MicroStrategy’s Dashboard Splash
Call it a fashionably late, but nevertheless feature-complete arrival.
Even when MicroStrategy Corp. is comparatively late to a party, it still makes a splashy entry. That was the case last week when MicroStrategy unveiled Dynamic Enterprise Dashboards, a next-gen dashboard offering that combines data visualization, animation, and interactivity enhancements in one glossy package. Call it a fashionably late, but nevertheless feature-complete arrival.
Dashboards and dashboarding are hardly new, but the performance dashboard—a visually stunning, highly interactive, and highly integrated spin on the dashboard of old—is a fairly recent innovation. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?ID=8152)
Some of the majors have already articulated—and in a few cases, executed on—performance dashboard strategies.
Consider MicroStrategy arch-competitor Business Objects SA, which acquired data visualization expert Xcelsius in October of 2005. Nowadays, Business Objects markets a credible dashboard one-two punch in its Xcelsius and Dashboard Manager offerings. Ditto for Cognos Inc., which—with this month’s acquisition of dashboard specialist Celequest Corp.—augmented its own dashboard capabilities with Celequest’s best-of-breed technology.
As these vendors continue to hone (Business Objects) or otherwise integrate (Cognos) their performance dashboard offerings, MicroStrategy shops what it calls a feature-complete performance dashboard solution that’s plugged into MicroStrategy 8.1’s service-oriented architecture. And officials note that this solution was developed entirely in-house—with the obvious exception of its Adobe Flash-based animation capabilities.
"Even the Flash components, [like] the Flash rendering engine, we built that ourselves, with some assistance from Adobe," says Mark LaRow, vice-president of products with MicroStrategy. "What we’ve done with this 8.1 release is we’ve combined what were previously four different dashboard approaches and put them into one dashboard technology."
MicroStrategy Dynamic Enterprise Dashboards support what LaRow calls "traditional" or "BI platform" dashboards, which consist of: mostly static content, with little or no visual interactivity; "dynamic" content, in the form of radio buttons, drop-down boxes, and other interactive features; flash animation, which is both a modeling tool as well as a visually appealing display feature; and an all-in-one development environment that lets users construct either AJaX- or Flash-based dynamic dashboards.
"The very newest dashboarding products on the market are based on Flash, because it’s that much more engaging to the user," LaRow indicates. "And Adobe believes that we’re the only vendor that has successfully been able to render dashboards in both AJaX and Flash equally, so—in most cases—what you can render with [AJaX] you can also render with Flash."
MicroStrategy plans to ship a library of what LaRow calls "advanced visualizations" with its new 8.1 release. These consist of "interactive graphs, bubble charts that let you animate [data] over time, so you can watch [it] evolve over time," along with "graphing charts where you can click on something and it dynamically shows you more data."
Far more than first-generation dashboards, dynamic or interactive dashboards are a potentially disruptive phenomenon, says LaRow: in MicroStrategy’s case, he estimates that users can eliminate as many as a dozen individual reports by consolidating them into a single dashboard view.
"This one dashboard can replace what were previously 12-15 different reports. If you make the dashboards truly dynamic this way, then you can reduce people from having to look at 12 different reports to looking at one dashboard and never changing their focus of attention," he argues. "Instead of static blandness, we’re giving [users] a good looking dashboard, with more finely refined output. This is important, because where the BI vendors have classically fallen short is in making the dashboards have onscreen dynamic features that let users flip through many different views of the data, without leaving the dashboard."
To a real degree, MicroStrategy delivers on this promise, says Cindi Howson, president of BI consultancy ASK and a principal with BIScorecard.com.
"I think they have thought very carefully about how to deliver dashboard capability, providing the most useful visualizations and leveraging newer technology in an innovative way—the use of Flash and the ability for customers to create their own visualizations are unique selling points," she comments.
Howson says she doesn’t quite see MicroStrategy’s Dynamic Enterprise Dashboards as a slam dunk, however. "[T]hey, like Cognos 8 dashboards, are constrained to a single project [or] business metadata layer," she points out. "[So] I think the capabilities will be a ‘must-have’ for existing customers, but in terms of competitive advantage versus other BI vendors or pure-play dashboard vendors, they need to provide multiple data sources within the dashboard."
LaRow, for his part, says MicroStrategy plans to address this shortcoming in future product revisions. In the interim, he says, it’s chiefly an issue for customers that don’t already have data warehouses.
"Most people model their entire data warehouse as a project, so for most of our customers, this isn’t a limiting factor," he says. "There’s more data elements in the data warehouse than can possibly be combined in different elements of a dashboard. For customers of ours who don’t have a data warehouse and are sourcing data from different data marts, what those customers have to do is employ an EII tech to make those different marts look like one."
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.