Category Archives: Business Intelligence

General BI Discussion

Achieving business intelligence right now (BIRN) without the IT Departments assistance

Addressing the pain and tension that is felt between the IT Departments and Business Units of major companies has been something that I have been doing for most of my career over the last 16 years.  Business units especially over the last few years have been clamouring for faster and more flexible access to the data that the IT Departments generate into relational databases, data warehouses and enterprise business intelligence systems.  In the following I describe a case history of one of my more notable successes in the battle to break down the barrier or ‘wall’ between IT and Business that is caused by this tension and leads to the high failure rates seen in Business Intelligence systems within companies  this is a precis of an article I wrote for the database journal last year

How to monitor, report and analyze service quality in near real-time:

A couple of years ago I was between major contracts and was contacted by one of my agencies that I have worked for before.  They had a department within a major retail bank who were having difficulties with a MS Access database which had been created to allow the department to track the results of customer satisfaction within the company.

The database although well written by an internal resource was quite rudimentary in its functionality and was only been used to store manual imports from excel and csv files on a monthly basis into various data tables.  Following the import the user would then have to follow a set of instructions to amend stored queries within the database to create meaningful results which could then be exported back to excel for the team to format into graphs.  Once exported the data was then used to manually create graphs and tables which would be added to a dashboard which was used to present the data to the business.  The problems as described by the head of the department were the fact that the database was slow and required two to three days of intensive work by a non technical resource to input the data and then create the reports and had produced inconsistent data due to the “human error” factor when amending the queries in the second step.

After viewing the database I agreed to hold a meeting with the major stakeholders to discuss their actually requirements and provide guidance on what they may actually require. Following the meeting it was obvious that the department required the following:

  •  The ability to store more than the 2 Gb limit of MS Access to allow trends to be forecast from stored data
  •  Automated upload of delivered files
  •  Automated production of the required reports including Dashboards and KPI’s
  •  Automated delivery of the resultant dashboards to the company

At the meeting I discussed my recommendations and suggested that this project would be an ideal scenario for a Data Warehouse BI Application utilising SQL Server and SSIS/SSRS to deliver dynamic content to the department and interested parties utilising a Sharepoint server.  The head of the department presented my recommendations to the companies IT Department and enquired about the feasibility of starting a project to deliver a BI System based on my recommendations unfortunately this however proved unsuccessful as the company had just being taken over and the IT Department were fully committed to supporting the change to the operational systems required by this.  At this point the head of department discussed with me if I thought there was any way I could assist.  Following discussions with a colleague who I had known from a previous role when I worked within the IT area it was established that I could gain access to an instance of MS SQL server from the business desktop via odbc which led me to believe that I could help.  I took this opportunity to build rapport with the CIO of the company and discuss my proposed solution to enable me to move forward with the project.  Following our meetings and discussions with his team he agreed that I could embark on delivering a BI suite utilising just those applications available on the standard desktop along with access to a SQL Server instance.

The main focus of this project was to move the application from a rudimentary MS Access Database to a fully fledged application utilising whatever applications and tools were available within the business area.  Investigation of the desktop established that MS Office 2003 Professional was installed on the desktop of every user along with Adobe Distiller 6.0.  This along with the availability of an instance of SQL Server 2005 led to the decision to convert the existing MS Access database to a MS Access Project connected to a SQL Server backend which would then utilise VBA and COM to automate all those manual processes including creation and delivery of the Dashboard.  Utilising a clean MS Access Project I connected to an instance of SQL Server 2005 on the companies’ development box and proceeded to convert the import routines from the old database into data loads and error checking routines utilising vba and sql server stored procedures to check the data on load.  Unfortunately due to the restrictions of no table creation imposed on the company SQL server and the unavailability of a SISS server or access to any SQL tools it was necessary to build permanent load tables to load the data into from the ADP.   To enable grouped and summed data to be used with the output of the ADP I adapted a dynamic pivot routine that I have used before within SQL Server 2005 – this provides very similar functionality to the Cross Tab Query within MS Access.

Once the data had been imported and saved correctly it was then down to the matter of delivering the reports – allowing the users to select using a form from the ADP and then using a module within vba to call a stored procedure to create the data required for the reports removed the “human error” side of the equation.  Once selected the reports ran in the background, creating an excel version of each report chosen utilising vba com calls to open excel on the clients machine, call an existing template and populate the data using ado record sets based on stored procedures .  These reports included monthly average data and results against targets, summary data based on yearly and quarterly stored and dynamically created data and the monthly dashboard which gave an overview of the companies’ performance against not only targets but also their competition but utilised automatically produced charts instead of figures.

After the excel reports had been verified by the team they then required the ability to create pdf versions of the documents to be automatically emailed to branches, divisions and regions.  This was achieved using pdf distiller which had been installed on the user’s machines as standard.  The emailing of the reports was achieved by leveraging the COM component of MS Access to talk to an SMTP server to create the mail item and attach the required reports and then despatch.  The SMTP server was utilised to avoid the recent updates to MS Outlook security which would have required a special script to have been written for the users despatching the mail to prevent the annoying pop up of the security warning which would have appeared for each report (at the lowest level this would be over 700).  To achieve a ‘sent’ item in the departments mail box a copy was sent to the department group mail box and a rule run on the incoming folder to transfer mails with a certain subject line into the sent folder of the mailbox.  Along with the produced reports and graphs the users were  also given the ability to generate reports as excel files to allow further investigatory work to be completed.

During the development stage and throughout the testing I updated the CIO of the company on progress through my IT contacts ensuring that at all stages the project manager responsible for the production area was aware of what was being proposed.  I completed a full suite of technical documentation including detailed breakdown of all code modules and sql server routines and stored procedures on completion of the project and at this point the business unit again contacted the CIO and the IT Project Manager responsible for desktop applications not with a request to build out a new project but with one to support an existing system.  Because of the constant contact between myself, the Business Unit Head and the CIO and Project Manager within IT there were no surprises and because the project had been formed within their guidelines approval was forthcoming to support the system.  It is possible with a little creativity and a lot of communication to provide a form of Business Intelligence to the broader community without utilising a Data Warehouse or any of the normal tools associated with either MOLAP or ROLAP storage and with little support of the IT Department.

The keys I believe to the successful completion of this type of project are:

  • Communication with all parties for the full life of the project.
  • Establishing at an early point the actual requirements of the business.
  • Full disclosure to the CIO/IT Department of the businesses requirements and also your development requirements.
  • An ability for the consultant employed to develop across numerous technologies and environments.
  • Full ITIL documentation on completion of the project.
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TDWI San Diego

Wow what a real interesting event – education by the bucket load and then the chance to explain to people about Quest Softwares entry into the BI Space and demonstrate our two tools to assist both IT and the Business to gain insight quickly.   I have had really positive feedback from everyone who came to visit and watch the demonstrations and look forward in the coming months to forging good relationships with our beta testing community.  Toad for Data Analyst 3.0 will be launched towards the end of September and Quest BI Studio will remain as a freeware beta programme until at least December – we want your help to make sure that the product fulfills all your needs.  Quest BI Studio already has along with TDA 3.0 full connectivity to most data sources including cloud and your corporate BI systems and with its easy to use graphical interface and three analytical views which are designed for the business user should allow faster time to analytics within your company.  Pleases feel free to post messages and questions on the community site.

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Hardware and Memory

Cheap Memory and Multi Core.  With the cost of memory at it’s lowest for years and the new developments in multi-core processors hitting the market place the way we think about building and implementing a Business Intelligence solution has changed.  The ability to run data warehouses in memory and the processing power available will allow the way data is handled not just in the business area but also in the corporate semantic layer to change.  The mega vendors will not lose their position within the corporate area because of the massive amounts of funds already invested in the solution but they must embrace the challenge of providing access to the corporate layer at the same speed that other areas of information can be accessed.  You cannot have a user accessing sales or marketing data utilizing a ‘Google’ type search system from the internet or departmental sources with all its inherent speed only to have to wait for IT to deliver matching governed product data which has been sanitized two weeks later – this is of no use and in certain businesses would be pointless.  This seismic shift in the way that information can and will be delivered in the future will ensure that businesses can gain insight in near real time into the reasons for their failure or success in the market – enabling decision change to be made quickly will ensure that companies can be more profitable in these uncertain economic times.

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Where are BI Systems, Applications and Tools heading in the next ten years?

I am very excited with all things BI at the moment, a lot of the mega vendors are tearing around in development trying to catch up with the independent vendors who have realized that the future of Business Intelligence is based upon the idea that the end users who need the insight into their businesses are the people who really need to control what, how and when BI is delivered.  These vendors are having a major impact on the BI Space – they are innovative, progressive and determined to succeed in an area which for the last ten years has seen a 90% failure rate.

The following are my picks for the requirements for future systems – at all levels of the enterprise -which will be needed to succeed in the BI space of the future:

  • In Memory Analytics that the user controls in real time
  • Simplicity of Data Search, Detection and Integration
  • Ability to connect to any and all data sources including the Corporate BI semantic layer
  • Speed, Speed and more Speed
  • Ease of use
  • Collaboration
  • Continuity and governance of corporate BI and business statistical data

More to follow:

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Self Service BI

Until very recently I have spent most of my consulting career designing and constructing tactical Business Intelligence (BI) tools for Business Users sometimes with the co-operation of the IT Department and sometimes in direct competition to them.  Because of this I have been cautious when investigating the new trend of Self Service BI which claims to provide a complete solution to the business user by providing advance visualization, data discovery and integration and visual analytics.

Sat at home one evening recently I was pondering over the problems that face both the IT Department and the Business User when searching for the truth amongst the myriad sources of information prevalent within most organizations.  In the office a request to search for information requires the business user to submit a requirement to the IT department to supply a snap shot of data the user then has to wait until this request is fulfilled before they can take the data supplied, extract the exact figures they want and then marry this data to department data to actually get to the insight that they are looking for.  Compare this with the near instantaneous results of a search request to any one of the major search suppliers on the web whilst on the internet and you can completely understand the user’s frustration.

The new swath of vendors offering to supply the answer to this problem have realized that the business users have become disappointed by the inflexibility over the last ten years of Corporate BI implementations to provide insight into their corporate data.  These new “Self Service” tools being currently offered seem to be the solution to this problem in that they combine interactive visual analytics with data integration and near instant results for even complex BI cases.  This means that the new vendors are ensuring that their sales effort is placed firmly with the Business Community in most cases to the detriment of the IT Community.

The major concern that I have with regards to these tools is governance of data or to put it another way “One Version of the Truth”.  The need for Business Intelligence Right Now (BIRN) to support critical business decisions based on insight into multiple data sources is well understood by the Business  however as they cannot verify the data once it has left the rarified air of the BI Semantic Layer they cannot guarantee it is the one version of the truth.  This is also a major problem with most if not all of the current tools on the market supplied by various vendors is that they also cannot guarantee that they have governed data as most either store the data locally or only use a snapshot.

This problem has been identified by Quest Software who currently has in development a number of tools which will aid collaboration between not just IT and the business but also between business departments utilizing the “One Version of the Truth” as the core of their systems.   Self-Service BI is not a myth, but with too many supposed “self-service” solutions are being designed (knowingly or not) for a the more technical user who sometimes identify themselves as “Data Analysts” and have far too much complexity for the normal Business Analyst (BA).  The BA has no problem with a pivot table in excel and understanding the business relationships of the data but when faced with a requirement to understand SQL or Data Architecture struggles.  Taking this into consideration Quest has designed two separate tools one for the Technical user and one for the business user.  Both are easy to use, intuitive and have the ability to integrate and analyses data from many disparate sources and then provide visualization and basic dashboard reporting their critical difference however is that they supply a secure connection to the company’s BI infrastructure to provide the governed data required to make the insight provided correct.

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The Briefing Room

Partook in a live webcast today hosted by Eric Kavanagh and with questions by Mark Madsen.  This was the first time I had being involved in this type of forum and I found it to be an energising experience.  The meeting was about the Personal Business Intelligence toolset that Quest Software are bringing to the market later this year.  The audience proved to be knowledgeable and questions asked were insightful and provided food for thought for all.  Mark was very complimentary about our goals within the BI space.  Listen to the webcast here http://bit.ly/l0C1Cy in about 48 hours – enjoy.

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