The Power of Focus: Building Information

Information Builders touted new WebFOCUS enhancements at its annual user confab – and hinted of next-gen goodies in WebFOCUS 8.

Who says user conferences are all pomp and no circumstance? At its user conference in Las Vegas, Information Builders Inc. (IBI) just unveiled a revamped version of its WebFOCUS reporting suite, showcased a new process-driven alerting capability (which taps its WebFOCUS and iWay integration technologies), and touted an improved WebFOCUS Excel integration facility, to boot. Not bad for a week in Sin City—and at Tony Soprano’s favorite Vegas stomping ground (Caesar’s Palace), no less.

The biggest news item out of last week’s IBI Summit was the availability of WebFocus 7.6.1, which features process-driven alerting capabilities, improved Excel integration, and what officials claim are "portable" dashboard and collaboration capabilities (via a revamped version of IBI’s Active Reports).

Process-driven alerting is the Next Big Thing, says Michael Corcoran, vice-president of product strategy with IBI. Increasingly, Corcoran says, IBI’s customers are clamoring for a real-time, or event-driven, approach to BI reporting and alerting. Enter WebFOCUS’ new process-driven alerting features.

"They’re looking for a better way to push information, push reports out to people. Most of that is done right now with scheduling technology, but with the scheduling technology, what most vendors will do is say, ‘Okay, I’ll run this same report overnight, or everyday. We’ll schedule these queries to go run and go poll the data and if this condition is true we’ll push out reports,’" he comments.

Corcoran dismisses this as an "inefficient"—perhaps even obsolete—approach to effective decision-making. In its stead, IBI touts a real-time alerting model in which alerts are generated by process activities themselves. Information Builders isn’t alone in this respect, of course, but Corcoran says its iWay Software integration subsidiary helps give it a leg up over its competitors.

"We have a different opportunity and advantage here in that beyond the WebFOCUS [platform], we have our iWay real-time integration technology. Our iWay service manager really can manage complete business process workflows, complete business processes," he indicates. "Basically we have event listeners built into every transaction-oriented system, every ERP application. Everywhere you have a transaction or a message flowing through your system, we can listen for it, we can pick it up and evaluate it."

WebFOCUS’ new process-driven alerting capabilities make it easier for organizations to roll out right-time reporting and alerting to business decision-makers, Corcoran says. "We’ve been getting a barrage of requests for information education, and now that the applications are starting to emerge for taking this business intelligence technology and bringing it down to a real-time process-driven level, we’re just seeing enormous interest in this," Corcoran says.

Ditto for WebFOCUS’ improved Excel facility, which Corcoran says should make Excel power users—not to mention compliance-conscious corporate controllers—very happy. "We’re going to give the Excel user a little more simplicity and a lot more functionality," he says, conceding that Excel support in previous versions of WebFOCUS left something to be desired: "In order to give information to Excel, an Excel user in the past would have to go over to WebFOCUS and run a report or something, so they’d probably have to minimize their browser and run a report and then go back to Excel and do whatever they want with it."

Corcoran says WebFOCUS 7.6.1 corrects this situation: "We have a new facility that we’re embedding directly in Excel, and what a user can do inside Excel is they can bring up WebFOCUS right inside Excel," he indicates. One upshot of this is that users can invoke the WebFOCUS Report Assistant from within Excel. "We install right up there in the [Excel] toolbar as a plug-in, you really only have to install once and dynamically users will get it. Everything that we do [with the Excel plug-in] is under the covers—we’re seamlessly creating syntax, and that syntax tells you everything about the data lineage, gives you an audit trail—we’ll store the procedure in terms of how we translate the request," he comments. "Our goal is to help organizations not eliminate Excel, but certainly to help reduce the amount of time that they spend manipulating data in it."

IBI’s Active Reports feature—which consolidates report data and any associated charts or graphs into a single file—also gets an update in the newest version of WebFOCUS. "I can create a report in an HTML doc as output, but embedded into that report, I’ve embedded a BI engine into the actual output, so the idea is, yes, you can take it with you," Corcoran explains. "You can give information to people who are not even WebFOCUS users, so they have the ability to sort, summarize, aggregate, chart… all of those unique capabilities are built into the actual output."

The newest version of Active Reports lets users pack "a lot more functionality" into the Active Reports that they create, according to Corcoran, who says IBI is now working on an Active Dashboards equivalent, too. "We’re actually going to use that same concept to come out with something called Active Dashboards. This is geared especially toward mobile users, now that you’ve got such a great opportunity to really leverage mobile devices and mobile connectivity. But how do you get a lot of good information across that screen? When you look at Web browsers now with the tabbing capabilities they have, [these] give you the ability to scroll or tab information and deliver rich information on a small screen."

IBI faithful were also given more information about the forthcoming WebFOCUS 8 product, which IBI hopes to release by the end of the year. "We’re really doing a lot of really cool R&D with things like the [Adobe] Flash and Flex technologies, from a visualization and animation standpoint. It’s a tech that lends itself very, very well toward making applications and portable applications just so intuitive and easy to utilize," he concludes. "It really enriches the visual experience, too. We’re working on a visual dashboard that gives you a lot of interactivity across different metrics and chart elements across a given screen, so I think those techs will help escalate those capabilities to a whole other level."

About the Author

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