Category Archives: Reporting Services

Understanding Business Intelligence

Though Business Intelligence is technology driven, it is more about Business requirements and less about technology.  BI Champion/ Sponsor in the organization defines the vision and mission.

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The leader must have the ability to precisely define the Business intelligence requirements of the organization; the format of the reports; the relationship between the different data elements and version of the data to be used. The leaders need to specify how much history needs to be included; how often the data needs to be provided to the different stakeholders of the process.

BI is then driven by the business objective which may not necessarily always be to reduce the cost or increase the top line/ bottom line for an organization, but to use the data analysis in bringing efficiencies in the process or enhance the service experience for the customer.

The impetus for the BI initiative is the availability of data and technology for data analysis.  Ideally the organization should have at least two or three years of data in electronic format for meaningful analysis. The larger the volume of core data available in the systems, the more meaningful will be the output that can be expected from Business Intelligence.

However it must be recognized that data may not always be structured and data coming from multiple sources may not be in the same format. Data will have to be interpreted on the basis of logical assumptions and data gaps will have to be identified upfront so that changes can be made to business processes at the point of data capture.

The Management must be made aware that resource and time commitment for BI is much higher than resource commitment for IT projects and there must be a high level of management commitment to making the BI project a success.

  1. Business leaders and IT analysts will have to allocate substantial amount of time to mapping business requirements to IT system capabilities both during the design and implementation phase of the project.  The leaders and IT developers will have to constantly interact for a proper representation of the Business questions in terms of analytical outputs.

2.      IT professionals involved in the process will have to explain to the Business leadership the nature and meaning of the data that is available in the systems. They will have to clarify how exceptions are to be handled by the leadership and also the limitations of the systems. The implication is that IT resources will also have to make a time commitment for BI.

  1. Subject matter experts also have a significant role to play in Business Intelligence projects.  As ultimate users of the system, they are in the best position to test the outputs and validate the significance of the Queries and the outputs derived from such queries.  They have the experience and the ability to flag exceptions and help fix them.  This implies that subject matter experts too need to contribute a significant amount of time for the success of the project.  They may even need to join the project team on a full time basis during the testing phase.

The Project plan must reflect the level of business personnel who will be involved and the organization must be willing to release these people to join the project team as and when a request for their services is made.

It also follows that the project team and all those involved in BI must be open to learning and acquiring the skills that are essential for the effective functioning of the BI system that is being put in place.

Having said all this, it is necessary to point out that Business Intelligence cannot be a time bound project. Nor can the teams be disbanded with the first successful run of a data query or queries.

Query design, testing, redesign and use of new toolsets are inevitable. In short, BI is an evolving system that cannot be pinned down and bounded by traditional project management definitions.

The BI requirements change as business requirements evolve and change. No single requirement definition can be characterized as a permanent, unchanging requirement.  The Business leaders, IT analysts and Subject matter experts will have to be constantly engaged in designing and developing queries; testing the outputs on field formations; obtaining feedback on the usefulness or otherwise of the outputs and exceptions that need to be handled.  It is an iterative process.

It requires the institution of an agile system development and process management approach. Highly skilled personnel must constantly and continuously work together to deliver on the objectives of BI with little requirements being defined upfront with more requirements being designed and refined on the go.

Scope of work will have to be “time-boxed” to each cycle of the project and goals and objectives of each time box will have to be specified separately.  Cycles which cannot be completed within the time specified will have to be deferred and included as part of the future development cycles. As a result, traditional project management methodologies will fail.

Since change is the only constant in BI, definition of a change management strategy is an imperative. The strategy must be built around the recognition that Business requirements change, changing BI requirements/queries; resulting in a change in the type of toolsets used and the skillsets that are required by BI stakeholders.

It should be remembered that People are resistant to change. Consumers of BI reports are no exceptions. They need to be educated about the benefits of the exercise and the producers of the data must be aligned to ensure data quality is never compromised by placing appropriate controls in the systems.

Training needs must be studied, documented; trainings organized whenever there is a change in any one or more components that operationalize the Business Intelligence unit.

The organization must also recognize that reporting requirements and formats will change with every change in the BI requirement. All reporting formats cannot be axed at once and all reporting formats cannot change overnight. The change must be planned and initiated based on schedules that have been agreed upon by the different stakeholders.

Existing reports and tools should be retired gradually and transition periods must be orchestrated carefully and thoughtfully. Trainings must be organized to transition all stakeholders to the new formats.  Organization of workshops and change management seminars must be part and parcel of the Business Intelligence unit’s functioning.

Finally, it must be reiterated that BI is not a project. It is a program.  The solution must dovetail into the existing environment and reinforce the business processes that are in use.  Any data extraction exercise for BI must be done without disturbing the workflow in the organization or impacting the reliability of the information that is being gathered during business operations.

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How To : Use SharePoint Dashboards & MSRS Reports for your Agile Development Life Cycle

The Problem We Solve

Agile BI is not a term many would associate with MSRS Reports and SharePoint Dashboards. While many organizations first turn to the Microsoft BI stack because of its familiarity, stitching together Microsoft’s patchwork of SharePoint, SQL Server, SSAS, MSRS, and Office creates administrative headaches and requires considerable time spent integrating and writing custom code.

This Showcase outlines the ease of accomplishing three of the most fundamental BI tasks with LogiXML technology as compared to MSRS and SharePoint:

  • Building a dashboard with multiple data sources
  • Creating interactive reports that reduce the load on IT by providing users self-service
  • Integrating disparate data sources

Read below to learn how an agile BI methodology can make your life much easier when it comes to dashboards and reports. Don’t feel like reading?

Building a Dashboard with LogiXML vs. MSRS + SharePoint

Microsoft’s only solution for dashboards is to either write your own code from scratch, manipulate SharePoint to serve a purpose for which it wasn’t initially designed, or look to third party apps. Below are some of the limitations to Microsoft’s approach to dashboards:

  • Limited Pre-Built Elements: Microsoft components come with only limited libraries of pre-built elements. In addition to actual development work, you will need to come up with an idea of how everything will work together. This necessitates becoming familiar with best practices in dashboards and reporting.
  • Sophisticated Development Expertise Required: While Microsoft components provide basic capabilities, anything more sophisticated is development resource-intensive and requires you to take on design, execution, and delivery. Any complex report visualizations and logic, such as interactive filters, must be written in code by the developer.
  • Limited Charts and Visualizations: Microsoft has a smaller sub-set of charts and visualization tools. If you want access to the complete library of .NET-capable charts, you’ll still need to OEM another charting solution at additional expense.
  • Lack of Integrated Workflow: Microsoft does not include workflow features sets out of the box in their BI offering.

LogiXML technology is centered on Logi Studio: an elemental, agile BI design environment which lets you simply choose from hundreds of powerful and configurable pre-built elements. Logi’s pre-built elements equip developers with tools to speed development, as well as the processes and logic required to build and manage BI projects. Below is a screen shot of the Logi Studio while building new dashboards.

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Logi developers can easily create static or user-customizable dashboards using the Dashboard element. A dashboard is a collection of panels containing Logi reports, which in turn contain table, charts, images, etc. At runtime, the user can customize the dashboard by rearranging these panels on the browser page, by showing or hiding them, and even by changing their contents using adjustable reporting criteria. The data displayed within the panels can be configured, as in any Logi report, to link to other reports, providing drill-down functionality.

 

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The dashboard displayed above has tabs and user customization enabled. The Dashboard element provides customization features, such as drag-and-drop panel positioning, support for built-in parameters the user can access to adjust the panel’s data contents, and a panel selection list that determines which panels will be displayed. AJAX techniques are utilized for web server interactions, allowing selective updates of portions of the dashboard. Dashboard customizations can be saved on an individual-user basis to create a highly personalized view of the data.

The Dashboard Wizard

The ‘Create a Dashboard’ wizard assists developers in creating dashboards by populating the report definition with the necessary dashboard-related elements. You can easily point to any data source by selecting from a variety of DataLayer types, including SQL, StoredProcedures, Web Services, Files, and more. A simple to use drag and drop SQL Query builder is also integrated, to offer a guided approach to constructing queries when connecting to your database.

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Using the Dashboard Element

The Dashboard element is used to create the top level structure for all of your interactive panels within the final output. Under your dashboards, you can optionally add any number of Dashboard Panels, Panel Parameters for dynamic filtering, and even automatic refresh features with AJAX-based refresh timers.

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Changing Appearance Using Themes and Style Sheets

The appearance of a dashboard can be changed easily by assigning a theme to your report. In addition, or as an alternative, you can change dashboard appearance using style. The Dashboard element has its own Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) file containing predefined classes that affect the display colors, font sizes, button labels, and spacing seen when the dashboard is displayed. You can override these classes by adding classes with the same name to your own style sheet file.

See us build a BI app with 3 data sources in under 10 minutes.

Ad Hoc Reporting Creation with LogiXML: Analysis Grid

The Analysis Grid is a managed reporting feature giving end users virtual ad hoc capability. It is an easy to use tool that allows business users to analyze and manipulate data and outputs in multiple and powerful ways.

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Create an Analysis Grid by using the “Create Analysis Grid” wizard, or by simply adding the AnalysisGrid element into your definition file. Like the dashboard, data for the Analysis Grid can be accessed from any of the data options, including SQL databases, web sources, or files. You also have the option to launch the interactive query builder wizard for easy, drag-drop, SQL query creation.

The Analysis Grid is composed of three main parts: the data grid itself, i.e. a table of data to be analyzed; various action buttons at the top, allowing the user to perform actions such as create new columns with custom calculations, sort columns, add charts, and perform aggregations; and the ability to export the grid to Excel, CSV, or PDF format.

The Analysis Grid makes it easy to perform what-if analyses through features like filtering. The Grid also makes data-presentation impactful through visualization features including data driven color formatting, inline gauges, and custom formula creation.

Ad Hoc Reporting Creation with Microsoft

While simple ad hoc capabilities, such as enabling the selection of parameters like date ranges, can be accomplished quickly and easily with Microsoft, more sophisticated ad hoc analysis is challenging due to the following shortcomings.

Platform Integration Problems

Microsoft BI strategy is not unified and is strongly tied to SQL Server. To obtain analysis capabilities, you must build cubes through to the Analysis Service, which is a separate product with its own different security architecture. Next, you will need to build reports that talk to SQL server, also using separate products.

Dashboards require a SharePoint portal which is, again, a separate product with separate requirements and licensing. If you don’t use this, you must completely code your dashboards from scratch. Unfortunately, Microsoft Reporting Services doesn’t play well with Analysis Services or SharePoint since these were built on different technologies.

SharePoint itself offers an out of the box portal and dashboard solution but unfortunately with a number of significant shortcomings. SharePoint was designed as a document management and collaboration tool as opposed to an interactive BI dashboard solution. Therefore, in order to have a dashboard solution optimized for BI, reporting, and interactivity you are faced with two options:

  • Build it yourself using .NET and a combination of third party components
  • Buy a separate third party product

Many IT professionals find these to be rather unappealing options, since they require evaluating a new product or components, and/or a lot of work to build and make sure it integrates with the rest of the Microsoft stack.

Additionally, while SQL Server and other products support different types of security architectures, Analysis Services only has support for using integrated Windows NT security models to access cubes and therefore creates integration challenges.

Moreover, for client/ad hoc tools, you need Report Writer, a desktop product, or Excel – another desktop application. In addition to requiring separate licenses, these products don’t even talk to one another in the same ways, as they were built by different companies and subsequently acquired by Microsoft.

Each product requires a separate and often disconnected development environment with different design and administration features. Therefore to manage Microsoft BI, you must have all of these development environments available and know how to use them all.

Integration of Various Data Sources: LogiXML vs. Microsoft

LogiXML is data neutral, allowing you to easily connect to all of your organization’s data spread across multiple applications and databases. You can connect with any data source or data model and even combine data sources such as current data accessed through a web service with past data in spreadsheets.

Integration of Various Data Sources with Microsoft

Working with Microsoft components for BI means you will be faced with the challenge of limited support for non-Microsoft based databases and outside data sources. The Microsoft BI stack is centered on SQL Server databases and therefore the data source is optimized to work with SQL Server. Unfortunately, if you need outside content it can be very difficult to integrate.

Finally, Microsoft BI tools are designed with the total Microsoft experience in mind and are therefore optimized for Internet Explorer. While other browsers and devices might be useable, the experience isn’t optimized and may potentially lack in features or visualize differently.

 

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