Choosing the Right OLAP Client

The tools used to sift through data determine how much of the information is understood. With OLAP clients, making the right choice is critical -- especially if an entire corporation, or your job, is on the line.

With this year’s release of the relational database management system SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft Corp. bundled a free multidimensional database component known as an OLAP server. An OLAP server allows business analysts to create multidimensional databases called OLAP cubes. To use an OLAP cube effectively and manipulate the data housed within it, a user must employ an OLAP client.

Although Microsoft included OLAP client functionality, called "pivot tables," in some versions of Excel, its rudimentary quality has opened up the market for third-party OLAP client vendors, and a lot of them. A database manager has to ask if any of these tools are better than what comes bundled in Excel, or if they are better than Seagate Technology's free Analysis client?

Some client tools leverage the capabilities of Excel, while others allow data to be manipulated more picture-oriented formats. "Accountants love numbers, and marketing people love working with pictures," says Nigel Pendse, an independent analyst and lead author of The OLAP Report, ( Since many organizations have both types of employees working in the same environment, it is difficult to find a tool that all concerned could successfully and easily use.

Seagate's ( Analysis can be used in conjunction with Excel, and the company has made its OLAP client available for free. Some analysts believe Seagate was smart to make its Analysis product free. "Excel [pivot tables] are entry-level analysis," says Mike Schiff, director of data warehousing strategies at Current Analysis Inc. ( "Seagate had an excellent strategy: They lowered the price point to nothing so people would try it out. Between the two, I would choose Seagate Analysis over Excel." But according to Pendse, Analysis is as basic as Excel, and difficult to learn and use. "Most users would want something simpler," Pendse says. "Seagate is neither powerful, nor easy to use."

Seagate sees its free tool in a different light, especially when compared with OLAP tools that are not free. "Do you want to spend $500 to get a little more functionality than Excel? Seagate offers a free tool that you can grow with or not," says Torgeir Braaten, product program manager at Seagate. To get the most out of Analysis, however, a user needs to purchase an entire suite of Seagate products. "It is part of a whole family of tools, it is integrated. You can use it as a standalone tool, but the real power is using it with a Seagate back end," Braaten says.

Many other OLAP clients are fully functional as standalone products, but there is no one best tool because most offer different things. OLAP@Work Inc.'s ( OLAP@Work for Excel for example, is a client tool that works with Excel to enhance its capabilities. "Our product allows people to fully leverage their expertise in Excel and work with an environment they love. It lowers the learning curve and allows end users to create customized reports within Excel," says Robert Lendvai, vice president of marketing at OLAP@Work. Some people may value using an Excel leveraging tool, but a novice user might find a product such as Knosys Inc.'s ( ProClarity simpler because it is an integrated multidimensional visualization tool. Cognos Corp.'s ( Powerplay also is an integrated multidimensional tool, but it has a higher learning curve. "It is not necessarily easy to learn, but it has ease-of-use and it deploys quickly," says Dave Peterson, a contracted database manager and Cognos end user at Sutter Health (

Some of the easiest tools on the market are Web tools, such as Cognos' Impromptu, which facilitates managed reporting over the Web. "The trend now is that users expect to just pick up and use a tool. Web tools tend to be the easiest, Current Analysis’ Schiff says. "These tools are making a movement toward the Web." Conversely, the more difficult tools to learn are those that are very complex. "Any tool that requires you to enter SQL or lets you get into the SQL level, those are not for novice users," Schiff says.

Another question that has to be considered is will one OLAP client be enough? "It all depends on the users needs," Pendse says. "Many people today are implementing more than one client. It is a good idea, too. It is impossible to find one that fulfills all your needs, and you shouldn't try."

Schiff concurs. "You have to try a lot of clients. You are not going to find your entire population can use just one tool."

When choosing an OLAP client there are a lot of things to consider: do the users like the tool; is the tool powerful enough; will the tool work with the systems in place; and is the tool easy to use?

Cost should be one of the last and least important considerations, Pendse says. "It is a crazy waste of time not to spend more money on the [right] client tool. The most important thing is to get a tool that can provide you with enough data."