painter lets developers generate complex HTML forms without having to use third-party tools. WebFocus provides direct SQL support for SQL statements defined outside of WebFocus. Developers can also use the SQL wizard to develop new queries. Anyone using the wizard must have a good idea of how SQL works, but needn't remember the exact syntax.

WebFocus enables closed-loop BI by letting end users update information to databases. Because of this, developers must be careful to provide users with the right screens and accesses to update the information.

Developers can easily integrate WebFocus with leading portals through a comprehensive API layer. The component pieces of the API are built in a number of formats such as ASP, JSP, Java, JavaScript and HTML/XML, so they can easily be ported, enhanced and reused. This approach minimizes the overhead of custom coding needed to integrate with portals from other vendors.

Report, Analyze, Deliver

Quick Query is a thin-client application that lets users generate ad hoc reports through a browser interface. Its drag-and-drop functionality lets users create fairly sophisticated reports that include conditional styling, calculations, page breaks, sorting and filtering. Users can slice and dice the data using built-in OLAP. This functionality comes without the overhead of having to build cubes. Users can pivot the data, drill-down, browse dimensions and calculate percentiles easily. The drawback to the data not being stored in cubes is that deep slice-and-dice analysis won't perform as well.

WebFocus provides several features that can help you with financial modeling, producing balance sheets and profit and loss statements. The WebFocus Performance Management Framework lets you manage performance metrics across the enterprise, and it includes standard methodologies such as Balanced Scorecard.

A Visual Discovery tool (see the screen capture below) supports detailed analysis with various built-in visualization techniques. The intuitive visual interface lets users select, zoom, pivot and re-color charts on the fly.

screen capture
Visual Discovery is WebFocus 7's visual analysis tool. The interface is intuatively designed so the user has little trouble mastering the controls to select, zoom, pivot, and re-color charts at will.

Geographic information system (GIS) and mapping abilities let users select data from maps and move it to a report, or convert report data into maps. Developers can even add GIS components to BI apps through a set of Java APIs.

Reports can be delivered via e-mail, FTP, network printers or fax. A two-way e-mail option lets users — both wired and wireless — send data back and forth with enterprise systems. Users can receive reports on a schedule or when an event occurs that meets a predetermined condition. With WebFocus, you can run a report once and burst relevant portions to the appropriate users. This saves both system resources and manual labor.

WebFocus also allows users to create an active dashboard as a PowerPoint slide that remains active.

I was impressed with the powerful graphical interface that let me easily create reports in HTML, PDF, Excel, PowerPoint and other formats. I could even preserve the report formatting and drill-downs in these varied output options. I tested this by creating a report with complex formatting such as calculated columns, headers, subtotals, sort breaks and drill-downs, all of which WebFocus kept, no matter the output type.

The HTML format option offers on-demand paging that eases navigation of large reports. WebFocus provides one of the tightest integrations with Excel in the BI marketplace. Hyperlinks in the spreadsheet preserve the drill-down paths in the report. The product also can be used to create popular Excel output types such as PivotTables and tabbed spreadsheets.

Recommendation

If you want to buy an operational BI solution that you might need to deploy to hundreds or thousands of users, and you want a wide range of flexible delivery options, WebFocus 7 should be on your shortlist. However, if you have a BI application in mind that demands complex OLAP cubes, you should probably look elsewhere.

• WebFocus 7 pricing starts at $23,050 for a one-processor Windows server machine and goes to $168,000 for large mainframes. Advanced ad hoc query and OLAP analysis starts at $400 per seat. Contact Information Builders at www.informationbuilders.com.

Ganesh Variar, team lead with Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, has 10 years' experience managing and designing business intelligence apps. Write to him at [email protected].

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