Analyst Viewpoint: Actuate 7
Moving beyond reports
Actuate Corp. last week fired its first salvo in the analytic software market by announcing a new version of its flagship software that enables business users to generate queries and create reports with minimal training.
Actuate 7, which ships next month, turns Actuate from a staid vendor of production reporting software into a fledgling competitor to leading analytic vendors such as Business Objects and Cognos. The metamorphosis has been a long time coming—Actuate officials have talked about delivering end-user query and reporting tools since the late 1990s. After some false starts, Actuate 7 represents the San Francisco-based firm’s first bona fide step towards meeting the analytical needs of a broader spectrum of users.
Actuate is best known for its production reporting software that enables organizations to build custom, picture-perfect, high-volume reports—generating everything from airline tickets to monthly customer statements. One of Actuate’s historic differentiators is its robust object-oriented reporting language. Although developers love the language for its flexibility and power, it is inaccessible to average business users who want to create their own reports or views of data.
To support end-user reporting, Actuate added to two new modules to its server-based software: e.Spreadsheet and Actuate Query. e.Spreadsheet is a Java spreadsheet engine that the company recently acquired and integrated into the Actuate iServer. Actuate Query provides a thin client wizard that steps users through the process of creating ad hoc queries in a DHTML client.
e.Spreadsheet is unique because it is a thin client/server engine that manages fully functional Excel spreadsheets in a server environment. This lets multiple spreadsheet users access and manipulate the same data and prevents the proliferation of multiple, inconsistent copies of a spreadsheet throughout the enterprise. In contrast, most analytical tools export or “dump” data from analytical tools into desktop spreadsheets, making it easy for users to create “spreadmarts” or analytic silos of inconsistent data.
Actuate Query provides a fairly standard—albeit easy to use—Web-based wizard for creating queries using a catalog of “information objects” defined by systems administrators. Interestingly, Actuate Query dumps data into Excel, PDF, or HTML like most other analytical tools, but it can’t generate an e.Spreadsheet. This lack of cross-product integration, and Actuate Query’s extremely lightweight multidimensional capabilities, means it has some maturing to do before it catches up to leading analytical tools.
Data Warehousing Agnostic
It also should be noted that as a production reporting vendor, Actuate does not play by traditional data warehousing rules. Only 20 percent of Actuate customers use a data warehouse as a data source. While most analytical products run directly against a data warehouse, Actuate typically fulfills queries or report requests directly from operational systems. If performance is an issue, administrators can stage operational data in the Actuate Server, turning the server into a fairly very robust operational data store (ODS).
This approach may cause problems for organizations that want to standardize definitions and rules within a traditional data warehousing environment. Actuate’s software almost makes it too easy for departments or business units to set up analytic silos independent of the data warehouse. On the other hand, Actuate’s ODS-enabled server, direct connections to source systems, and robust programming language may make it ideal for creating real-time, closed-loop applications that bridge operational and analytical environments.
Overall, Actuate has made a good first step into the enterprise analytics market. Since reporting is the foundation of all analytics, Actuate’s heritage puts it in a good position to make rapid headway as it tries to move into the analytics space.
Wayne Eckerson is director of research at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), a provider of in-depth education and research in the business intelligence and data warehousing industry.