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February 27, 2009

The Benefits of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) in Web-based Reporting

Web-based reporting and analysis solutions can rely on different ways to control the style of a report.

The traditional model is to code the style directly into the markup language--e.g. HTML or XML. This means that all the attributes concerning the presentation of a report have to be specified time after time, and that the style of that report cannot be automatically replicated in an efficient manner.

With a separate CSS, however, this problem no longer exists. Report developers can create styles in CSS, save them and store them in the development environment's support files, and when a report is created they can simply assign it a style from the library.

This makes the creation of visually-compelling reports much more efficient. Also, this makes it easier and quicker to adapt reporting to a company's style guide, and will save the developer considerable time in that regard.

When creating reports for your company, make CSS your friends--create the style once, adapt it to reports as many times as you need, and make your day more efficient.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 9:15 AM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2009

Going Green with BI--Save the Environment, Save Cash

The expression "going green" has become such common currency, we risk forgetting what it really means.

Sure, we all know we shouldn't throw our grocery bag into the sea, lest a baby seal choke on it while a group of third-graders gape from the shore in teary-eyed impotence. Sure, we all know we shouldn't take up parking-lot-building as a hobby, lest Joni Mitchell catch us in our latest creation as we throw wheelies in our big yellow taxi. And sure, as far as good corporate citizenship, we all know we shouldn't start a coal-powered steel mill with a nostalgic brick-and-mortar smokestack belching soot into the air while we wistfully recite Marinetti's immortal Manifesto to Futurism.

Sure, we know all that.

But what does "going green" mean when it refers to software companies producing business intelligence solutions? It is another way to say "manufacturing a product that promotes energy and resource efficiency on the part of the company and its customers." In this context, being energy and resource efficient means reducing consumption to the minimum necessary--on one hand. On the other, it means gradually reducing that necessity itself, so that going forward, more and more energy and resources are conserved, much to the benefit of the environment... which as we all know, is green.

But there's something else green in this equation: money. Someone--either the BI vendor or the customer--has to pay for the resources used up. So, "green is right" on environmental as well as on economic grounds.

When we talk about energy and resource efficiency, what variables are we speaking of, and how can a business intelligence company affect them while going green?

(BTW, there's an excellent LogiXML white paper on going green with BI available for free download.)

BI and carbon footprint

The first element to conserving energy and promoting lower consumption is reducing carbon footprint generated--indirectly, in our case--by the sale and use of a BI product. Although carbon footprint is measured in different ways, let's keep things simple. Let's tie it to the main substance associated with it, the carbon dioxide (or CO2) produced by burning fuel while driving a car or truck, or flying an airplane. Let's get into the specifics.

How much travel is required for BI consulting, training trips?

Go to carbonfund.org and find the calculator. You can play around with it as you wish, but you'll see that, for example, a plane-ride from Washington, DC, to Dallas, TX, generates almost half a metric ton of CO2. Two return trips from DC to Texas will therefore generate a fully-grown hippopotamus worth of CO2. If that image doesn't give you pause, it should. The old model of BI sales involves multiple consulting trips, which determine such things as pricing the new application, helping the customer set it up and troubleshoot it, plus in-person training or professional services. For some BI companies, this is a process that lasts months, with tens of plane- or car-rides back and forth between the vendor and the customer.

Needless to say, this is not the green approach--in both the environmental and the economic sense. It is much better to embrace a BI product that:

- Is priced in a straightforward manner - Why require multiple consulting trips if you can email-exchange a PDF document clearly telling the customer how much the application costs?
- Is simple to set up - Some of the more modern Web-based BI products do not require a small army of IT consultants being present at installation and troubleshooting. This is not only the green approach, but it is also a time-saving tactic because it enables the BI customer to get a much quicker return on their new investment.
- Is easy to build - The better BI products out there today are simple to figure out if you are a report developer or a system administrator. They do not require multiple training sessions before you can build the kind of reports that will endear you to your end-users end earn you solemn pats on the back from the bigwigs. This saves considerable amount of traveling on the part of either the vendor or the customer, depending on where the training sessions take place.
- Is intuitive to the end-users - I remember my former employer flying about 50 of us every year to the other side of the world to learn and keep up to speed with our application as end-users. And that's only one company--our vendor had something around three hundred paying customers all needing training trips. With an easy-to-use Web-based solution users can learn to make the most out of their application by themselves--or at most with a short online session--saving the need for trips.

And now, let's talk about another kind of transportation.

Are you still shipping your BI product?

If you are a Web-based BI company who is still shipping your software in a box, you should seriously consider the alternative. A green BI company can do the planet good and save money by simply making their solution available for download.

Among the many advantages of this approach, here are a few:

- No need for packaging - Think about how much cardboard, paper and plastic you can save by not needing a physical product that ships to the customer both at the time of purchase and at the time of upgrade. If you still ship a physical product, just go to the warehouse, pick up an empty box with all the packaging and collateral that is included in it. Eyeball which part of it is biodegradable, and which part isn't. Then imagine picking up ten. Then a hundred... ok, you get the idea. That's the amount of trash you save the Earth by simply making your product available for download.
- No need for shipping - We are back to carbon footprint here. What I have said before about flying people around to consult, set up and learn the product applies. And from an economic standpoint, neither party has to absorb the shipping and handling charges.
- Letting the customer evaluate the product with no physical transactions -Modern decision-makers shopping for and evaluating BI start with online searches of some kind. No, BI is never an impulse purchase, but there is an impulse element in it, namely, which product a prospect may end up trying out. Ready availability on the Web is a big factor. If to try a product you need to wait a week for a FedEx package containing the software, you're much more likely to try one that just says "download for a free 30-day trial."

As you can see, making your Web-based product available for download is smart--from a green, economical and marketing standpoint. And now, let's touch upon another very critical aspect of this discussion, which is the relation between BI adoption and paper consumption.

Adoption: directly proportional to intelligence, inversely proportional to paper consumption

Adoption is to a BI solution what location is for real estate: repeat the word three times and you will have listed the most important things determining its true value. But there's also a green component to this. Since we are talking about Web-based business intelligence, the more widespread the solution is adopted, the less paper will be consumed to print and distribute hard copies of reports.

And what does a BI solution have to have to be widely adopted? Here are a few important considerations in this regard.

- Ease of use - Easy-to-use products are not intimidating and tend to become a preferred tool in one's arsenal. A Web-based BI product that mimics the navigability of the Internet, for instance, will be instantly familiar to end-users and much more likely to be adopted quickly and by more people.
- True usefulness - This is something that goes hand-in-hand with the ease of use argument I have just made above. No matter how easy to use something is, it won't be adopted if it is not useful, i.e. if it does not reach its purpose directly and efficiently. A Web-based BI solution should have all the tools to make end-users see, understand and act upon their data in a timely and efficient way. Ability to connect to multiple data-sources, full interactivity with drill-down and drill-through capability, dashboards, ad hoc reporting, heat maps, geographic maps and other rich visualization tools--all at the click of a mouse--this is what makes a BI solution highly useful and easy to adopt.
- Licensed to be distributed to many, not few - If you charge thousands of dollars per year on user licenses, you can rest assured--especially in this time of recession--that your clients will be cautious, and in the end only relatively few among their personnel will have the luxury of using Web-based BI. On the other hand, vendors who charge server-based and who impose no user costs free their client to empower as many users as they need--and many signs in the industry point to a "the more, the better" philosophy with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Therefore, you can see how ease of use, true usefulness and the right licensing model will garner higher adoption rates and therefore help the company move away from paper consumption and the wastefulness that surrounds it.

So, in summary?

In summary, going green in BI is not only beneficial to the environment, but it is also healthy to the bottom line and to the way vendor and client interact with one-another. See, going green is ultimately about efficiency--using fewer resources to achieve an even bigger result.

If you can use BI to lift your company to a higher market share without needing the weight of several hippos on the opposite side of the lever, you will have reached your purpose without waste, and you'll be able to call yourself a model company in more ways than one.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 8:30 AM | Comments (1)

February 4, 2009

BI for the Mid-Market - Part 1

BI and the Mid-Market: Some Definitions

With BI for the mid market, we immediately enter the realm of the vague unless we start with some rock-solid definitions. I think it was Voltaire who said something like "define your premises, and our conversation will be productive." Good old Voltaire--I always liked the chap.

So, here are the definitions in our context.

Business Intelligence (BI): A set of technological tools that turn corporate data into useful information that is available, reliable and actionable. No, Excel does not fall within this definition, although it can both be a data-source (as it's commonly used as such) and an additional tool.

Mid-market: The market comprises companies with a revenue between $100M and $1B. In this regard, we can further break down this market into three categories:

1 - The lower mid-market ($100M-250M)
2 - The middle mid-market ($250M-750M)
3 - The upper mid-market ($750M-1B)

I know that, especially vis a vis business intelligence, this definition of the mid-market is somewhat arbitrary, but it's not unusual and more and more analysts are adopting it (or something similar).

The Historical BI Options of the Mid-market

Until recently, mid-market companies had some pretty poor choices as far as BI. BI was almost a luxury good that Big-name legacy vendors had created around blue-chip companies. Complex architectures, expensive data warehouses and eons-long implementation times were something that neither the vendor nor their clients minded. But in recent years, the picture has changed.

The BI industry realized that the mid-market needed business intelligence pretty much at the same time that (or perhaps a little later than) the mid-market realized that it needed BI. And at this point, two things happened.

1 - Legacy BI vendors started licking their chops (at least the smart ones), and scrambled to either adapt their products to the budget of the mid-market or to buy upstart companies that offered product seen as being in line with the mid-market's needs and resources.

2 - Upstart BI companies refined their targeting to the mid-market, emphasizing their (often rightful) "I was here first" message.

So, the result was that in recent years, there has been a lot more available in terms of BI for the mid-market. Now, the mid-market company can choose in terms of features, technology, architecture, licensing model, upfront cost, support structure, etc. To quote the always eloquent Lindsay Wise, "companies are actually well poised to take charge and demand the types of solutions that most suit their unique requirements." Or, to quote me, more choice and competition among vendors is a jolly good thing for buyers.

What Does the Mid-market Need?

Trying to answer this question in a way that is *truly* valuable is, quite literally, above my pay-grade. If I could, I would also probably know what women really want and what the meaning of life is. The truth is that the mid-market is what bridges the gap between small companies and large enterprises (duh), so the gamut is truly wide. It's like trying to describe the color gray: not really black, not really white, but a heckuva lot of degrees in between these extremes.

To make things worse, there hasn't been as much valuable ink spilled on the needs of the mid-market as there has been on that of large corporations.

So, we can approach the BI needs for the mid-market not positively but by exclusion.

What the mid-market, in general, does not need in terms of BI:

Solutions that are too expensive. Especially in this time of recession, when cash is in short supply, mid-market firms cannot afford the same model of BI that the traditional legacy vendors sold years ago (and still do to some extent). This is rather self-explanatory.

Solutions that are too lengthy and resource-intensive to implement. What came first--the chicken of an increased rush to buy BI on the part of the mid-market or the egg of commoditized BI? Either way, this is the reality: a mid-market company is not very likely to buy a BI solution that takes months to implement and that requires a regiment of IT personnel and consultants. Time and money considerations preclude it.

Solutions that require complex and expensive architectures. This is a corollary of the previous point. Even an economical and easy-to-set-up BI solution is going to make the mid-market's brow furrow if it requires a complex technological architecture to support it--such as an expensive set of data-marts, a data warehouse or an OLAP environment.

Solutions that discourage user-adoption. User-adoption is, together with a clear strategic vision, the most critical issue that makes or breaks BI projects. For even the best solution yielding (potentially) the most leverage to the company deploying it will be all but useless if it does not follow a strategic vision. And even one that does will be all but useless if it's not adopted as part of the company culture by as many users as possible. And a costly mistake of the proportions of a failed BI project will be felt much more by a mid-market company than by a large enterprise.

In part deux of this discussion, we'll see the actual options that today's mid-market firm has in terms of business intelligence. Stay tuned.

By the way, LogiXML has a very informative BI for the Mid-Market White Paper that expands on this topic.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 1:45 PM | Comments (0)

February 3, 2009

Want BI but Can't Afford It? How about Free Business Intelligence Software?

Free BI - More than Just "Better than Nothing"
So, you are a small or mid-market firm operating in this time of recession. You're struggling to make ends meet, and the amount of data you produce is overwhelming you. Your small IT department has more projects than it can handle, and your users are all running in different directions, creating different mismatched reports. You know you need BI. But at this time, it seems like an extravagant expense. In this environment, is free business intelligence software something that can solve your problems, or is it a little more than a placebo?

The answer is, it depends.

Like most things, free reporting software comes in different guises, operates on different technologies and, as such, offers wildly different benefits. You need to make sure that the one you get is right for you.

Although it's free, free business intelligence software still requires *some* investment in time--for data connection, report building and end-user training. So, make sure that your investment is not on something you'll end up not using.

Finding the Right Free BI Software

A Google search will give you a variety of options. So, if this is your first BI solution, what should you look for? Here is a brief list of some of the variables you should take into consideration.

1 - Make sure it's really free. You don't want to get into a ponzi scheme that gets you to start relying on a "free" BI solution only to suddenly cut you off down the road and force you to upgrade or lose all your reports.

2 - Make sure it's been around for a while. This is pretty much self-explanatory.

3 - Make sure it offers a variety of support methods. These include things like well-attended forums that you can visit for free all the way to paid support if you need it.

4 - Make sure it is Web-based. You'd be surprised what a good free Web-based business intelligence or reporting software can offer. Advantages include easy accessibility, easy navigability, easy sharing and more.

5 - Make sure it's feature-rich. The fact that it's free doesn't mean it has to be a bare-bones, flat and non-interactive software. There is free reporting software out there that has a full suite of features including visualization features with drill-down capability, data grouping, interactive sorting and paging, etc.

6 - Make sure you *can* upgrade if you want. As we have said before, steer clear of a free BI product that forces you into a bait-and-switch scheme. But if you eventually feel that you need or can afford more features, make sure your free BI solution can be upgraded without you having to rebuild your entire architecture and without you losing your reports. Towards this, make sure that the free solution and the upgrade both run on the same technology.

An established free reporting software available immediately for download--as long as you find the right one--is a great alternative to both not having BI and to going with the (sometimes) uncertain path of an open-source project.

Posted by Hound of the BI-skervilles at 11:00 AM | Comments (0)