As the amount of data that businesses collect increases, it becomes more difficult to turn that data into decision-making information. And this is no truer that in the mid-market space, which most business intelligence vendors have ignored over the years, preferring to focus their energies (and products) on larger enterprise deployments.
But that is slowly changing as BI vendors recognise the value of the mid-market. Business Objects is one of the vendors trying to capitalise on that market segment with the release of Crystal Vision Server, a new product combining reporting with data visualisation.
Most IT professionals would have heard of Crystal Reports, but Business Objects has recently expanded the Crystal Product line, incorporating technology the company acquired from Infomersion. The original Infomersion product has been rebranded Crystal Xcelsius and integrated into the product family.
The new Crystal Vision product line combines technology from Crystal Reports, Crystal Xcelsius and Business Object's Live Office product to provide reports, dashboards and interactive analytics across a variety of data sources. This 360 degree, consolidated approach ensures that even smaller organisations can access the information they need to make better decisions. They also get facts "at-a-glance" with interactive dashboards that allow them to do what-if analysis and present information in an easy-to-ready visual format.
When you look at Crystal Vision Server, you need to understand what exactly it is you're getting. To start, there is the reporting technology from Crystal Reports, which can be used to provide presentation-quality reports from virtually any data source, including SQL Server, Oracle, DB2, etc.; or any database that has an ODBC or native driver available.
And the reports created with the product can take just about any shape or form, leveraging all of the power that Crystal Reports has to offer. And this is nothing new -- Crystal Reports has long been regarded as the market leader in the reporting space.
[Click to enlarge] Crystal Reports can be used to create presentation-quality reports.
What really makes Crystal Vision Server exciting is the "sex appeal" added through the interactive dashboards and analytics. This appeal comes from the technology leveraged from Crystal Xcelsius 4.5, an updated version of the product released in conjunction with Crystal Vision Server.
Using Crystal Xcelsius, you can build an interactive dashboard from an Excel spreadsheet, to be delivered using Adobe Flash. This dashboard can then be exported to the Web, or embedded in a PowerPoint or PDF, and still retain its interactivity ... which is what makes it an amazing tool -- imagine sending a profit and loss dashboard to someone outside your organisation in a PowerPoint presentation and having a slider control on it to allow them to change values interactively based on an increase or decrease in sales.
You have probably been to websites that provide home loan, interest or payment calculators. This is the same concept, only it is your own live data that it is connected to. In addition to having a number of visually appealing controls, (charts, maps, tables, and sliders) the interactivity is the real selling point.
[Click to enlarge] Crystal Xcelsius provides the ability to visualise data using interactive, Flash-based dashboards.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Using Crystal Vision Server, you also have a secure web framework that you can use to publish and share your reports and dashboards with other users. And the "Live Office" technology included can be used to ensure that your dashboards always have the most current data. In addition, the security from Crystal Vision Server flows through all of the deliverables, so you can create one report or dashboard that contains data for different users.
For example, if you only want the sales team to see New South Wales data, you can secure the data source so when they look at a dashboard or report, they only see that one state. The Web framework and portal leverages technology from the Business Objects -high end" offering, BusinessObjects Enterprise, which can scale to thousands of users. Crystal Vision Server on the other hand, has been designed for smaller implementations of up to 20 users and has been priced accordingly.
There is also a desktop version of the product, called Crystal Vision which includes the same design tools and capabilities, without the web-based framework or portal for distribution. The desktop version is mainly designed for users who want to start creating reports and dashboards but may not have the number of users or infrastructure to support a full implementation of Crystal Reports Server.
To create a report and dashboard from your data, there is a three-step process, involving Crystal Reports, Microsoft Excel and finally Crystal Xcelsius. And the reason for this is that Xcelsius was originally designed as a tool to quickly create dashboards from Excel spreadsheets or with data from Web services.
Adding the technology from Crystal Reports and Live Office means that dashboards can be refreshed from the back-end data source as often as required. Not to mention when a user wants more details on a particular dashboard component, they can drill into the corresponding Crystal Report.
To get started, you will first need to create a report using the Crystal Reports designer. Crystal Reports can report from most data sources, including direct and OBDC access to various data sources. To create a new report, you can use the Standard Report Wizard to walk through the steps of selecting a database or choosing fields.
[Click to enlarge] Crystal Reports features a number of wizards you can use to jump-start your report development.
Once you have a report created, you can save it to the server by selecting Save|As. The default end-user interface for Crystal Vision Server is InfoView, a web application that closely resembles an e-mail client, with folders to help organise report content. From InfoView, users can view a report, schedule it to run, distribute via e-mail.
With the report created, you can then pop in Microsoft Excel and create a spreadsheet using Live Office. When this component is installed, it adds an additional menu to Excel called "BusinessObjects". From this menu, you can create a new "Report View" that will allow you to select the report you just created and select which fields you want to see in your Excel spreadsheet. Once you have created the spreadsheet content, you can use the BusinessObjects menu again to save the Excel spreadsheet to the server.
And finally, you can open Crystal Xcelsius and get started creating your dashboard. The first step is to select the Excel spreadsheet that contains the data for your dashboard by selecting Data > Import Model. You can then open your spreadsheet from the server and start creating your dashboard.
The easiest way to create a dashboard in Xcelsius is to drag and drop the visual components on to your page first. Then, you will need to set the properties for each component, specifying the Excel range where the data resides. This works in the same manner as picking a range within Excel.
[Click to enlarge] Tight integration with Excel means you can create spreadsheets from live data and refresh the data as required.
You can click on the "ellipse" button (...) and a copy of the spreadsheet will open within Xcelsius. You can then use your mouse to highlight the data you want to select. Alternately, you could always type in the cell reference (A1:B25 for example).
You can add interactivity to your dashboard by using the Excel lookup functions in your spreadsheet. For example, you could nominate one cell to hold an interest rate. Then create an Xcelsius control, say a slider control, to change this interest rate. As the rate changes, each of the charts on the page could change in response to the rate you have selected. There are a number of good sample dashboards and templates and a little bit of Excel skill will go a long way here.
As the final step, you may want to drag on a Live Office refresh button to allow the users to refresh the dashboard when new data becomes available. And once you have finished designing your dashboard, you can then use Save|As to save a copy of the dashboard to the server, where it is now available in InfoView. Other users can log on to InfoView and view the original report, Excel spreadsheet and dashboard you have created.
[Click to enlarge] Crystal Xcelsius dashboards can be created by dragging and dropping components on to the page, then associating an Excel range as the data source.
During our review, there was only one major area that we found the product could improve. The major reason for this is that the product is a combination of proven technologies that have been on the market for a number of years. The one issue we did come across is in the way the product itself is installed -- multiple components have to be installed to get the web framework and design tools installed.
It would have been much easier if the product had a single setup where you could select the tools and options you wanted to install. With that said, the installation was quick and painless with each of the components providing a straight-forward installation that took around 30 minutes in total.
On the training side of things, there will need to be some provided for developers who want to create their own Crystal Reports. On the dashboard side of things, end-users who are familiar with Excel should be able to create their own dashboards and analytics without formal training. There are a number of templates that end-users can use to get started and a good knowledge of Excel formulas and lookup functions will go a long way.
Business Objects provided a full copy of Crystal Vision Server which we installed and configured on our own Windows Server 2003 test server (Intel Pentium 1.6GHz with 2 GB of RAM.) We then created a number of reports off of the sample databases that ship with the product and used the same data set to create interactive dashboards.
For our review, we looked first at how information from a database or other data source can be represented, as well as the design tools and skills required to deliver reports or dashboards. We also looked at how easy it was to use the design tools and what training would be required to bring an end-user or IT professional up to speed.
And finally, we looked at how easy it is to install, configure and administer the software, including but not limited to setting up the server components, publishing reports and dashboards to the Web-based portal that it is included, organising portal content, adding users and security.
In a recent survey of IT managers, Business Intelligence rated as either their first or second priority, only following behind security as a priority. And in the mid-market space, Crystal Vision Server does much to deliver the framework to deliver BI throughout the organisation in a secure, consistent manner.
End-users and IT professionals should both be impressed with the ability to create pixel-perfect, presentation quality reports along with rich data visualisations and interactive dashboards. In the mid-market long ignored by BI vendors, Crystal Vision Server definitely hits the sweet spot.
Crystal Vision Server
Around AU$17,000 for five users including support and maintenance, upgrades available from Crystal Reports Server or Crystal Xcelsius Workgroup. Note: A desktop version of the product, Crystal Vision, is available for AU$1,130 for the full product or AU$710 for the upgrade from Crystal Reports or Crystal Xcelsius