Most Pervasive BI Tool Isn't What You Think

Vendors enhance support for Microsoft Excel as a BI front-end tool in their latest products

If someone asked you to name a typical business intelligence (BI) front-end tool, the Excel spreadsheet from Microsoft Corporation probably wouldn’t be the first thing that came to your mind.

Nevertheless, analysts say, Excel is the most pervasive BI tool ever produced.

“Excel is still by far and away the most popular ‘BI’ tool out there,” asserts Wayne Eckerson, director of The Data Warehousing Institute. “It’s on everyone’s desktop and … business analysts … have become irresistibly familiar with its interface.”

Recently, several product releases from leading BI vendors have highlighted enhanced support for Excel, such that the venerable spreadsheet can—in some cases—be used in place of a vendor’s own preferred tools.

Last week, for example, Crystal Decisions announced a new plug-in that facilitates bi-directional integration and data refresh between its flagship Crystal Enterprise reporting solution and Excel. Crystal representatives say the new plug-in also supports centralized control of spreadsheets in the Crystal Enterprise report distribution framework. Just as important, analysts say, the new plug-in lets business users populate their Excel spreadsheets directly from Crystal Enterprise itself—which effectively replaces Crystal’s own front-end tool.

“Their new announcement indicates that they can now front-end Crystal Enterprise with Excel. That is, Excel replaces Crystal Reports or Crystal Analysis as the front-end—or client—to Enterprise,” Eckerson observes. “Here, Crystal Reports is an add-in to Excel, allowing you to go get more data, rather than Excel being an add-in to Crystal Reports for exporting, essentially.”

The idea, says Mike Schiff, vice president of e-business and business intelligence with research firm Current Analysis Inc., is that even though the spreadsheet is still the preferred front-end tool for information analysis among systems analysts and many business decision makers, there’s really no automated way to manage the changes that users make to their spreadsheets.

That’s because users tend to dump data into Excel spreadsheets that reside on their own client workstations, Schiff explains. This data is not automatically refreshed as deltas accrue, and is typically only refreshed when a user imports new data from a source report or spreadsheet. As a result, multiple versions of the truth—variations on data contained in a source report or spreadsheet—tend to proliferate in many enterprise environments.

Enter Crystal’s new plug-in, which addresses this problem, Schiff indicates: “This enhancement provides bi-directional live-link capabilities between Crystal Reports and Excel.”

Crystal isn’t the only vendor courting Excel-toting business users. Actuate Corp., as a matter of fact, was first out of the gate. In March, Actuate released (http://www.tdwi.org/research/display.asp?id=6621&t=y) version 7 of its flagship Actuate enterprise reporting platform. One highlight of Actuate 7 is an updated version of Actuate e.Spreadsheet Designer, a tool first introduced as part of Actuate Service Pack 2 in late 2001. e.Spreadsheet Designer leverages a spreadsheet interface and provides a point-and-click wizard which allows users to design reports that are actually Excel documents.

Like Crystal’s new Excel plug-in, version 7 purports to eliminate multiple-versions-of-truth scenarios with new support for server-managed spreadsheets, which generate reports by retrieving data directly from original sources. This enables a centralized single version of the truth that is vouchsafed by tying spreadsheets directly to source data.

Surprisingly, neither Eckerson nor Schiff believes there’s a huge pool of users anxious to tap Excel as a front-end replacement tool. “Crystal is also responding to a recent managed spreadsheet announcement by archrival Actuate,” Eckerson notes.

Cozying up to Excel

Crystal and Actuate aren’t the only BI vendors courting Excel users. Informatica Corp. and Business Objects SA have both recently announced products that boast enhanced support for Excel.

In March, Informatica released (http://www.tdwi.org/research/display.asp?id=6615&t=y) its revamped PowerAnalzyer 4.0 BI suite. Chief among PowerAnalyzer 4.0’s new features is functionality that makes it possible for business users to view Excel spreadsheet documents in the context of the PowerAnalyzer interface. PowerAnalyzer 4.0 also supports a dynamic refresh feature in which Exchange cells can be updated dynamically as changes occur.

At the time, Sanjay Poonen, VP of worldwide marketing for Informatica, acknowledged that many business users are simply more comfortable using Excel. “Several years ago, when BI first started out, Excel was a poor query tool, but the usage pattern was one where people always went back to Excel to do sophisticated modeling, reporting, etc. They would create these highly detailed reports in Excel that they couldn’t create in the BI [front-end] tool.”

With its new version of PowerAnalyzer, Poonen said, Informatica proposed to meld the dynamic refresh capabilities of the traditional BI tool with the power of Excel’s reporting and modeling features. “These are live Excel reports that never need to be refreshed, the format stays the same, it’s just the fact that when the data changes, you have the ability for PowerAnalyzer to feed data live into Excel, Excel stays fresh with refreshed data, and we’re able to give those users the power and experience they need,” he concludes.

Similarly, when in late April Business Objects announced (http://www.tdwi.org/research/display.asp?id=6648&t=y) Enterprise 6, its next-generation end-to-end BI suite, the company touted the new suite’s enhanced Excel functionality. The revamped suite boasts enhanced support for business users who want to exploit Excel as a reporting front-end, said Lance Walter, director of BI platform product marketing with Business Objects, at the time. “If people wanted access to data as it resides in the Business Objects format, they can bring it down into Excel, and we also have the ability to access OLAP servers and directly do slicing and dicing in the Excel environment,” he explained. “The other part to our Excel story is the ability to broadcast information out to users via e-mail in the Excel format.”

While significant, analysts found that Business Objects’ Excel support still came up short compared with some competitive offerings. In contrast to solutions from Actuate and Crystal Enterprise, in Business Objects 6 reports must still be downloaded and viewed in Excel, and users cannot make changes to data that propagate back to data sources. Business Object’s Walter says that for most users this isn’t an issue, but TDWI’s Eckerson points out that for some systems analysts and other power users, “the goal … is to use Excel as a front end.”

The upshot, analysts say, is that all BI players more or less support Excel to one degree or another. “[Business users] now use [Excel] even when better solutions exist to the problems they are trying to solve,” Eckerson argues. “Because spreadsheets are so entrenched in the corporate culture, all BI tools have had to pay homage to it, even while they try to displace it. It’s the proverbial ‘If all you have is a hammer, everything seems like a nail’ syndrome.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.