So You Badly Want To Do Self Service BI, eh?


Every one and his neighbor wants self service BI. What does it take to get it? Is it even reasonable to expect that significant parts of BI can be self service enabled?

 

For one, self service is loosely defined, at least in the BI world.

 

First – no enterprise BI tool is really designed with the user in mind from my limited experience. Invariably, they are designed with a developer in mind.  This needs to change before self service becomes realistic. All BI vendors claim they are about self service, but if you look at the tools – it is hard to imagine them being people centric in design.  If users need training to make this work – it generally won’t fly. Simple as that.

 

Next is the distinction of BI users as defined by software vendors to suit the products they have. It is chicken and egg – over time, one cannot figure out if different tools exist because different types of users/usage exists, OR different users/usage exist because BI tools are not consistent. Either way – any real self service is hard to pull off with such distinctions.

 

Ability to search is next. Organizations do not lack data – it is usually there somewhere. What is not possible is an easy way to find all of this data that might be sitting somewhere. So there needs to be a way to find this data in a form that can be used. What is possible today is to search for names of existing reports and column names. But since they are not usually well-defined – making sense of the search results is generally a complex task .

 

It appears to be obvious that a consistent data definition – or a common semantic layer in hip terms – is required to make this work. Tools can do this today to various degrees – but the process to get it done is nowhere near easy. Try asking 20 people in a big company to define “net profit”, and you will get an idea of what I am talking about.

 

Users won’t trust data they see unless it shows how current it is. Some of the users will also need to make sure they can see how the data flowed from its origin to the report they have in front of them, and what transformations happened en route. This is not a self service  BI challenge – this is true in any BI scenario, but just that in self service this will become an even bigger issue.

 

Finally there is the question of support. When things don’t work – there should be an easy way for users to get support – via technology or via a human support person. Without integrating support in some comprehensive fashion, it is hard to sustain self service BI.

 

If you still want Self service BI, let’s go make it work. I am always game ! What are a few challenges between friends 🙂

 

 

 

SAPPHIRENOW 2011 Report Out Day 3 – HANA, Mobility, Gateway and Sting


By the third day of SAPPHIRE, I got used to the concept of drinking from 2 firehoses pretty well. One of the reasons I chose not to blog from the show floor is that I had zero time to think through all the information that flooded in. A day and a half later, I have assimilated enough to present my thoughts here. In any case, the professionals in the business has done a thorough job with near-real time updates to their readers, that too without using HANA 🙂

Day 3 of course was the one every one seemed to be waiting for – where Vishal and Hasso took stage to explain the technology vision, and status on execution. Well, they did an excellent job too – although they could have done better on time taken to deliver their message. Vishal is supremely confident now – rightfully so, I should add – and it showed in his session. Hasso lived up to his billing too effortlessly. Now about their message – which was more or less all about HANA as expected.

Vishal started off with the issue of layers in architecture, and how some should be removed. I readily agree with the concept, except I have one issue – and now I know it will get addressed some time in future. Ever since SAP started with ERP decades ago, they were saying “don’t worry about tables and SQL, we will abstract it all for you”. And then along came HANA, and there the message was “use good SQL on the base table structure itself in HANA, and do wonderful things”. It is not an easy message to digest for people who are used to SAP from before. HANA needs abstraction to some level, and we are told it will come soon.

Throughout last year, people have been hammering SAP to show them usecases and real customer stories of HANA. Well, SAP responded with a dozen or more customers coming on video to vouch for HANA. And Vishal presented it with elan – he said something like “Our customers challenged us with , and we solved it”. NICELY DONE !!!

I do have a serious issue with calling HANA Real Time. A better word would be “Right Time”, as Ray Wang pointed out on twitter – at least for now, till HANA becomes the backbone of ECC and other products. The question is “will users have a real time experience?”. Most users will not sit next to HANA box in a server room – they will be on a WAN, VPN connection etc. The very fact that SAP hauled HANA systems all the way from their labs to the show floor, and not just connected to them remotely tells me that HANA will not give a real time feeling to users. Probably for marketing reasons, “real real time” is a good term, but I strongly believe that this will just upset customers who expect split second responses when they use it in production.

SAP’s official stance seems to be that “stacks” are bad, and only the “other guys” do it . Well, the slides Vishal showed kind of gave the impression that stacks might not be such a bad thing after all. Dennis and Ray called it “Marketecture” and James Governor of Redmonk called it “Burgers” on twitter..Any way, it was all light hearted, so let us move on.

While it was terrific to see customer stories, the one thing I and a few others on twitter felt was – it would have been a lot better to get CEO?CFO types to deliver some of those messages, and not just use the IT executives exclusively. On the other hand, I give a lot of credit to SAP for getting over legal issues, and calendar conflicts and all in short time to get these messages delivered. Next time, I hope they bring a few customers on stage to demonstrate the apps they built . I am not clear if any of the customers did these apps in production – as in paid for it, or whether SAP and hardware vendors did free Proof-of-concepts with them to show HANA works. Jon Reed of http://www.jonerp.com took a video on me, John Appleby and Jon himself delving on this topic. Please check out JD-OD.com when he posts it.

Next up was HANA on cloud. As some of you might know, Thorsten Franz and I had both blogged about it a year ago that this was the way to go. Although we got a bit of pushback from some people, we strongly believed, as did many fellow mentors and colleagues, that it will be necessary very soon. So it was very gratifying to see SAP announce that they are doing it. The big issue with the HANA on cloud vision is “how do you do ETL, and will it be real time?”. Details remain to be seen – but the one use case I particularly worry about is the Sales and Ops Planning on Cloud. This is an ETL intensive activity generally, and speed is a known issue even for in-memory solutions. Add the bandwidth issue to access the cloud and concerns of security and privacy of base data, and I generally feel S&OP is better done on-premises than on-demand for most customers. There might be a few that have low data volumes etc which can use it – but it is hard to imagine this catching on with big SAP shops. Another concern I have about putting HANA on cloud in near future, is SAP’s ability to size the infrastructure. HANA has not spent enough time in production to get useful information on sizing, and there is a good chance of SAP under calling or over calling the size required to host HANA. And it will be bad in either case obviously.

Right after keynote, I had the opportunity to meet with Hasso Plattner . To say I was thrilled is an under statement. We covered a lot of ground – on and off-record. I had read Hasso’s book cover to cover on its PDF version, and had tweeted earlier that I had disagreements with some of it. One issue was compression in HANA. Even in keynote, he gave the impression that customers can see a 10X compression of data. I find it hard to believe, since DB2, ORACLE etc does an excellent job of compressing data already. So if say DB2 compresses data 5 times, will HANA compress it 10 times over and above this? Hasso clarified to me that he meant raw data will be compressed 10 times on average, and not already compressed data. But remember, customers “sees” already compressed data and will be comparing HANA’s result to that.Also, database cannot be sized based on this compression ratio as was mentioned in the keynote – it needs extra space for various technical reasons. None of it seems to be said in public. So, I would urge SAP to clarify this messaging – much like the “real time” instead of “right time” message. I am a HUGE fan of HANA – and I would hate to see it get any less traction because of setting unrealistic expectations. There are a few more such questions I need to ask, and Hasso has promised to respond via email. He was also gracious to sign a copy of his book for me. And no, I am not selling it on eBay 🙂

Right after meeting Hasso, was a meeting with Vishal Sikka. I strongly feel that hiring Vishal was the best investment SAP made in a long time. He is a passionate technical guy with a balanced philosophical view on software. And elevating him to SAP’s board was a great idea too – something other companies should be doing more. Since HANA was already beaten to death, and since I know what he feels about IBM Watson – we spent a lot of the time on Gateway and River. Gateway will be the way SAP and its ecosystem innovates in future. I think SAP missed an opportunity – and Vishal seemed to agree – to tell the world more on Gateway. Every year that SAP and its customers fail to tackle this, it becomes exponentially harder. SAP, Customers and Partners are all building stuff on business suite all the time the traditional way. If they don’t put a moat around the castle – an expression Vishal used, which I loved – it will become a problem that gets impossible to solve. However, drawing a line in sand is only a big first step (Vishal calls it creating a fire lane). For this effort to be successful, SAP needs to find a way to abstract out all the customizations and enhancements made in the system – so that there is no double maintenance going forward. It is easier said than done. Vishal asked me to talk to Kaj Van De Loo on this – but I ran out of time, and could not do that. I look forward to chatting with Kaj and learning about his strategy to do this soon.

John Appleby and I were involved in two videos with http://www.JD-OD.com to wrap up SAPPHIRE – one with Jon Reed on Analytics, and one with Dennis Howlett on Mobility. It was a lot of fun making it, and special thanks to the staff at Hilton Executive lounge for giving us the space to do it. I have not seen the one on analytics yet, but here is the one with Dennis on Mobility. http://www.viddler.com/explore/dahowlett/videos/49/

The day finished with the Sting concert. Amazing band – and it was a lovely way to unwind and end a very fruitful week at SAPPHIRENOW 2011. I look forward to Teched in Fall, and maybe the European SAPPHIRE after that if I can make it.

Overall – I was pretty impressed with SAP, and I wish them the very best in executing the strategy, and enabling customers to adopt it. Cheers !

SAPPHIRENOW 2011 Report Out Day 3 – HANA, Mobility, Gateway and Sting


By the third day of SAPPHIRE, I got used to the concept of drinking from 2 firehoses pretty well. One of the reasons I chose not to blog from the show floor is that I had zero time to think through all the information that flooded in. A day and a half later, I have assimilated enough to present my thoughts here. In any case, the professionals in the business has done a thorough job with near-real time updates to their readers, that too without using HANA 🙂

Day 3 of course was the one every one seemed to be waiting for – where Vishal and Hasso took stage to explain the technology vision, and status on execution. Well, they did an excellent job too – although they could have done better on time taken to deliver their message.  Vishal is supremely confident now – rightfully so, I should add – and it showed in his session. Hasso lived up to his billing too effortlessly. Now about their message – which was more or less all about HANA as expected.

Vishal started off with the issue of layers in architecture, and how some should be removed. I readily agree with the concept, except I have one issue – and now I know it will get addressed some time in future. Ever since SAP started with ERP decades ago, they were saying “don’t worry about tables and SQL, we will abstract it all for you”. And then along came HANA, and there the message was “use good SQL on the base table structure itself in HANA, and do wonderful things”. It is not an easy message to digest for people who are used to SAP from before. HANA needs abstraction to some level, and we are told it will come soon.

Throughout last year, people have been hammering SAP to show them usecases and real customer stories of HANA. Well, SAP responded with a dozen or more customers coming on video to vouch for HANA. And Vishal presented it with elan – he said something like “Our customers challenged us with <…>, and we solved it”. NICELY DONE !!!

I do have a serious issue with calling HANA Real Time. A better word would be “Right Time”, as Ray Wang pointed out on twitter – at least for now, till HANA becomes the backbone of ECC and other products. The question is “will users have a real time experience?”.  Most users will not sit next to HANA box in a server room – they will be on a WAN, VPN connection etc. The very fact that SAP hauled HANA systems all the way from their labs to the show floor, and not just connected to them remotely tells me that HANA will not give a real time feeling to users.  Probably for marketing reasons, “real real time” is a good term, but I strongly believe that this will just upset customers who expect split second responses when they use it in production.

SAP’s official stance seems to be that “stacks” are bad, and only the “other guys” do it . Well, the slides Vishal showed kind of gave the impression that stacks might not be such a bad thing after all.  Dennis and Ray called it “Marketecture” and James Governor of Redmonk called it “Burgers” on twitter..Any way, it was all light hearted, so let us move on.

While it was terrific to see customer stories, the one thing I and a few others on twitter felt was – it would have been a lot better to get CEO?CFO types to deliver some of those messages, and not just use the IT executives exclusively. On the other hand, I give a lot of credit to SAP for getting over legal issues, and calendar conflicts and all in short time to get these messages delivered.  Next time, I hope they bring a few customers on stage to demonstrate the apps they built .  I am not clear if any of the customers did these apps in production – as in paid for it, or whether SAP and hardware vendors did free Proof-of-concepts with them to show HANA works. Jon Reed of http://www.jonerp.com took a video on me, John Appleby and Jon himself delving on this topic. Please check out JD-OD.com when he posts it.

Next up was HANA on cloud. As some of you might know, Thorsten Franz and I had both blogged about it a year ago that this was the way to go. Although we got a bit of pushback from some people, we strongly believed, as did many fellow mentors and colleagues, that it will be necessary very soon. So it was very gratifying to see SAP announce that they are doing it. The big issue with the HANA on cloud vision is “how do you do ETL, and will it be real time?”. Details remain to be seen – but the one use case I particularly worry about is the Sales and Ops Planning on Cloud. This is an ETL intensive activity generally, and speed is a known issue even for in-memory solutions. Add the bandwidth issue to access the cloud and concerns of security and privacy of base data, and I generally feel S&OP is better done on-premises than on-demand for most customers. There might be a few that have low data volumes etc which can use it – but it is hard to imagine this catching on with big SAP shops. Another concern I have about putting HANA on cloud in near future, is SAP’s ability to size the infrastructure. HANA has not spent enough time in production to get useful information on sizing, and there is a good chance of SAP under calling or over calling the size required to host HANA. And it will be bad in either case obviously.

Right after keynote, I had the opportunity to meet with Hasso Plattner . To say I was thrilled is an under statement. We covered a lot of ground – on and off-record. I had read Hasso’s book cover to cover on its PDF version, and had tweeted earlier that I had disagreements with some of it. One issue was compression in HANA. Even in keynote, he gave the impression that customers can see a 10X compression of data. I find it hard to believe, since DB2, ORACLE etc does an excellent job of compressing data already. So if say DB2 compresses data 5 times, will HANA compress it 10 times over and above this? Hasso clarified to me that he meant raw data will be compressed 10 times on average, and not already compressed data. But remember, customers “sees” already compressed data and will be comparing HANA’s result to that.Also, database cannot be sized based on this compression ratio as was mentioned in the keynote – it needs extra space for various technical reasons. None of it seems to be said in public. So, I would urge SAP to clarify this messaging – much like the “real time” instead of “right time” message. I am a HUGE fan of HANA – and I would hate to see it get any less traction because of setting unrealistic expectations. There are a few more such questions I need to ask, and Hasso has promised to respond via email. He was also gracious to sign a copy of his book for me. And no, I am not selling it on eBay 🙂

Right after meeting Hasso, was a meeting with Vishal Sikka. I strongly feel that hiring Vishal was the best investment SAP made in a long time. He is a passionate technical guy with a balanced philosophical view on software. And elevating him to SAP’s board was a great idea too – something other companies should be doing more. Since HANA was already beaten to death, and since I know what he feels about IBM Watson – we spent a lot of the time on Gateway and River. Gateway will be the way SAP and its ecosystem innovates in future. I think SAP missed an opportunity – and Vishal seemed to agree – to tell the world more on Gateway.  Every year that SAP and its customers fail to tackle this, it becomes exponentially harder. SAP, Customers and Partners are all building stuff on business suite all the time the traditional way. If they don’t put a moat around the castle – an expression Vishal used, which I loved – it will become a problem that gets impossible to solve. However, drawing a line in sand is only a big first step (Vishal calls it creating a fire lane). For this effort to be successful, SAP needs to find a way to abstract out all the customizations and enhancements made in the system – so that there is no double maintenance going forward. It is easier said than done. Vishal asked me to talk to Kaj Van De Loo on this – but I ran out of time, and could not do that. I look forward to chatting with Kaj and learning about his strategy to do this soon.

John Appleby and I  were involved in two videos with http://www.JD-OD.com to wrap up SAPPHIRE – one with Jon Reed on Analytics, and one with Dennis Howlett on Mobility. It was a lot of fun making it, and special thanks to the staff at Hilton Executive lounge for giving us the space to do it. I have not seen the one on analytics yet, but here is the one with Dennis on Mobility. http://www.viddler.com/explore/dahowlett/videos/49/

The day finished with the Sting concert. Amazing band – and it was a lovely way to unwind and end a very fruitful week at SAPPHIRENOW 2011. I look forward to Teched in Fall, and maybe the European SAPPHIRE after that if I can make it.

Overall – I was pretty impressed with SAP, and I wish them the very best in executing the strategy, and enabling customers to adopt it. Cheers !

SAPPHIRENOW 2011 Report Out day 2 – CEO Keynotes, On Demand


Tuesday was a rough day for me – especially since I did not get much sleep on Monday night. I started off the day with a breakfast with Jon Reed and another friend at the Hilton Lounge.  I felt much better after figuring out that these guys didn’t do much better on getting sleep either :).  Right after breakfast, I went to the convention center to watch the Co-CEO keynote session. I sat with Dennis Howlett and Vinnie Mirchandani at the blogger’s corner, and watched it on the big screen. I think they keynote was kind of “over-produced” as an event – and it took some sheen away. Not sure if I am alone with this view – but I guess once every one posts their views, we will know.

There was the mention that ByDesign now has 500 customers. Seriously, I am not sure if this is good or bad or indifferent. Since it is not a market I am familiar with, I cannot make more than an educated guess. For a hosted solution – 500 customers look pretty low to me.  I will reserve judgment till next year to see how this scales. SAP’s competitors in this space are all focused on very narrow domains, where as SAP has a good broad solution. So it is not completely fair to say SAP is not in the game – but if they have to be counted, 500 customers ain’t cutting it for me. I know Dennis Howlett disagrees with me on this – and I respect that.  I need to see more growth before I am convinced.

SAP is betting the farm on HANA and Sybase. In my mind, both are pretty safe bets. The vision is clearly there – and it is a matter of execution now.  Snabe said they are opening the app store. I did not see it being shown on the screen, and the link that got tweeted out didn’t seem like the right one. It redirected to by-design site or something. If some one has it – please tweet it to me @vijayasankarv.

The highlight of the keynote in my eyes is the Sales on Demand solution. I think it is the single best application I have seen from SAP. Hats off to the team that design and built it. Frank Scavo and I had a chance to meet Sven D and Nicholas C – execs from that side of SAP that runs with OD solutions, and I came away highly impressed from that meeting. It has totally been built with the user in mind – and not the management. It just does enough for the user and no more – which is key for a sales person to adopt it.  It is based on ByD platform – and I hope this team is able to put their learning back into the platform.

I asked these guys about the integration with business suite and between various OD apps that will get developed. I like the answer here a lot – the integration with business suite is via the age old trusted mechanism of iDocs. And there will be consistency across applications via a profile – so security, look and feel, personalization etc can somehow be managed across applications. And each application will be foremost about being solving one problem really well. I was pleasantly surprised to hear them articulate the “light integration” concept.

At the moment, the OD solutions do not have an offline feature beyond outlook integration. In my eyes – this is a big miss. Without a robust offline capability, it is hard to imagine this solution taking off big time, since in several parts of the world (including my house in Chandler, AZ) bandwidth is a serious issue. Sales people are not always connected to internet – and when they are ready to enter data into a system, it is usually in a plane ride or something with minimal chance of being connected. May be 5 years from now, it is safe to assume every one can connect all the time – but till then, this will remain a gap.

Another question for SAP – is there a plan to migrate business suite to By-design platform? There is probably not an easy way to do this, but since ByD is more advanced in how it is developed, I assume there are some plans in place for this. Or am I losing it here?

There was a Global Communications Party in the evening on Tuesday, and it was pretty good. I got some time to chat with Oliver Bussman, SAP CIO. He is a total atypical CIO. He is a salesman/marketer/CIO all turned into one. SAP should actively use him in their sales cycles to close deals. I also watched Bill M and Jim S, the Co-CEOs in action, and they are both very good leaders from what I heard from the people around them.

However, as I went off to the IBM event after this GC party – I started having a question in my mind about this Co-CEO situation. Snabe is a technician at heart and McDermott is a sales guy at heart – and hence they complement each other. Both are super smart. But how long will they stay as Co-CEOs?  I am not very good at speculating – so I just decided to bury the thought for now.

One last question before I wrap up day 2 – the one thing an innovating group does not need is big overheads – be it cost, oversight, methodology etc.  SAP is a smart company – they should know this better than me. So my question is – why is SAP not spinning of By-Design as a separate entity, so that it can flourish without the weight of the big mothership?

SAPPHIRENOW 2011 Report Out day 1 – BusinessObjects 4.x is pretty cool


Before I say anything about the event – let me say this : Big thanks to Mike Prosceno, Mark Finnern, Aslan N, Stacy Fish, Craig Cmehil and Andrea Kaufmann . Without them – I would not have had the awesome experience I had. THANKS !!!

So here is the report out – and as always, like all my blogs, this is just my personal view and not of my employer.

Here I am at Orlando Airport at 5AM, on my way back home from PHX. As always, it was a lot of fun to catch up with all my buddies from all over the world. This year was extra special since I had the pleasure of meeting the other 3 SAP Mentors from IBM – Somnath, Dipankar and Abesh at SAPPHIRE. Quite a nice way to celebrate our Pinnacle Award .

I wore 3 hats to SAPPHIRE – as an IBMer, as an SAP Mentor, and as a blogger.

I had to work at the booth, meet customers and introduce them to all the cool things SAP is bringing to market. We had spent some time building our demos for BI/BO and it was gratifying to see customers and SAP appreciating that.

As a mentor, I got the new mentor tie  which I proudly sported all of Monday.Thanks to my friend Beverly Tomb for the photo.

And on evenings – except for Sting concert, I traded the suit and tie for the mentor shirt. I could not attend all the Mentor meetings Mark Finnern so kindly arranged. There just wasn’t enough time, and my schedule was quite out of hand. I could clearly see how much visibility the mentor program has now compared to when it started.

This was the first year I went to SAPPHIRE as a blogger. SAP paid my airfare and hotel to attend SAPPHIRE. Getting a room at the Hilton, which was connected to the convention center was quite nice. Best part was we had a great place in the 19th floore executive lounge to shoot videos with Jon Reed and Dennis Howlett – the forces behind the excellent JD-OD.com venture.

On Monday, fellow mentor David Hull of Disney joined me to get interviewed on SAP TV. I have a new found respect for all the people who go through this. It was not as intimidating at the end since the technicians and organizers were super friendly and professional. It was a brief shoot, and I think we managed to finish it without embarrassing ourselves 🙂 . Some day that video should show up here http://www.sapphirenow.com/sessiondetails.aspx?sId=242

On Monday afternoon, I had a chance to meet with George Mathew, an executive in the BO side of the house. I already knew George from before via phone, email and twitter – so it was easy to get right to business on topics of interest – specifically mobile BI or MOBI. He is quite articulate, and I believe will rise much higher in his career. Not just George, I met several other executives this time that gave me the impression that SAP has great bench strength to keep feeding the leadership pipeline. It is a big deal – well done SAP.

OK – so back to MOBI. SAP bought BusinessObjects and Sybase, but SUP and MOBI are not integrated , and I had asked that question many times before. George tells me that this will happen towards end of this year. I think it is a pre-requisite for SAP to scale its mobility offerings. The other  major questions – which both John Appleby and I had for George, was offline analytics and agile BI. For offline –  SAP has some offline features in MOBI today – which will be available to customers soon, which George demonstrated on his tablet. However, there is still a gap – there is no solution today where by a user can get a dataset downloaded to his laptop or other mobile device, to analyze offline – say during a plane ride. SAP is fully aware and working on it according to George. There wasn’t a clear answer on the Agile BI thing . George did say SAP has no plans to buy an existing vendor to get over this gap.

We asked George about how the smaller companies will make use of BO suite – since the pricepoint is not very friendly for those customers. I don’t think we got a crisp answer on what SAP will do to change it, although it was amply clear that they understand the challenge.

The prebuilt analytic apps that came out from Keith Costello’s team will all get repurposed to work on HANA. This is great news – and I am looking forward to understanding how the existing BAS architecture will morph into one that HANA can use effectively.

George confirmed that SAP did not find any performance degradation with the new common semantic layer. I am sure that is a great piece of news to a lot of customers going to the 4.x versions of BO. More over, the long term plan is to get rest of SAP suite , including OLTP applications to work with common semantic layer.

We finished the official part of Monday with a recap video session that Dennis recorded with me and Harald Reiter. Dennis is quite professional in his video production. Next time, I should learn a few tricks from him. Pls check out http://www.jd-od.com for exceptional videos on demand.

Some of you might have heard that my employer, IBM, won the Pinnacle Award for Community Leadership and Social Commerce Engagement .   I saw the award displayed at the IBM booth – and it looked pretty cool. We have 4 SAP mentors at IBM, and all of us were at SAPPHIRENOW and we took a nice picture of all of us, with Beverly Tomb taking the photo – who many know as @IBMSAPAlliance on twitter.  I am not wearing the mentor shirt, but I was wearing the mentor lemon button on my coat lapel.  Although I did not see the Award being presented to IBM, Mark Yolton assured me that he took excellent care of the IBM executives SAP invited to the event.  Thanks Mark !