Future Focus of the Web: AJaX All The Way

For a product like WebFocus, support for that most coruscating of new Web app dev paradigms—AJaX—was a foregone conclusion.

For a product with a name like WebFocus, support for that most coruscating of new Web app dev paradigms—asynchronous Java over XML (AJaX)—was something just short of a foregone conclusion.

At its annual user Summit last month, Information Builders Inc. (IBI) made it official, announcing an AJaX-ready addition to its flagship reporting solution, slated to ship as part of WebFocus 7.6 this summer, along with a new process-driven BI capability, via integration with its iWay connectivity subsidiary. WebFocus 8 isn’t scheduled to ship until early next year, officials concede, but, they contend there’s plenty in the upcoming 7.6 release to keep users happy.

IBI introduced WebFocus almost a decade ago, says Michael Corcoran, vice-president of product strategy with Information Builders. Since that time, the complexity of IBI’s flagship offering has evolved in lockstep with the maturation of Web development paradigms: the initial CGI-powered WebFocus was replaced with a Java-based version, which in turn was supplanted by a Java servlet-powered approach. AJaX—which is premised upon concepts or technologies developers have been using for more than half a decade now, but which nevertheless came to the fore (as AJaX) only in the last 16 months —promises to up the ante in terms of interactivity and responsiveness, Corcoran contends. (For more on AJaX, check out the handy AJaX primer [link:] at our sister publication, Application Development Trends.)

“WebFocus PowerPainter is a new tool that’s geared at the power users. What it gives them is a true thin client report and analytics generation capability, through today’s latest Web technologies, but it gives them the most Windows-like look and feel that the Web has ever had,” he says. “We’ve delivered a strong level of interactivity through the thin client browser, but, because the Web has made some strides with technologies such as AJaX, we were able to deliver a much more robust and interactive user experience, [with features such as] true drag-and-drop development through a browser.”

WebFocus 7.6’s projected July delivery date should make IBI one of the tier-one BI players to incorporate AJaX capabilities into its Web reporting solution, Corcoran says. From a user perspective, he concedes, the AJAX-ification of BI probably hasn’t happened fast enough.

“This is a production-class use of AJaX technology, certainly the first in the BI space to deliver it, and it was really well received by the users at [IBI’s user] Summit,” he indicates. “It’s something users can immediately see the value of, because it delivers an experience over and beyond what they’re used to.” In WebFocus 8 and beyond, Corcoran says, IBI plans to deliver additional interactive niceties, such as Flash capabilities. “Not only will [Web reporting] look better through AJaX, but when you start to introduce some of the Flash multimedia capabilities, there’s going to be a charting [and] multimedia capability through some of these dashboards that’s going to be a vast improvement.”

Also at its Summit conference, IBI made much of its new process-driven BI announcement, which dovetails to some extent with a (still gestating) trend that International Data Corp. (IDC) calls Intelligent Process Automation (IPA).

A lot of BI vendors talk a good game with regard to service-enablement and Web services, Corcoran argues, but many of them are in fact putting the cart before the proverbial horse: they’re delivering SOA-ready solutions and talking up the inevitability of pervasive service-enablement, but they haven’t yet sketched out a coherent vision for SOA-ization. Call it the SOA-dom of Dreams: if you build it, customers will find a use for it. IBI’s vision of process-driven BI, Corcoran says, is a more coherent articulation of the benefits of pervasive service-enablement.

“A lot of people have talked about real-time BI, operational BI, business activity monitoring. These are ways to leverage BI against more real-time information. But I think what’s really been lacking is the ability to truly embed BI within the business process,” he argues. “What we’ve introduced at our user conference was the ability for customers to map out a business process using the iWay tool set [iWay Service Designer], and what that workbench allows you to do is now incorporate the components of WebFocus into any business process, so now I can drag and drop reports and analytical functions and embed that anywhere within a business process for intelligent distribution itself.”

The enabling magic—and most salient point of competitive differentiation—is delivered via iWay, which can reach into some 300 different data sources, says Corcoran: “iWay lets you orchestrate and illustrate the [business process] workflow. From [the iWay Service Designer] palate you bring in the iWay adapters—there’s 85 database interfaces, another 150 application interfaces, document exchanges, and different message types where we can basically interface with everything directly.”

He cites a textbook use case. “Think about most order processing processes. There’s a lot of intelligence built into ERP systems—they’ll do some very intelligent routing of processes for order taking, for example—but when a system recommends a supplier for this [item], does it take into consideration things like this supplier happened to deliver late supplies three out of the last six weeks? [These are] things … only a BI tool could be expected to discern. We want to take that capability itself and build it into the system.”

Joint consumers of BI and ERP software are ill-served by most extant SOA toolsets, Corcoran claims. “The SOA toolsets we’ve seen today have obviously come from integration vendors, and they tend to think of operational systems only, so most of the service approaches have been building these modules around SAP or PeopleSoft and integrating them,” he comments. “I think this is a real opportunity to do new things. Now business intelligence becomes a service to our SOA. It’s just one component. It can be embedded and integrated with the other tools. [That’s why] we’ve been componentizing the WebFocus product line and making all of the modules easily available as services.”

Finally, IBI announced a new Active Reports feature. Designed primarily for customers who aren’t comfortable exposing internal systems to external (or Web-facing) applications, Active Reports promises to split the difference, so to speak. It achieves a kind of embedded interactivity that lets users drill-down into static reports. “[C]ustomers are asking for more interactivity, but we don’t necessarily want to push out live data, [so Active Reports] allows you to distribute reports that you create, but you can deliver a much bigger payload of data [that users can drill down into],” he concludes. “I can give you the full year of [bank] statements in that one consolidated report. You don’t have to be connected to a WebFocus server to use the product, but you can still sort that information, you can aggregate it, you can filter it dynamically.”

About the Author

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

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