Embracing Complexity: A Speedy Business Performance Management Solution
Written By: Lyndsay Wise
Published On: May 22 2006
Applix provides a complete performance management software solution for finance and operations, without compromising its strong customer focus. The company has over 2,200 unique customers, and is growing at a steady rate. Aside from being top-rated in vendor satisfaction by BPM Partners Pulse Survey, Applix was ranked by The OLAP Survey as a leader in overall business benefits achieved by customers, and was ranked in the top three for customer loyalty.
Headquartered in Westborough, Massachusetts (US), Applix is a provider of business intelligence (BI) and business performance management (BPM) solutions. Incorporated in 1983, Applix first targeted software applications for the UNIX market. To capitalize on the emerging market, thirteen years later it acquired Sinper Corporation, an online analytical processing (OLAP) software developer. In 1998, Applix released its first TM1 product, followed by five subsequent releases, which aimed at enhancing its capabilities for performance management, Microsoft Excel integration, 64-bit platform support, and complex analysis. The Applix focus is to drive operational performance management by investing heavily in its TM1 product line. Operational BI (OBI) and performance management software provide the necessary shift from the traditional backward-looking view of BI, towards a forward-looking approach. OBI allows performance management functionality to be embedded in overall business operations. This takes the shift away from purely using BPM tools for financials, and creates the ability to leverage strengths provided by performance management software for use across the organization and to create alignment with an organization's business process flow.
Applix TM1 gives customers the ability to solve difficult business decisions and perform what-if analyses in a user-friendly environment, making it an above-average performance management solution. TM1 incorporates dashboards, workflow, and OLAP cubes in a fully integrated Excel and Web-enabled environment. Users are able to transfer their skill set seamlessly, due to the familiar interfaces. The product has an integration layer which connects easily to open database connectivity (ODBC), object linking and embedding database for OLAP (ODBO), SAP, and legacy data sources to capture the appropriate data, and has a powerful in-memory data management server engine to help accelerate query return times, thus improving performance. Additionally, TM1 dashboards, Web sheets, and OLAP cubes aid in planning, budgeting, and forecasting activities. TM1 enables complex data modeling and rules creation. Also, data can be updated in real time and reflected in Excel Web sheets, dashboards, and cubes, which can all be posted on the Web. TM1 uses its Web portal as a gateway for users across the organization, in order to allow them to exchange work items by viewing the same sets of data, and to manage decisions based on those data views. This allows TM1 users to collaborate on multiple tasks across the organization. Customizable dashboards and cubes help users analyze and answer defined business questions. This helps to drive potential opportunities (and to avoid risk), by identifying data patterns, collaborating with multiple task stakeholders, and creating business scenarios.
TM1 has the ability to perform powerful what-if analyses against large data sets, faster than many competitors. Applix TM1's complex analytical queries are dealt with in memory through the use of a 64-bit processing platform and a caching architecture, as opposed to having calculations stored within a server (disk space). The development of 64-bit processing represents a significant trend in BI, for accommodation of large amounts of data. The advent of 64-bit processing also allows data to be updated effectively in real time. Vendors such as Information Builders and MicroStrategy also have this capability, and Hyperion is working on developing a platform compatible with Microsoft. Compared with most performance management vendors, however, Applix has taken the lead in providing a platform that provides users with the ability to create complex queries quickly, and to reflect those results on a Web portal in real time. Additionally, calculations are performed in memory and not within a server environment, which contributes to the quick response times.
Applix TM1's integration with Excel is above average, and permits users to use spreadsheets as the basis for creating Web sheets and dashboards, and to post their data to the Web. TM1 has integrated the use of Excel into its BI platform. Multiple users across an organization or across multiple geographic locations are able to access published data sheets, to edit the sheets, and to have the data automatically written to the server and updated on the Web. Cubes empower users to analyze data by drilling through multidimensional data views, and by identifying trends as well as data sources. With TM1 cubes, an organization can post OLAP cubes to the Web in different forms, such as graphs or as data integrated with Excel.
TM1's analytical capabilities focus on providing users with user-friendly access to cubes and reports. As opposed to developing complex and robust cubes that are only used by one or two super-users, Applix TM1 allows users to create compact cubes to hone in on an organization's business questions and on developing user-friendly intuitive cubes that help answer essential questions, and that are accessible to anyone in the organization. This is done by limiting a cube's scope to between five and ten main dimensions, and by authorizing users to choose what dimensions are available to drill through. These cubes provide users with the functionality to edit, change, and transfer data to Excel; to post changes to the Web; and to view the updates in real time. Although cubes are usually designed with a limited number of dimensions for focusing on actual business questions, it is possible to reflect up to 256 dimensions, which makes it a robust analytical tool. Users can also identify what dimensions they want to view and drill through, as opposed to the dimensions that are reflected in the background but not viewed online.
TM1 Rules helps users define the cube rules, allowing for complex and repetitive calculations within each OLAP dimension. Users create cubes through wizards, giving business users primary control of their analytics (as opposed to relying on the information technology [IT] department). Cubes and the associated data are then connected via defined rules, and the cubes can be customized for maximum efficiency by using rules from multiple applications.
Features of Other Components
TM1 Planning Manager manages an organization's workflow processes to grant key decision makers administration and access privileges. Each assigned task can be edited to create collaboration between employees, departments, and projects. Users can be assigned tasks, be given access to change report data, and submit those changes to the appropriate decision maker for approval. The user tasks are then submitted as work items for approval based on a task list accessed by the appropriate decision maker. Approvals and rejections with comments are submitted and stored within the task process, and users can view the logs and resubmit any additional edits or changes.
TM1 Planning Template features a planning module that supports the ability to create budgets and identify top-down goals and bottom-up plans, with pre-built worksheets. The template structure can be modified to suit organizational needs, and it is possible to load information into the modified model.
TM1 Consolidations provides users with the ability to view financial and operational data in a centralized structure, from any number of organizational units and general ledgers (GLs). Several different views of data are possible, which gives users the ability to perform variance analyses of budget-to-actual data. Key features include full support for recurring and reversing journal entries, the ability to create customized journal entry reports, and built-in controls for the journal entry process (including automatic generation of inter-company elimination journals), as well as the ability to post journal entries over the Web in Internet Explorer.
The TM1 Financial Reporting module lets users set up reporting structures and create queries for their financial reporting requirements. Reports are built once, and automatically maintained within the structure of TM1. Reports are updated automatically, and financial data from multiple GL systems can be consolidated to represent one view of GL and general financial data in real time.
Product Challenges and Opportunities
Applix needs to develop scorecarding capabilities and the ability to set metrics within its application, in order to develop a successful long-term strategy and to stay competitive within the market. Most other performance management vendors offer these features within their main product offerings, including leading BI vendors such as Cognos, Hyperion, and Business Objects. Not having scorecarding capabilities is a major disadvantage for organizations that want to track and to structure their goals and performance requirements, and to measure them over time using one integrated software suite. To address this issue, Applix has become highly integrated with Microsoft's new scorecarding functionality and current integration abilities with Excel, to pave the way for continued integration with Microsoft BPM tools. Applix hopes that customers will choose to integrate the two, as opposed to choosing a solution that already has scorecarding capabilities. Additionally, Microsoft is working on enhancements to their BI tools, including enhanced dashboarding capabilities. Thus, the Applix goal of aligning itself closely with Microsoft could be overshadowed by prospects considering Microsoft for a full performance management suite which is intuitively integrated and competitively priced, and which could eclipse the benefits of implementing TM1.
The ability to define key performance indicators (KPIs) is also an important component of performance management. Currently Applix does not have built-in functionality defining structured key performance indicators that are aligned to an organization's corporate strategy. TM1 is planning to provide this feature with a future release; however, other solutions that already have this feature provide users with the opportunity to set strategic goals, align those goals to the business unit at each level, and measure performance to drive decisions. This means that organizations that want to drive decision-making intuitively based on their KPIs, may have to put more processes into place to achieve the same result as organizations implementing a solution with built-in scorecarding and KPI functionality.
Applix focuses on the Global 2000 through the mid-market, and has strong penetration within key vertical markets such as telecommunications, pharmaceutical, retail, and financial services. Organizations that want to leverage their current Excel-based applications, and that require above-average OLAP and dashboarding capabilities (as well as the ability to perform what-if analyses), should consider Applix TM1.
Organizations not in one of these vertical markets should consider Applix TM1 based on its merits and the fit of the functionality to the needs of the organization. If an organization wants an overall BI suite with strong performance management, then considering a best-of-breed vendor such as Business Objects or Information Builders might be a better option. However, if an organization chooses to use Microsoft scorecards and wants to add other key performance management functionality (and does not want to invest a lot of time in training and learning a tool that is not user-friendly), then the TM1 product suite represents a good choice due to its intuitiveness. Organizations that want to implement solutions across different departments over time (for example, starting with call center monitoring dashboards and moving towards other initiatives throughout the organization) should consider Applix based on its flexibility, and its ability to consolidate and leverage large amounts of data across multiple departments through the use of its multi-cube abilities. Alternatively, other BPM vendors—who may already have the functionality required to meet current and future needs—should be considered if there is a requirement for robust scorecarding functionality out of the box.