The Road Unexplored: Alternatives to SAP BusinessObjects Explorer

Gartner believes search-based data discovery is a cool idea. Without continued interest from SAP, will fans of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer have to turn to alternate vendors?

I recently received an TDWI webinar invitation with a catchy subject line.

Want Faster BI? How Search Makes Your Analytics More Accessible

I immediately thought of my previous article (see related article, The Road Unexplored: A Future for SAP BusinessObjects Explorer) and continued to read.

Search-driven BI solutions can make finding and querying data a faster and easier experience. Most users are only familiar with search through the use of commercial search engines. However, search can help users quickly locate data and analyze it, and it can also help the entire organization by building a reusable knowledge base about the data and how it is used.

Intrigued, I signed up for the August 4 webinar which began with some market insights from David Stodder, Senior Director of Research for Business Intelligence at TDWI. It then transitioned into a sponsored presentation from ThoughtSpot. I was not familiar with ThoughtSpot but learned from their web site that they were identified by Gartner, a leading research firm, as one of the “Cool Vendors in Analytics” in 2016. Cool like Arthur Fonzarelli.

And in their Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics, Gartner identified ThoughtSpot along with Attivio, Connexica, Incorta, and Zoomdata as providers of “Search-Based Data Discovery”.

Based on SAP’s BI roadmap, it might seem that Qlik and Tableau are the only other vendors in the analytics market. But vendors like ThoughtSpot continue to demonstrate that the idea of search-powered analytics we first saw nine years ago as BusinessObjects Polestar remains a powerful one.

Gartner thinks search-based analytics is a cool idea. Let’s hope that somebody at SAP still does, too.

Explorer makes us sad

Search-Based Data Discovery Vendors

Search-based Data Discovery in the Press

Thoughtspot’s Search for Data Analytics Finds Results Fast by Phil Wainewright, published by Diginomica August 16, 2016

Links for SAP BusinessObjects Explorer

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 Explorer, R.I.P.

Is this the end of the line for SAP BusinessObjects Explorer?

SAP BusinessObjects Explorer Tombstone

BusinessObjects tool selection, circa 2004.

Desktop Intelligence is like smoking. If you’re not presently using Desktop Intelligence, don’t start.

SAP BusinessObjects tool selection, circa October 2012

If you’re not presently using SAP BusinessObjects Xcelsius, don’t start using it.

Yours truly in Between an Xcelsius Rock and Dashboard Hard Place

SAP BusinessObjects tool selection, circa September 2014

If you’re not presently using SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, don’t start using it.

As part of the simplification of its analytics portfolio, SAP has decided to fold Explorer functionality into Lumira.

SAP BI Simplified Portfolio

 

Lumira Server uses the SAP HANA platform, so it’s not going to be immediately attractive to every customer- especially one that doesn’t use the SAP Business Suite. For customers that won’t adopt Lumira Server and SAP HANA, SAP plans to support Explorer “as-is”.

In these situations, like with SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, we won’t make you move your existing content. We’ll respect that existing investment, allow you to continue with what you have today, and at the same time start to bring ‘Explorer-like’ capabilities into the converged BI experience (in this case, SAP Lumira).

Jayne Landry, Run Simple: Convergence of the SAP BusinessObjects BI Product Portfolio

After the recent #askSAP webcast, I still had my doubts, which I voiced on Twitter.

Explorer as-is for customers on the XI 3.1 platform is a product that SAP stopped developing in 2012 for a platform that won’t officially be retired until the end of 2015. Customers currently patching XI 3.1 to the latest SP6 or SP7 have to cross their fingers and pray that SAP BusinessObjects Explorer XI 3.2 SP4 will still work properly.

Explorer-32-No-Longer-In-Maintenance-01A

Explorer-32-No-Longer-In-Maintenance-02A

Explorer as-is for customers using the BI 4 platform is a product that hasn’t seen a significant update since the addition of exploration views in BI 4.0 Feature Pack 3. Explorer has some clearly unique and attractive features in the larger SAP BI portfolio but is in need of modernization and refinement (see my wish list in related article, Family Planning or listen to the Diversified Semantic Layer podcast, Explorer Gets No Love).

SAP recently announced a HANA-free edition of Lumira Server, to be named Lumira, Edge Edition (see SAP Community Network Article, SAP Lumira, Edge edition: What Is It?). But it remains unclear if Lumira, Edge Edition will provide a HANA-free migration path for existing Explorer customers or merely a server back-end to support SAP Lumira Desktop. Perhaps we’ll learn more about Explorer’s future during tomorrow’s #askSAP community call, How SAP Lumira stacks up against the competition.

Customers already meeting business challenges with Explorer should continue to do so. But I’m still unsure that adopting Explorer is wise for customers who haven’t yet begun to use it, without a clear migration path that doesn’t require SAP HANA. Perhaps “don’t start using it” is too strong advice. But like smoking or using Desktop Intelligence, SAP analytics customers should carefully weigh the risks before starting what could turn into a nasty habit.

What are your thoughts on the roadmap for SAP BusinessObjects Explorer? Would you still recommend it’s first-time use in 2014?

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?

ASUG Kentucky Chapter Meeting on August 8, 2014

SAP makes better bourbon. Come to the next ASUG Kentucky meeting to learn how.

The next ASUG Kentucky chapter meeting will be Friday, August 8, 2014 at the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. Woodford Reserve is a brand of Brown-Forman Corporation, one of the world’s top 10 spirits companies. Brown-Forman uses SAP to make better bourbons like Woodford Reserve along with other well-known adult beverages like Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort.

Woodford Reserve
In addition to hosting the meeting as part of the ASUG volunteer team, I will be speaking about Agile Business Intelligence with SAP BusinesObjects Explorer 4.1.

Agile Business Inteligence with SAP BusinesObjects Explorer 4.1

Like a Hubble telescope for your Business Intelligence (BI) environment, SAP BusinesObjects Explorer software brings together the simplicity and sped of search with the trust and analytical power of BI to provide immediate answers to casual business users. Learn how Explorer can become a key component of your Agile BI strategy, from Excel-based prototypes to traditional relational databases, to extreme performance with in-memory SAP HANA, and as a companion with SAP Lumira. And take SAP Lumira data sets, exploration views, and location analytics on the go using SAP BusinesObjects Mobile.

There’s a fantastic and full agenda (see agenda and registration on ASUG web site) with both business and technical tracks. The meeting will close with a distillery tour.

Woodford Reserve Distillery
7855 McCraken Pike
Versailles, KY 40383

Please integrate the integrated enterprise BI platform

New BI functionality adds complexity to patch cycles.

Earlier this week, SAP hosted one of their ongoing SAP Analytics Innovation Community calls for Self-Service BI and SAP Lumira, hosted by my fellow Diversified Semantic Layer contributors Jamie Oswald and Josh Fletcher with presentations by SAP’s Jayne Landry, Olivier Duvelleroy, and Aaron Graber (see Nic Smith’s official wrap-up article). The SAP Lumira roadmap is a combination of here now, coming soon, and coming sometime (I think the rumored SAP Lumira Desktop for Mac OS X falls in the latter category). But the big news (from my perspective) was the announcement that Lumira Server, currently in ramp-up and soon to be generally available, will be included in the BI Suite license. Lumira Server is built on SAP’s HANA platform and will offer us a glimpse into what I believe is SAP’s future-state BI platform (see related article, Thoughts on BI 5.0).

Lumira In-Memory Add-on to BOE in Service Marketplace

Allowing early adopters to get a preview of the future is smart marketing on SAP’s part. But I, like many SAP BI practitioners, must live in the present with the current platform. Let’s consider the upgrade from BI 4.0 to BI 4.1, which consists of- at a minimum- two components. A base installation or upgrade of the BI 4.1 platform, for example BI 4.1 SP2 and possibly a patch, such as the now-available BI 4.1 Patch 2.2. A similar patching strategy is required on the desktop, where you might have the BI 4.1 platform client tools (Web Intelligence, Information Design Tool, etc.), Dashboards, Crystal Reports 2013, and Crystal Reports for Enterprise.

SAP_BusinessObjects_Patch_Strategy_01

But what if you are using Explorer? Now there are four moving parts: the BI 4.1 platform, the separate Explorer 4.1 installation, and a patch for each.

SAP_BusinessObjects_Patch_Strategy_02

SAP BusinessObjects Explorer has been a separate installation since its debut as Polestar on the XI R2 platform. But I had hoped that BI 4.0 would integrate its installation with the rest of the platform. Because Explorer retains its Adobe Flash foundation, no doubt SAP has decided to defer tight integration with the BI platform until an HTML5-based successor is available, which unfortunately wasn’t the case when BI 4.1 shipped last year.

Using Design Studio? SAP Design Studio is the current successor to BEx Web Application Designer and eventual successor for Xcelsius/Dashboards. You’ll need to install the Design Studio server components, which are also an add-on to the BI platform. To make things more interesting, Design Studio has its own product life cycle with unique versioning, product availability matrix, and documentation because it is capable of generating stand-alone applications that aren’t strictly tied to the SAP BusinessObjects BI platform. So today you’ll have the Design Studio 1.2 server components and possibly a service pack, as Design Studio tends to be patched to maintain compatibility with SAP HANA’s latest patch levels. So far, my experience is that the Design Studio server components installer is particularly lethargic. And don’t forget to patch the Design Studio client application.

SAP_BusinessObjects_Patch_Strategy_03

Based on what I heard this week, the diagram below is my approximation of what is involved to run SAP Lumira Server as part of your environment (sidenote – Microsoft Visio does a terrible job with color selection when exporting JPG and PNG files).

SAP_BusinessObjects_Patch_Strategy_04

There will be a separate plug-in for the BI 4.1 environment (and eventually a patch, I presume) and the platform software and a patch for the SAP Lumira server. As with Design Studio, I would expect software availability on both sides to not be based on the BI 4.1 patching schedule. With new releases of SAP Lumira Desktop approximately every 6 weeks, the odds of needing to patch your environment to take advantage of new features (similar for what we already do with SAP Mobile BI and SAP HANA) are high. UPDATE: SAP is revising their BI4 + Lumira Integration Strategy (see related SAP Community Network article, Planned Native Integration of Lumira into BI Platform Details).

SAP’s recent work to support parallel node patching is helpful. You’ll want to download Foroohar Rafiei’s Patching Strategies and Best Practices + Parallel Patching guide from the SAP Community Network (SCN).

But can I gently suggest that there are simply too many moving parts here?

SAP Lumira is part of SAP’s response to desktop data discovery competitors like Tableau and Qlik. But another part of SAP’s response is the message that “those vendors do not have a true Enterprise BI solution”. I’m speculating that we’ll eventually get an HTML 5 version of Explorer + Lumira in a blender that will eliminate some of the current pieces. But it is extremely inconvenient that SAP has placed platform integration on customer shoulders instead of integrating the pieces in-house. Until they do, line-of-business users are going to continue to perceive IT’s lack of agility in platform support as further reasons to head to the cloud, with or without SAP as the vendor of choice. Even if SAP can quickly port existing BI apps like Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence to the HANA-based Lumira Server platform (heck- if they’re even planning to- we simply don’t know right now), I believe many customers will remain with the current BI 4.x platform, as they did with Desktop Intelligence, for many years to come.

For now, BI administrators should carefully estimate their BI 4.1 upgrade estimates based on the number of nodes and number of software components.

This article barely scratches the surface of this week’s Self Service BI and SAP Lumira webcast. What are your impressions?