Tag Archives: Business Intelligence

App Store Pivot Viewer – ZoomAppy

Good ideas are hard to stop from happening. After dorking around with Pivot Viewer, I was thinking of things I could “pivot”, and the iTunes App Store was one of them. No real API though, there are some out there that have created APIs, or you could scrape the web, etc but nothing solid.

Looks like someone took that idea and ran with it, called ZoomAppy (http://zoomappy.com/). RIght now it looks like it is just the app store, but they have more in store.

I agree that Pivot Viewer is “Business Intelligence”, but it is a different way of thinking. Where in traditional BI, you think of looking at metric/measures like sales/inventory, etc. With PivotViewer, you are looking at “objects” and filtering them based on properties. Teams, Bikes, Apps, Cars, People. Also PivotViewer doesn’t give you any type of aggregations besides counts, so it is limited in that regard.

What else would be a good candidate for Pivot Viewer?


Blaming the Waitress

Most people have probably done this at least once in their lives.. You go to a restaurant and order a meal. The waitress is nice, comes over, gets your drinks, takes your order, checks up on you, refills, what not, brings out the meal, and woah, something is wrong, it is cold, bad, just something. But what do you end up doing? Getting mad and blaming the waitress. You might not give her any tip at the end of the meal, because you are mad about the mishap with the food.

But then you start to think about it, and you look back and realize that hey, it wasn’t the waitress who caused the issue, it was probably the cooks! But you are already driving home and don’t really do anything about it.

People like to cast blame, even that might not be the right phrase, but people like to *call out* the group on the front lines (note: in most cases. For instance in the military campaigns, when one side loses, people blame the generals and commanders, etc, not the privates on the front lines, and rightfully so).

In Business Intelligence, you are usually the “front line” to the business when it comes to reporting information and data. One of the roles of BI is to “deliver information to the business”. But then what happens when something is wrong with that information? People immediately blame the Business Intelligence group. It just seems to be human nature, just like blaming the waitress.

Now, don’t get me wrong, sometimes the problem might reside with the waitress, and then you would call her out on things, but you need to realize, your tip just doesn’t go to her. It gets split between her, the cook, the bus boys, the greeters, etc.

I hate playing any part of the “blame game”, but sometimes people should think through what they are actually “blaming” and make sure it just isn’t calling out the front lines because that is what is easiest.

I’m not sure that Business Intelligence will ever fully get around taking most of the up front hits when something goes wrong with data, or with a reporting server, or with anything that might be outside of its control, but what Business Intelligence groups should strive for is to be accountable for things within its control, such as finding problems before the business does, handling data integrity issues with ease, making ETL’s more fault tolerant, getting and handling server alerts for jobs and processes that it is in charge of, etc, etc.

Just try to remember the next time your food is cold at the restaurant, try not to blame the waitress :)


Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer: Getting Started and Business Case

I have been reading about Microsoft’s PivotViewer lately, and decided to try to get it going for myself. What is PivotViewer? Think of it as visual data slicing through a web page.

What you do is take some data, and then tie records to images, and then publish out your “collection” and you can consume it via a webpage using the Silverlight PivotViewer control. One awesome example of this is here http://netflixpivot.cloudapp.net/. But what I have been really trying to wrap my head around is how to use the as a “business” tool. Because, it is easily technically doable, but you have to have a *reason* to do it.

Working with widgets and customers and locations – what do you do? There are two things I could think of quickly. One – peruse your “master data” very fast and visually. The other is looking at some kind of metrics for your widgets, or logos of your customers you might sell too, or ? ..Well, you could..

  • Master Data/Catalog
  • Show pictures of your widgets, and create filters (they call them facets) for things like size, color, weight, model, etc. You have “one” of each and you just want to see what you offer. Almost could be a pretty sweet online catalog browser

  • Sales/Metrics
  • Do the same as a master data catalog but allow filtering by some kind of metric. Shipped items over a given time or something.

  • Something Else I Haven’t Thought Of?

Anyways, the first thing you should do before anything is get some kind of data feed. Run a query, get some data from somewhere. Start small to test. 500-1000 records.

Then the fun begins. Starting from absolute scratch..

Ok, yeah, tons of setup. Biggest thing is in IIS you need to set some MIME types: .cxml, .dzi and .dzc need to be “text/xml”

Once you have all that setup, you can do 2 things.. create your collection, and create your app. Create a blank silverlight project first:

Once you have that, there isn’t a ton you have to do to get things going with PivotViewer.

  1. MainPage.xaml
  2. Add in your MainPage.xaml, a namespace line for Pivot, and add the control

    Your end MainPage.xaml should look like this:

    
    
        
            
        
    
    
    
    
  3. Reference Assemblies
  4. For good measure, just reference them all, located here: C:Program FilesMicrosoft SDKsSilverlightv4.0PivotViewerJun10Bin

  5. Load Collection:
  6. pvWidgets.LoadCollection("http://localhost/SilverlightApplication1.Web/MyWidgets.cxml", null);
    

Note, you have to make your web part of your project IIS based instead of the build in web browser. Why? Because the .cxml HAS to be hosted on a web server, it just works that way.

Now, you need to create your collection.. you can use a cmd line tool they offer on the PivotViewer site, they also have a c# library for automating things, but it is best to first just do it manually. So I used the tool they have as an add on for excel. It adds a nice little “Pivot Collections” tab

You can use this to put some data in, you probably want to add more columns than what they give you by default. For my test I just used the same image for all records to get started. I have a feeling that the biggest barrier to entry to corporate BI teams and developers is going to be the imagery. You usually don’t have someone on your BI Team that knows how to use photoshop well and do all the high res imagery, so you are handcuffed there.

For testing sake, I Published my collection to the root of my website, with the name “MyWidgets”.

I loaded up my webpage, and I can slice and dice by all my columns I had in my collection, visually.. pretty dang awesome. (Note, I just made some fake data based on attributes I am used to seeing and with an image of a bike to see what it would look like – the goal was figuring out how would this work in conjunction with current BI offerings (cubes/Pivot Tables, SSRS, PowerPivot, etc))

Now, if you think where you could take this. Each “image” is clickable and brings up the image right in front of you. You could have all the specs of that widget there, and a link to “buy”, or deeper analytics for that widget.

Some other things I found out.. using the Excel tool for Pivot Collections is dog slow. Especially with a ton of records. It has to process the images for the “deep zoom” technology and it just takes a while. Like, hours.

There are tons of possibilities here with PivotViewer, both for an external website and also internal corporate business intelligence. It will give people another way to delve into the data and turn it into information.

Where does PowerPivot Fit?

Now that SQL Server 2008 R2 is out, and Excel 2010 is out. You can get PowerPivot (http://powerpivot.com/) and create your own in memory cubes!

…. Or something like that.

I still haven’t figure out where PowerPivot fits in a business scenario. Why?

Well first you have what are now being called the “old school” BI users, that use Excel to connect to an SSAS cube and create fancy pivots and reports, maybe convert to formulas and create some nice reports/dashboards.. analytics.

Then you have people who only consume canned/standardized reports, through SSRS mostly, or maybe Excel Web Services… but they don’t create. Just consume.

You might even have power users, who take Report Builder and create those SSRS reports for other users. Awesome.

But then, you have this tool, PowerPivot. What can you do? Hit databases (mostly… cubes and other sources as well), bring back data, relate it, and create pivot reports/graphs off of it.

But you better be pretty dang advanced as a business user to use PowerPivot. I could count on one hand the users (that I have dealt with over the last 10 years) I would feel comfortable giving it to and not ending up with more of a headache.

What do I think is still missing from the Microsoft BI toolset? Looking at Business Objects, the Web Intelligence. Universes. You create a Universe off of a datasource and expose it out to the user, they can create reports/ad-hoc whatever off of it.

Kind of like the ever elusive “Report Model” in the Microsoft stack that no one ever uses, ever will use, or has no reason to use. But in BO, they make it useful.

I don’t see PowerPivot taking the place of a Report Model/Universe, so where does it fit? IT Analysts making “pre” cubes before you actually make cubes for your users that just want to hit it with Excel and not care about anything else?

Or people who just want to create their own cubes in silos. Tell me how that lends itself to “one version of the truth”?

Either way, we will see how it evolves and hopefully find some good use for it. :)

Agile in Business Intelligence? Of Course!

About 3.5 years ago I was introduced to Agile at the Agile 2006 Conference. After that, and implementing it in a software dev environment, I found that it just works. Sprints, Scrums, Stories, Backlog, Velocity, all the pieces fit and work.

Now that I am managing a Business Intelligence group, which when I started wasn’t doing *anything* as far as a method, I had to ask myself if doing Agile would work (I knew it could, but it is different than software dev in many ways, similar in others).

Back in October, my group went Agile. We set up a board, got some index cards, and just started Agile. A big paradigm shift at work for IT, but we needed to do something.

With Business Intelligence, we really don’t have *code* to work on, but more “objects” (Cubes, Dimensions, Reports, etc). As a team we needed to figure out – what is a story? What is a feature/enhancement/task. What is an epic? How are we going to score things, etc.

The first few sprints (2 week sprints – Wednesday’s to Tuesdays) our velocity was lower and/or we just scored things a little weird. But since then we have learned our “zone” of scoring stories and we got into a groove of releasing our BIG cube every 2 weeks, and releasing the smaller changes when completed.

We do the daily *scrum* for 15 minutes, and track burndown on stories, which lets us make some cool burndown charts that we tack up on our board, and we have some other cool bullet charts to track velocity by sprint, to our original, and final goal, and more.

What has Agile brought our group? Confidence, Stability, Ability to Meet Expectations. Agility. Results. and more..

Do we run into issues yet? Of course. Can we adjust and handle them. You bet! Are we continuously learning and changing our process to make it better? Yep. Always room for improvements.

What else does Agile bring us? Visibility to our customers, and to our peers in IT. Eventually the “BI” stuff should just run, over and over, iteratively.

Trek BI Agile Story Board

Agile isn’t a silver bullet though. It isn’t easy. You still need to work to keep things organized and on track. You have to fight that organizational gravity that sucks teams back in and people in as well, and throws that scope creep back onto stories and projects. You also have to fight to get rid of your technical debt, which depending on how long things have been running before you started even thinking about Agile, might take you a while.

This post is more of a high level “Yes We Can” type post about Agile in BI. I haven’t decided yet, but my guess is I might have some more detailed posts on how I like to run an Agile project, and what we are doing as a team to handle situations that come up, and just how we do things.

In the end though, just remember, have fun!


Office 2010: Excel 2010, What-If Analysis aka Microsoft Finally has Built in Cube/OLAP Writeback!

Digging into the blog post from earlier this summer I wanted to see what was new and exciting in Excel 2010.

Recently I have been working on an cube and we want to be able to budget right from the cube. There are also many other cubes/scenarios where the ability to writeback to the cube would be awesome. Some BI tools have had this for many years! Microsoft had something similar with a Excel 2002/2003 add-in, but it has been removed. Also, there are many 3rd party tools to allow this. You could also write your own macros or VBA/.NET code to do this as well, but what was always missing was the ability to do writeback directly from an Excel (OLAP) PivotTable. With Excel 2010, this functionally finally shows up.

First, you need a cube, and you need to enable writeback on a partition. This will automatically create a table in your database where you have your data warehouse. Lets say you have a table FactBudgets, and you enable writeback, SSAS will create a table WriteTable_Budgets. This is a trivial example I went through to test this functionality, but I just wanted to exhibit the feature of the writeback.

01_writeback

Turn on writeback, deploy and process your SSAS cube, and then open Excel 2010. Connect to your cube, and then in the PivotTable ribbon menu, on options, there is a button to turn on “What-If Analysis”. Turn it on. :)
02_whatif

Once you turn on the setting, you can then begin writing back values to your cube, right from Excel. If you click on a cell in your writeback value, you can just change it. See on the screen shot below, the value I changed, the little purple triangle, tells me it has a changed value from what is in the data source.

03_valuechanged
04_valuechangedmenu

You can see its telling me the value changed, I can Discard the change and other options. After you have your values set, you want to publish them, which you do back on the PivotTable ribbon menu:

05_publishchanges

As you can see, Microsoft has finally created a viable solution for writing back values into your OLAP cubes without the need for 3rd party software or coding. Finally!

One thing to note, if you try to write back to a value that is in a partition that doesn’t have writeback enabled, you will get an error.

06_error

Now, think of the possibilities with SSAS OLAP writeback and Excel, now that we can actually use it out of the box!

Microsoft BI: Creating Local OLAP Cubes using XMLA and ascmd.exe

Most people, when using OLAP cubes, are hitting the live version that is located on SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS). They hit it with Excel, or some other reporting tool, etc. I have blogged previously about offline cubes and how you could possibly use them.

Now, the blog I did before, I talked about creating them with Excel, and that works great for end users. But what about automating the process? What about filtering dimension members, or measure groups, etc?  Now that you can use the Panorama Gadget for Google Apps/iGoogle (http://google-pivot-tables.blogspot.com/2008/04/panorama-analytics-gadget-for-google.html) you can upload .cub files and do BI in the cloud, how cool is that!

506479481_683e31e6db

Well, one option is purchase CubeSlice – http://www.localcubetask.com/  and use that to create your .cub files. CubeSlice works great, and is a good option if you want something with a ton of options and ease of use.

You can also create .cub’s using CREATE GLOBAL CUBE syntax in MDX, and you can also use XMLA to create a .cub. Options galore! Chris Webb blogged a few years about about using XMLA to create .cub’s here – http://cwebbbi.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!7B84B0F2C239489A!877.entry  He was using the MDX Sample App (I believe that comes with SQL 2000?)

What I was looking for was an easy way to us GLOBAL CUBE or XMLA and automate it, CubeSlice is nice, but there has to be a way to replicate (at least in a basic way) what they are doing. Thinking about XMLA – as to me it seems more powerful, that was the route I chose. I didn’t want to install the MX Sample App from SQL2K, and what Chris Webb says in his blog, and other things I read, basically the problem with using XMLA to create you .cub in SQL Server Management Studio is that you can’t specify a connection string, you have to connect to an SSAS instance. Using the MDX Sample App, you can specify a local file, and then run the XMLA and it will create the .cub file. So I just need to replicate that. 

I have also blogged about using ascmd.exe here . ascmd comes with the SSAS Samples with SQL 2005 (usually located here: C:Program FilesMicrosoft SQL Server90SamplesAnalysis ServicesAdministratorascmd) . You just need to compile it and you can use it to execute XMLA. So I decided to try that. I created an XMLA file to create my cube, and then executed it with ascmd.exe

ascmd -S c:MyOfflineCube.cub -i c:MyOfflineCube.xmla

In seconds, you have an offline cube. Now, in your XMLA you can have filters, etc. You could create an XMLA file that has some kind of variable, and you could create a replace task to replace that with what you wanted filtered, think maybe based on location, or employee, etc, and then kick out personal cubes for users, etc.

One thing I didn’t really get into is how to get your XMLA script. You could figure it out for yourself, but I actually just used CubeSlice for this example. You can create an offline cube with CubeSlice and actually see the XMLA code and use that. Maybe creating the XMLA script manually/yourself would be good info for another blog post :)