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.

Overdesigning BI Architecture for SAP Design Studio

Rethinking when to install the SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio server components.

SAP Design Studio 1.3 Splash

Over two years ago, SAP unveiled their roadmap and strategy for dashboards (see related article, The Future of SAP Dashboards)Today, in 2014, many SAP BusinessObjects customers have committed to a two-prong strategy of continuing to support legacy Xcelsius/Dashboards while looking for opportunities to begin using SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio, the successor to both SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards and SAP BEx Web Application Designer (WAD). In some cases, it still makes sense to prefer Dashboards over Design Studio for new projects due to the maturity gap between the products.

Practically speaking, the two-prong strategy means that many BI administrators are installing the Design Studio components as part of their new SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.x deployments. SAP releases new versions of Design Studio approximately every six months. The current version is 1.3 and version 1.4 is expected in November 2014.

The Design Studio client app opens with an attractive welcome screen featuring a breathtaking mountaintop vista.

SAP Design Studio 1.3 Welcome

Although there’s a “Getting Started” section on the welcome screen for developers, there isn’t one for BI administrators, so here is some guidance. Design Studio, like SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, is not integrated out-of-the-box with the BI platform and has both web-tier components and server components, as shown in the installation screen below.

SAP Design Studio 1.3 Features

Ideally, these Design Studio server components would be integrated into the BI 4.x platform (see related article, Please Integrate the Integrated Enterprise BI Platform). But they aren’t, so plan ahead and put specific line items in your BI 4.x project plans for Design Studio installation and configuration tasks. The additional time required to install the server components can really add up, particularly if you have a lot of nodes in your BI 4.x deployment.

Installing Design Studio Before You’re Ready

In theory, proactively getting your BI 4.x platform ready for Design Studio seems like a best practice. I’ve done it for several customers. Unfortunately, in many cases you’ll spend extra hours installing a version of Design Studio that’s obsolete before your developers are able to use it for meaningful projects. This means that you’ll spend even more time later uninstalling the old version of Design Studio server components before installing newer ones.

Uninstalling obsolete Design Studio 1.1

Installing Design Studio When You’re Ready

Instead of budgeting hours for Design Studio in your BI 4.x upgrade project, place them instead in your first funded Design Studio development project. In this way, you’re guaranteed not to waste effort deploying a version of Design Studio that’s obsolete before you begin using it. The planning phase of a Design Studio project is also a good time to either apply the latest patch for your BI 4.x platform’s current Support Pack level or move up to a higher Support Pack level entirely.

In the meantime, install Design Studio on a sandbox server that isn’t part of your normal Development->Test->Production software development life cycle (SDLC). A sandbox environment is also a recommended place to test BI 4.x patches before committing them to the environments you use daily. You’ll be able to satisfy the needs of curious developers who want to begin learning Design Studio and conducting functionality bake-offs between Dashboards and Design Studio. New version of the BI 4.x platform or Design Studio server components? No problem. There’s only one server to upgrade.

Conclusion

If they aren’t already, your developers should definitely be putting Design Studio to the test (see Chris Greer’s related article, Is Xcelsius the new Deski? Die, Deski, Die!, on the EV Technologies blog). Give them some quality playtime in the sandbox. But until you’re truly ready with a funded project, don’t over-design your BI 4.x environment.

Other Perspectives on SAP Design Studio

What is your experience with Design Studio? Creating new dashboards or porting existing ones from Xcelsius/Dashboards?

The Future of SAP Dashboards

Analysis of SAP’s long-anticipated statement of direction (SOD) for dashboards

On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery made its historic final flight. Seeing images of Discovery flying over the US capitol piggybacked to its specially modified Boeing 747 gave me (and I’m sure many others) a profound admiration for NASA and its shuttle program. But it also left me wondering about the American space program’s future, worrying if its glory days are behind rather than ahead.

Space Shuttle Discovery Final Flight

On the same day, with unintentional irony, SAP posted an article on SCN about its long-anticipated statement of direction (SOD) for dashboards. The SOD served as a lead-in to yesterday’s popular ALL ACCESS to SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (Xcelsius) webinar (see Pieter Hendrikx‘s live blog of the webinar). SAP speakers Mani Gill, Ty Miller, Jason Rose, Ian Mayor, Scott Leaver, and Mani Srinivasan were joined by Xcelsius Guru Mico Yuk for a brief presentation followed by a live Q&A session. The prepared content mostly recapped what was introduced in the SOD document, leaving most of the session for Q&A. Most of the conversation centered around three topics:

  • What is going to happen to Xcelsius/Dashboards
  • What is going to happen to SAP BEx Web Application Designer?
  • What is Zen and wasn’t it called SAP BusinessObjects Analysis, edition for Application Design last year?
But the SOD reveals much more information and is definitely a must-read for all SAP BusinessObjects and SAP Netweaver BW customers. I’d like to make three observations about SAP’s statement of direction on dashboards.

Two Types of Users

First, conversations about Xcelsius/Dashboards and SAP BEx Web Application Designer are primarily held by one group of people: developers. In the SOD, SAP describes two broad categories of data visualization: professionally authored and self-service. These two broad categories have long existed in BI. We often use them to compare and contrast Crystal Reports with Web Intelligence (although enterprise reporting vs. ad-hoc query and analysis is another method of comparison).

SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards and Zen [UPDATE: which shipped as SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio] are focused on the needs of “power users and IT”, which was probably the majority of attendees on the webcast. Zen is intended to be “a new, unified technology stack” that will begin life primarily intended as the successor to SAP BEx Web Application Designer (focused on SAP data sources like BW and HANA) and evolving into a successor for Xcelsius/Dashboards (focused on a broader set of data sources) as well.

But what about self-service dashboards? “In the future, exploration views (a functionality of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer) [introduced with SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3] will become the preferred technology for building self-service BI applications.” And although Web Intelligence is not mentioned, its evolution in BI 4.0 continues to blur the line between “query and analysis” and “dashboard”. And from an end-user perspective, SAP will eventually deliver Exploration Views and Web Intelligence in a single mobile app, rather than the two apps that are required today.

Although a frequent criticism of SAP is that there are “too many BI tools”, I am glad to see SAP continue to recognize that these two broad categories of users require different tools.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Second, Tom Petty, a well-known business intelligence industry analyst, had the following to say about SAP’s Dashboard Statement of Direction:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

SAP’s Statement of Direction outlines three phases. We’ll see the fruits of phase one go into ramp-up in late 2012, but the latter phases will take us into 2013 and probably 2014. That’s a long time to wait. Users of SAP BEX Web Application Designer will be able to use the inaugural edition of Zen. But for the foreseeable future, existing Xcelsius/Dashboard Design customers can continue using the product, extend it with some useful partner solutions, and hope for a fairly routine migration path (see related article, Between an Xcelsius Rock and Dashboard Design Hard Place).

The SOD is developed from the traditional “enterprise software company” cookbook, with emphasis on “protecting existing investments” and merging tools from different lineages into a unified whole. This is what “good” enterprise software companies do. But these typical assumptions mean that we must wait patiently for the results. I can’t help but wonder (aloud on the latest Diversified Semantic Layer podcast, State of the Dashboard Take 2) if a better strategy would be assembling a team of genius developers and building something completely new, without the baggage of existing products. Customers would get a groundbreaking mobile-first tool faster and be less likely to hear the siren song of other vendors like Tableau, Tibco, and QlikTech, and the like.

I recognize that I don’t know how to run a large enterprise software company and don’t understand their traditions. But neither do the young minds creating new data visualization start-up companies. AOL or Yahoo could have built Facebook but didn’t. Kodak or Polaroid could have built Instagram but didn’t. HP or Dell could have built the Apple iPad but didn’t. History is replete with tales of innovation and disintermediation- of David outsmarting Goliath. (See New York Times columnist Nick Bilton’s article, Disruptions: Innovation Isn’t Easy, Especially Midstream)

But perhaps SAP intends to surprise us with the efforts of a secret development team toiling away in an unlikely location like Hilo, Hawaii? [UPDATE: Hilo was the code name for SAP Visual Intelligence, later renamed SAP Lumira]

Xcelsius really is the new Desktop Intelligence

Lastly, this week’s events cemented for me (but not for the SAP panelists) that Xcelsius really is the new Desktop Intelligence (see related article Thoughts on Xcelsius). Yes, I’m fully aware that this analogy is short-hand for all kinds of negative imagery. But there is positive imagery that is worth remembering. Let’s not forget that with Desktop Intelligence, both Business Objects (the company) and SAP that purchased it, the vendor was committed to protecting existing investments and providing a migration path via tools like the Report Conversion Tool. Customers were grateful for the amount of time that Desktop Intelligence continued to be supported. But I’m sure that many at SAP wished they could have stopped support sooner. One reason for the long retirement period was it took Web Intelligence, the successor, many years to reach an adequate level of functionality to replace its predecessor. The reason Desktop Intelligence had a retirement in the first place wasn’t because the tool lost its usefulness. SAP could certainly modernize it if they wanted to (see my almost-plausible April 1 Hell Freezes Over article). Desktop Intelligence was retired because a majority of its users lost interest in desktop applications in favor of web applications. Now those same customers are shifting attention from the web to the mobile device. So we shouldn’t blame the vendor when we, the customers, are making their products obsolete.

Like Desktop Intelligence before it, some customers will continue to use Xcelsius and Dashboard Design well beyond the official end of support. But as a career professional, I’m labeling it as “the new Desktop Intelligence” as a reminder that I need to prioritize learning new skills.

Conclusion

SAP did a good job in authoring the SOD and responding to live Q&A. The effort was necessary and time well spent. And after the webcast I’m looking forward to SAPPHIRE even more. But even with all of the clear answers, I’m unsure. Unsettled. Perhaps it’s because Xcelsius can’t figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. Or maybe it’s because I’m the one who can’t figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Business Intelligence is supposed to be about fact-based decision making. But today, it’s about emotion as well.

What’s your reaction to the SAP BusinessObjects Dashboarding Strategy and Statement of Direction and the ALL ACCESS SAP webinar?

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