The Road Unexplored: A Future for SAP BusinessObjects Explorer

Four years is an eternity in enterprise software development. Is it time to bring Explorer’s mojo back with a revised product roadmap?

Pity poor SAP BusinessObjects Explorer. Born as a poster child for innovation in business intelligence, it became a foster child- passed from product owner to product owner without a devoted and loving parent. Customers had their own reasons for not adopting Explorer, the most significant reason being- at least historically- licensing costs. I’ve been a passionate advocate of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, giving many presentations to BI administrators over the years beginning with “Deploying BI to the Masses using SAP BusinessObjects Explorer” at the 2009 Global BusinessObjects Network (GBN) conference in Dallas, Texas. In my experience, most SAP BI customers have stuck largely with Web Intelligence and Crystal Reports, with a smattering of Xcelsius dashboards. But customers who have adopted Explorer really love the tool and have made significant investments in it.

The current state of affairs is unfortunate, because if you’ve seen a SAP HANA demo (and who hasn’t?), you’ve most likely seen a demonstration of Explorer and how briskly it interacts with large volumes of data in the SAP HANA platform. SAP’s most unloved BI tool demonstrates how lovely SAP HANA can be.

It’s been four years since SAP released a significant update to Explorer. SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3 was released on June 15, 2012 and brought many new features to the BI4 platform that missed the original GA date, including Explorer Exploration Views. At the time, Exploration Views was one of the key benefits SAP touted as part of Feature Pack 3. But four years without innovation is an eternity in enterprise software years.

The SAP Digital Board Room is the spiritual successor to Explorer, not because of its feature set (although it does offer some of Explorer’s faceted navigation capabilities), but because of who its target user is (see my recent SAP Community Network article, Thoughts on the SAP Digital Boardroom). But the SAP Digital Board Room was not designed to provide a home for legacy on-premise Explorer information spaces.

As SAP focuses on bringing the second generation of Lumira and Design Studio to life, it seems likely that another year or possibly two will pass before Explorer’s search and exploration capabilities are fully incorporated into Lumira. But what will the delay mean for current Explorer customers, whose pain in dealing with Adobe Flash is second only to Web Intelligence customers dealing with Oracle Java? How should we reconcile SAP’s commitment to not expire BI content with the marketplace’s rejection of legacy technology like Adobe Flash? And if not from Explorer, where will the next business intelligence breakthrough for casual business users come from?

Is there a better path forward for Explorer than the current roadmap allows? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or on a related Explorer thread on SAP Community Network, How and when will Explorer functionality migrate to Lumira?

Major Milestones for SAP BusinessObjects Explorer

  • October 2005, BusinessObjects releases Intelligent Question XI Release 2, Explorer’s spiritual ancestor
  • October 2007, Debuted as Polestar on XI R2 for Microsoft Windows
  • July 2009, Polestar rebranded as Explorer for XI 3.1 SP1 release
  • July 2010, Explorer XI 3.2 added support for IBM AIX, SUSE Linux, and Edge BI platform
  • September 2011, Explorer 4.0 goes GA, integrated into BI Launchpad 4.0, removes UNV support and adds UNX support, introduces direct connectivity to SAP HANA with 4.0 SP2 FP11
  • June 2012, Exploration Views introduced in BI 4.0 Feature Pack 3 September 2013: SAP restores UNV support with BI 4.1
  • June 2014, SAP announces plans to not expire content, fold Explorer use cases into future version of SAP Lumira as part of a convergence of the SAP BI tool portfolio

Recommended Reading

Will Security Concerns Override Your BI Strategy?

The future of Flash may no longer be in the hands of Adobe but instead in the hands of IT security.

It hasn’t been a great month for Adobe Flash. Both Google and Mozilla took extraordinary steps to temporarily disable Adobe Flash from their respective browsers, bringing disruption to SAP Dashboards (see related BusinessObjects Board article).

Dashboards Not Working in Firefox

Adobe released a patch and all was well again, but isn’t it really just a matter of time before we’ll be going through the same exercise? There’s a growing chorus in the mainstream press, not just the technical press, to walk away from Adobe Flash.

While the Occupy Flash movement (yes, there is a movement) advocates letting “your IT department know you can do without Flash”, there are some obvious places (like Explorer and Dashboards/Xcelsius) where the Adobe Flash Player is required by SAP BusinessObjects.

Unfortunately, there are also several less-than-obvious places (see related article, Adobe Flash- Dying but not Dead Just Yet). However, much of everyday web browsing no longer requires the Adobe Flash Player. I was motivated by the recent controversy to remove Adobe Flash from my two Macs, just to see what would happen. I’ll limit Adobe Flash to my Microsoft Windows VM that I use at work.

SAP customers have endured similar scenarios with the Java Runtime Engine and Web Intelligence. But unlike Java, which still manages to have multiple dependencies in today’s enterprise, there are fewer reasons to rely on Adobe Flash and IT security may act more quickly to eliminate it completely from corporate desktops. Mainstream web sites like YouTube no longer require Adobe Flash (and let’s be honest, many organizations prevent you from watching grumpy cat videos at the office anyway).

SAP’s strategy for Dashboards and Explorer has been to leave them as-is as new plug-in free tools like Design Studio and Lumira increase in both maturity and adoption. That strategy assumes that Adobe will continue to support Flash indefinitely, allowing SAP customers to continue to use Dashboards and Explorer content even though the tools no longer receive investment. However, the future of Flash may no longer be in the hands of Adobe but instead in the hands of IT security, keen to remove Flash from the enterprise. This change of direction will to put more pressure on business intelligence competency centers to retire SAP Dashboards and Explorer more quickly than anticipated, and earlier than the current SAP BI roadmap will comfortably allow.

How are Adobe Flash vulnerabilities affecting your BI strategy? Is your organization under pressure to retire Adobe Flash? Please share a comment below.

SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0 Turns 3!

After the candles are blown out, here are some things to work on during the next year.

Happy Third Birthday, SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0! You came into the world on September 16, 2011, after a lengthy gestation. We’ve made a lot of memories together, from your birth to taking your first steps. Potty training took a bit longer than expected, but we eventually got there with your BI 4.1 release. And I’ve mostly gotten over that time you pooped in the bathtub. As the parent of three children, I’m familiar with children moving from “baby” to “toddler” to “preschooler”. Software doesn’t mature in the same way as human children. But just like with humans, some things that were expected, manageable or even “cute” in earlier years become wearisome after three years. So I’d like to mention ten things that I hope you’ll work on before your fourth birthday.

10. Group Hierarchy tree control with “too many objects”

We’re thankful that after three years, the “too many objects” error is largely solved in the BI Launch Pad (see related article, Too Many Objects in Your BI Launch Pad). I realize that BI Launch Pad users outnumber Central Management Console users. But any administrator with a large BI installation knows how tedious it is to live without a decent tree control.

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

9. User search feature in CMC

There are a lot of user attributes beyond just title and description. And I’d like to search any of them, thank you. Isn’t this just a few extra lines of code?

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

8. Server search feature in CMC

Although most servers are appropriately named, sometimes they just aren’t. Please make it easier to find a server by type (Adaptive Processing Server, Crystal Reports Cache Server) regardless of what somebody else decided to name it.

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

7. SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio server installation

If Design Studio is the future of SAP dashboards, then please take the time to integrate the required server features directly into the BI platform. The separate (and frequently changing) server components are a huge barrier to adoption (see related articles, Please Integrate the Integrated BI Platform and Over Designing BI Architecture for Design Studio).

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

6. SAP BusinessObjects Explorer administration

We’ve suffered through poor SAP BusinessObjects Explorer administration since Explorer debuted as Polestar on the XI R2 platform. As you fold Explorer functionality into Lumira, please fold its administrative tasks into the Central Management Console (see related article, Family Planning).

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

5. Web Intelligence panel preference

Thankfully you provide a script, setGroupPreferences (see SAP KB 1659566 or SAP KB 1816617), but even simpler would be the ability to set the default Web Intelligence report panel via the CMC. But even better would be retiring the Java report panel in favor of a single kick-a__ HTML 5 panel. Which leads us to number 4.
Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

4. Web Intelligence Java Report Panel

Who can forget WebiJavaGeddon (see related article, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste)?  I’ve logged hundreds of hours in the Web Intelligence Java Report Panel. But with security and performance concerns, it’s time to move on to a plug-in free future (see related article, Is it Time for Caffeine-Free Web Intelligence).

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

3. Monitoring

Monitoring was a big marquee feature of the BI 4.0 launch. It’s a great first step, but it’s time to show us a more mature second generation of this important feature. Oh, and the Adobe Flash interface needs to go (see related article, Adobe Flash- Dying but not Dead Just Yet).

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

2. Promotion Management/Lifecycle Management

Everyone thought the Import Wizard was evil. Until it went away. Like monitoring, this was a marquee feature of the BI 4.0 and rightly so. Also like monitoring, it re-appeared in BI 4.1 largely unchanged.

While we’re appreciative of the many stability improvements made post-BI 4.1, it’s time for you to show us the next generation of promotion management (see related article, Do I Feel Lucky? Musings on Promotion Management). We’d also be grateful if the user interface was more consistent with the rest of the CMC and eliminated the tiny bit of Adobe Flash that it contains (see related article, Adobe Flash- Dying but not Dead Just Yet).

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

1. Platform Search

There are over 80 articles in the SAP knowledge base about platform search. Most of them highlight a design flaw or document a workaround, which isn’t terribly flattering. Given that platform search is often the first feature a new user will try, it’s time to put away the duct tape and introduce the next generation of platform search to the SAP BI platform.

Top 10 annoyances of SAP BI4

Make a wish, blow out the candles, and enjoy some well-deserved cake. But I hope you’ll take these things to heart over the next year.

What are your thoughts after three years of the SAP BI4 platform?

Adobe Flash- Dying but not Dead Just Yet

Declaring Adobe Flash “dead” sadly does not make it so.

At this year’s SAP SAPPHIRE conference Ty Miller, SAP VP of Solution Management, declared that “Flash is dead!”. He was referring, of course, to SAP’s dashboard roadmap and the transition from Adobe Flash-based Xcelsius/Dashboards to HTML5-based Design Studio (see related article, The Future of SAP Dashboards). While that high-profile transition is well underway, Adobe Flash is still lurking in other dark corners of the SAP BI platform.

Adobe Flash in the Central Management Console

Monitoring

The Monitoring dashboard introduced with the BI 4.0 Central Management Console is built with Adobe Flash. Two years ago, Mirko Langhorst posted the following on the SAP Idea Place:

We would like to totally get rid of Flash, the component in the CMC using Flash is the new Monitoring application. It would be great to change this HTML5, so the CMC would become Flash-free

Get Rid of Adobe Flash 01 500

Sadly, SAP buried this idea in the SAP Idea Graveyard, tagging it as “Not Planned by SAP”. Which is unfortunate, because the monitoring dashboard isn’t the only source of Adobe Flash frustration in the BI platform. Or just frustration in general (see related article, Less Flash, More Substance for SAP Business Intelligence Monitoring).

Get Rid of Adobe Flash 02 500

Visual Difference

The Visual Difference feature introduced with the BI 4.0 Central Management Console is built with Adobe Flash.

Adobe Flash in CMC Visual Difference

Promotion Management

Adobe Flash is used by the Override Settings in Promotion Management. And as an aside, all but the latest support packs of the BI platform use the much maligned Apache Derby for overrides (see SAP Mentor Greg Myers’ epic article, Derby Maybe).

Get Rid of Adobe Flash 03 500

Adobe Flash in the BI Launch Pad

Content Linking with BI Workspaces

Not content to limit use of Adobe Flash to the Central Management Console, SAP uses Adobe Flash in its implementation of BI Workspace content linking in the BI Launch Pad.

Get Rid of Adobe Flash 04 500

 

Crystal Reports for Enterprise Prompts

Crystal Reports for Enterprise uses Adobe Flash for scheduled prompts.

Crystal Reports for Enterprise Prompts with Adobe Flash

Crystal Reports 2013 does not use Adobe Flash.

Crystal Reports 2013 Prompts without Adobe Flash

Explorer

I haven’t mentioned SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, but SAP’s recent plans to fold it into SAP Lumira (and therefore SAP HANA) have effectively marooned it on an Adobe Flash island (see SAP executive Jayne Landry’s related article, Run Simple: Convergence of the SAP BusinessObjects BI Product Portfolio). It’s likely that any Explorer replacement will be built on HTML5, not Adobe Flash. But it’s unclear when SAP intends to deliver Explorer-like functionality by Lumira or any other tool in the BI platform.

Dashboards and Xcelsius

Of course, we can’t forget that SAP Dashboards require Adobe Flash at runtime.

Time to Retire Adobe Flash in SAP BI Platform

A decade ago, Adobe Flash had its place providing rich visuals for web applications. In today’s mobile and cloud-centric world, Adobe Flash is a relic. Instead of visual excitement, it generates support and security anxiety. For example, Apple last week took the drastic step of disabling all versions of Adobe Flash except the latest 14.0.0.145 (see related Apple bulletin). But this is two versions ahead of SAP, which has only recently added official support for version 12 in its latest patch levels of the BI platform.

The time is right for SAP to articulate a clear timeline for a plug-in free version of the SAP BI platform (see related article, Thoughts on BI 5.0). Until then, please show your support for Mirko Langhorst’s great idea.

Update (September 17, 2015): SAP has indicated that Promotion Management in BI 4.2 has been rewritten to no longer require Adobe Flash. However, SAP has not published a roadmap to address these other Adobe Flash dependencies.

Less Flash, More Substance for SAP Business Intelligence Monitoring

Adobe Flash no longer belongs in enterprise software.

This article is my 400th published blog article. Thanks for reading!

SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.1 Monitoring

Monitoring, along with Platform Search, Promotion Management (formerly Lifecycle Management), and Visual Difference, was introduced as a marquee feature of the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 platform, the first major release of the platform bearing SAP’s distinctive fingerprints. But after the initial fanfare of the BI 4.0 launch, SAP seemed satisfied that these features could appear on a checklist of “enterprise BI” features. None of these capabilities received significant updates in last year’s BI 4.1 update (although to be fair, there have been modest enhancements in support packs 1 and 2, with more rumored for the upcoming Support Pack 3).

SAP BusinessObjects BI 4 Monitoring suffers from two key deficiencies. First, the well-documented reliance on Apache Derby as a trending database on the back end (see related series of articles from EV Technologies, Demolition Derby). Second, the front-end is built with Adobe Flash. While this “rich interface” seemed like a good idea five years ago on the BI 4.0 drawing board, the use of Flash is now a liability. The Adobe Flash plug-in is crash-prone and a source of security issues and frequent patch updates. And as we’ve seen with SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, the use of an Adobe Flash interface seems to actually slow SAP’s ability to innovate (a View SQL button, anyone?).

Mirko Langhorst posted the following brilliant idea to the SAP Idea Place, which sadly has already been flagged as “Not Planned by SAP“.

SAP Idea Place Eliminate Flash from CMC Monitoring

And Kristof Speeckaert speaks for many SAP BusinessObjects administrators with the following tweet:

The monitoring engine is an important feature of the SAP BusinessObjects platform. However, its implementation in BI 4.0 was only a first step. The SAP roadmap for dashboards eschews Adobe Flash in favor of HTML5 (see related article, The Future of SAP Dashboards). And while its roadmap is less clear, it’s reasonable to assume that the next release of Explorer-like functionality will share and extend the HTML5 technology present in SAP Lumira. In a similar way, it’s critical that both Apache Derby and Adobe Flash are quickly phased out of SAP’s BI platform.

Nobody demos an administrator’s tool like the Central Management Console from a keynote stage. So it’s easy for SAP product managers to nix enhancements and spend limited resources elsewhere. But keeping less-visible or vocal IT managers and administrators energized about the BI platform is just as important as C-level executives and power users. I hope SAP will take a second look at the enterprise features of their enterprise BI platform and take the next steps to continue their evolution and innovation.

What are your impressions of the BI 4.x monitoring engine?

 

Thoughts on BI 5.0

Some serious (really) reflection on the future of the SAP BI platform.

Last month, I took a light-hearted look at the future of the SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence platform (see related article, A Glimpse of SAP BusinessObjects BI 5.0). This month, I’d like to make some serious predictions about what the next major iteration of SAP’s BI platform will look like. There’s no public roadmap or timetable for the next major release. SAP is putting the final touches on BI 4.1– which should go into General Availability (GA) later this year. And SAP is already making noises about BI 4.2 coming in 2014.

But it’s fun to dream. Let’s begin!

Mustang_50_Fender

64-bit Client Tools

I predict that the first broad theme of the BI 5.0 release will be fully 64-bit code. With the server platform already mostly (but not entirely) 64-bit, I predict that BI 5.0 will be the first release of SAP’s BI suite to not include 32-bit client tools. By the time BI 5.0 arrives, 32-bit Windows XP will be officially retired and most corporate desktops will be running modern 64-bit operating systems.

SAP hasn’t made any official announcements, but to get to a 64-bit-only world, we’ll need a transition period where client tools are, like SAP Lumira (formerly SAP Visual Intelligence), offered in both 32-bit and 64-bit editions. SAP Data Services already offers its design tools in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors. SAP Lumira was exclusively 64-bit when introduced, but enough customers balked so SAP responded with a 32-bit edition (SAP Visual Intelligence 1.07 in December 2012). For Not So Big Data, I guess.

Some of the existing 32-bit client tools, such as Crystal Reports 2011/2013, have already been classified as “legacy,” meaning that SAP will use the transition to 64-bit to leave these tools in the cyber dustbin of history. Here are some of the side-effects of a 64-bit-only future.

The End of Desktop Intelligence (finally)

While SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 marked the formal end of Desktop Intelligence, this year’s BI 4.1 will mark the formal return of Desktop Intelligence. Sort of (see related article, Desktop Intelligence – Back for a Limited Time). But as Desktop Intelligence is a 32-bit client, it will not find a home in the brave new world of BI 5.0. Unless SAP reconsiders my Desktop Intelligence fantasy (see related article, Hell Freezes Over).

The End of Crystal Reports 2011/2013 and Business View Manager

As part of the BI 4.0 launch, SAP introduced Crystal Reports for Enterprise, a fresh start for Crystal Reports based on the Eclipse platform. Although a feature gap presently exists between Crystal Reports 2011 (soon to be Crystal Reports 2013) and Crystal Reports for Enterprise, the gap will be largely closed. Expect Crystal Reports for Enterprise 5.0 to be the only edition of Crystal Reports compatible with the BI 5.0 suite. And goodbye Business View Manager (and therefore Business Views). It was fun while it lasted.

The End of Xcelsius

With the road map for SAP Dashboards paving a freeway to Design Studio (see related articles, The Future of SAP Dashboards and Between an Xcelsius Rock and a Dashboard Design Hard Place), expect Dashboards (formerly known as Xcelsius) to not be part of the BI 5.0 suite. Buried next to it will be Live Office (we’re hearing rumors of Live Office functionality moving to Analysis for Microsoft Office) and Query as a Web Service (QaaWS).

The End of the (Classic) Universe

Although it’s entirely possible that BEx will be the only supported semantic layer in BI 5.0 (just kidding), it’s more likely that the classic UNV universe will be retired in favor of the UNX universe. The current Universe Design Tool (formerly known as Designer) is 32-bit code that will not be transitioning to 64-bit. Expect this one to be as controversial as the retirement of Desktop Intelligence, with the current UNX generating Information Design Tool widely perceived as immature in comparison to its 32-bit UNV generating ancestor.

Plug-In Free Browsing

I predict that the second broad theme of the BI 5.0 suite will be plug-in free browsing, largely based on HTML 5. Not only will this move be good news for desktops, it will help SAP further its “Mobile First” strategy for analytics.

The End of Adobe Flash

I predict that BI 5.0 will be the first version of the platform to completely eliminate Adobe Flash. I killed off the 32-bit Xcelsius/Dashboards tool in the previous section. The other major component relying on Adobe Flash is the data discovery tool known as Explorer. While the upcoming Explorer 4.1 architecture will largely be unchanged from the current 4.0, expect Explorer to either gradually or abruptly end its dependence on Adobe Flash (see related article, Family Planning).

The End of Java

I predict that BI 5.0 will be the first version of the platform to eliminate both ActiveX and Java plug-ins. While Crystal Reports on the BI 4.0 platform still offers ActiveX and Java-based viewers in addition to HTML, expect them to be retired in favor of an HTML 5 approach. Similarly, Web Intelligence 4.0 offers both a Web and a “Rich Internet Application” (aka Java) edition. Unfortunately, the Rich Internet Application offers robust functionality compared to its “Poor Internet Application” web-based cousin (see related article, The Other Web Intelligence Feature Gap). But expect this to change. With Tableau having recently introduced mobile and web authoring in Tableau 8 (see related article, Tableau 8 Roadshow), perhaps we’ll see similar functionality in Visual Intelligence- and hopefully Web Intelligence- long before BI 5.0 arrives.

Not Your Father’s BW

I predict that the third broad theme of BI 5.0 will be a reimagined Business Warehouse that fully embraces technology from both SAP HANA and SAP Sybase (for the latter, see SAP Mentor Clint Vosloo’s related SCN article, SAP’s big play in the EDW Space – But does any-one know about it?). Unlike traditional BusinessObjects customers who are told that all of their favorite toys are being taken away, BW customers are reassuringly told that “BW isn’t going anywhere”. BW may not be going anywhere, but it will be going faster.

As SAP HANA matures we’ll see it transform from one of many possible database foundations for BW to the premier database foundation for BW. SAP HANA is also moving from simply a database server to a robust application server. Read this excerpt from Thomas Jung’s recent article about SAP HANA Extended Application Services,

The core concept of SAP HANA Extended Application Services is to embed a full featured application server, web server, and development environment within the SAP HANA appliance itself. However this isn’t just another piece of software installed on the same hardware as SAP HANA; instead SAP has decided to truly integrate this new application services functionality directly into the deepest parts of the SAP HANA database itself, giving it an opportunity for performance and access to SAP HANA differentiating features that no other application server has.

So it’s likely that SAP HANA DNA will show up in the BI 5.0 platform in places that we don’t expect it today.

The Road Ahead

If these predictions are correct, a lot of legacy code will be pruned from the SAP BI platform.  Could SAP BI 5.0 be the lean and fast Snow Leopard edition I’ve been waiting for (see related article, SAP BusinessObjects Snow Leopard Edition)? We must wait and see.

What are your thoughts about a future BI 5.0 platform?

A Plug for your Adobe Flash Plug-In

Adobe really wants you to keep using your Flash player.

I was recently prompted to update my Adobe Flash player and was greeted by the following propaganda piece.

Update Adobe Flash Player

Great messaging from Adobe. You need our frequently insecure and unstable plug-in to play Facebook games and watch videos. No mention of “serious business productivity”. Or the fact that the upgrade may break your SAP BusinessObjects Xcelsius dashboards.

So please, for sake of usability, online security and stability, please update your Adobe Flash player. Pretty please? Before the Adobe Flash development team enters a recovery program for self harm.

Anyone up for a game of Farmville?