Actuate 8 Takes Spreadsheets to the Next Level

Company touts new release as a “silver bullet to kill feuding spreadmarts”

When Actuate Corp. acquired the former Nimble Technologies last August, the BI industry raised a collective eyebrow. What, after all, could enterprise reporting stalwart Acutate want with enterprise information integration (EII) upstart Nimble?

Released this week, the new version of Actuate’s reporting suite sheds much more light on its acquisition decision. In the words of one company official, Nimble’s technology assets give Actuate “a silver bullet to kill the feuding spreadmarts.”

Spreadwhat?

Used by themselves, spreadsheets provide no central means of data management, data consistency, data collaboration, or data security. Actuate and other vendors have solved these problems by marketing what one analyst calls “better than spreadsheet spreadsheet” solutions, but other issues—such as the proliferation of multiple, unconsolidated spreadsheets throughout an organization—remain. This is what Wayne Eckerson, research director at The Data Warehousing Institute, calls the “spreadmart” phenomenon.

One possible technology prescription for multiple, dueling spreadmarts is EII software, which typically consolidates information from both structured and unstructured data sources.

That’s just what Actuate had in mind when it snapped up Nimble, confirms Mike Thoma, vice-president of product marketing. Thoma says Actuate’s goal was to present “one real-time face” of information to customers. “One of the things it takes to do that real-time piece is you need to access those silos of information; like in a bank, you might have six different products that used to run as six different units, and then you have to jump around to six different systems and they’ve never even heard of you.”

Taken by itself, the combination of a better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheet and EII technology does not a workable solution make, however. The key, says Mark Smith, CEO and senior vice-president of research with consultancy Ventana Research, is to build a unified metadata layer between the two. That’s what Actuate claims to have done in Actuate 8. “It’s not just having EII; you have to have a managed set of metadata that can be shared across any number of users in the organization,” he observes.

One big advantage of having a unified metadata layer, according to Actuate’s Thoma, is that “when the data changes, it doesn’t screw up the maps or the reports written against that data layer.”

In addition to its EII Option and unified metadata layer, Actuate 8 boasts additional enhancements that help to shore up its credibility as a better-than-spreadsheet spreadsheet offering. “We’ve really just taken our spreadsheet stuff to the next level with the addition of PivotTables and [data] filters,” Thoma claims. “The spreadsheet now talks to your unified metadata layer, so we don’t have end users creating run-away queries.”

Not surprisingly, however, Actuate expects that the new product’s EII Option will probably be its strongest selling point. Like many EII offerings, Actuate 8 can get at data in a variety of different repositories and formats, Thoma says. “[The EII Option] talks SQL, talks SAP, talks cube, talks Web services, talks xml, so you can go out and talk to virtually any data source,” he comments.

But a technology like EII is particularly well suited to the realities of spreadmart hell, says Ventana Research’s Smith. “If there’s one thing that’s still a very large challenge in companies, it’s having everybody have their own spreadsheet that they use, their personal database and personal calculation engine, which ends up being unauditable,” Smith explains. “So what Actuate has is a spreadsheet front-end that can help provide access to every spreadsheet in the enterprise.”

Some organization solve this problem by dumping all of their information into data marts or data warehouses, but, Smith notes, this has the effect of introducing an impractical degree of latency: “The reality is that in most corporations, the business people can’t wait the time to have their IT people go and assimilate the information into the data warehouse and cycle it and stuff.”

In spite of the major changes that it introduces, Thoma says that Actuate 8 should be a relatively pain-free upgrade from previous versions—including non-current iterations.

“Basically, what we did was we added in the visual metadata layer to the EII Option that we got from Nimble and made it available to all of our tools, so the pretty heavy-duty stuff happened behind the scenes,” he says. “All of the spreadsheet reports you developed under Actuate 7 will work with Actuate 8.”

About the Author

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