The User's Undying Quest for Exploring and Discovering Info - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series depicted the differences and some subtle similarities between the well-established enterprise applications giant, SAP, and up-and-coming vendor Endeca Technologies. The article ended with the new fundamentals for the future of enterprise applications that were outlined at the Endeca Discover 2009 conference.

Part 2 of this blog series explores how SAP is adapting to the new fundamentals outlined in Part 1, especially to the notion of “BT” or “business technology,” which denotes a pervasive technology in use by casual and end-users, increasingly managed outside the direct control of IT departments.

SAP and the New Fundamentals

Contrary to Endeca Discover 2009, I did not attend the SAPPHIRE 2009 conference in Orlando, Florida in person this time. Instead, I followed the event’s virtual track. I could sense both from my industry contacts that went there and from the analyst and media reports that one of the conference’s highlights was the SAP BusinessObjects Explorer offering.

In his alert at the time, Bruce Richardson of AMR Research reported that SAP’s co-CEO Leo Apotheker used most of his hour-long opening keynote to promote the exciting new product -- SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, which was released on May 13, 2009. Prior to that event, the in-memory database and analytics technology (and former SAP CEO and current visionary Hasso Plattner’s “baby” and favorite subject of late), SAP NetWeaver BI Accelerator, was renamed SAP BW Accelerator, while SAP NetWeaver BI was renamed SAP BW.

The re-branding reflected the accelerator product’s strategy and focus on data warehouse (or business warehouse [BW] in SAP’s lingo) to avoid potential conflicts with pure business intelligence (BI) tools from the acquired SAP BusinessObjects portfolio. For its part, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer is the new name of the former BusinessObjects Polestar front-end product.

But in early August 2009 I attended the SAP BusinessObjects Explorer launch tour event in Boston, where I had a chance to see and touch the product, and to ask many prodding questions. The event was a working lunch with some product presentations and demos amid an intimate group of SAP staffers, customers, and analysts.

Two Flavors of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer

The SAP BusinessObjects Explorer product comes in two flavors or configurations. One is the so-called “universe” flavor, in which case SAP BusinessObjects Explorer is the client-side for the traditional Business Objects universe environment (a “universe” is Business Objects’ semantic layer’s building block). The search and indexing engine that SAP BusinessObjects Explorer leverages is the open-source Lucene, whose performance reportedly scales to about 8 million records.

The other option is the bundled and accelerated version, whereby SAP BusinessObjects Explorer runs on top of SAP BW Accelerator in a blade server appliance setup, and contains a limited SAP BusinessObjects Explorer license in terms of the number of users (e.g., 500 users minimum, and then more users can be added incrementally). This blade server edition has largely been discussed and explained during the recent event, and further in this article.

As Endeca’s Paul Sonderegger pointed out in his Discover 2009 keynote from Part 1, George Mathew, VP and GM of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, in his short presentation too realized the need to bring information and BI to all business users via simplicity and speed of search, and intuitive data exploration and visualization. The idea is to create fast response across mountains of data without users having to resort to instinct-based or gut-feel-based (often wrong) decisions.

There has been a trend of increased adoption of analytics, with a real data explosion (growing about 50 percent per year) and the frequent need for change in business. Casual information workers (non-IT staffers) have either too little useful information or too much raw data and have to use analytics and create information retrieval queries despite having no knowledge of pesky BI tools. The alternative is to wait (im)patiently for the power-user in the IT department to create these queries for the information workers, by which time the information is already too stale.

The Three SAP BusinessObjects Explorer Key Design Tenets

The first key design tenet of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer was to be easy to use and with intuitive user experience (UX) design. The idea was to provide all information to all users. Search capabilities through previously indexed records allow users to find the most relevant information by typing keywords, and then either type more or point-and-click for more discovery, without needing to understand the data or how it is stored. Intuitive navigation and visualization provides quick insights, while users can explore and understand new data sources and unexamined parts of the business.

The other two key design tenets of the product, the speed of querying and the ability to handle huge volumes of data, have been catered to by SAP BW Accelerator. In other words, there is a combination of simplicity of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer (former Polestar) and scalability and speed of SAP BW Accelerator, which truly allows all entitled users to access and work with all relevant data from across the organization.

The accelerator part was designed to overcome the flaws of traditional BI platforms (which are often bottlenecks) in terms of unpredictable response times, inability to meet demand for change, and costs (i.e., for the need of frequent tuning and/or deployment of boutique hardware). These themes of simplicity, speed, and scale can also be found in the recently unveiled McKinley product release from Endeca (the name McKinley coming from the highest mountain in the US, to indicate scalability).

In any case, while simplicity helps the end users and removes the burden from IT departments, the scalability and speed traits should help IT departments become more successful (i.e., easy and efficient to manage and scale). IT departments can become more reactive to business with faster delivery when they are based on a proven and reliable infrastructure.

SAP’s early-adopter customers claim that with traditional BI tools, one may spend half the time on performance tuning. Given the inherent speed of SAP BW Accelerator, there are no performance issues. The BW Accelerator index structure contains replicated data and indexes (one index per table), which represents the BW star schema for the BW Accelerator.

Some Inevitable Architectural Gobbledygook

The enabling technology that is at the heart of SAP BW Accelerator is called TREX, which stands for Text Retrieval and information Extraction. SAP BW Accelerator is only available as a pre-installed appliance (“in a box”). The only little configuration effort by the customer is required to identify and index relevant online analytics processing (OLAP) cubes and transfer these so-called BW InfoCubes data (in SAP’s lingo) to the SAP Accelerator server.

There, the data needs to be processed and compressed into the BW Accelerator index. A configuration check for SAP BW Accelerator (as part of SAP Quality Check for the Accelerator) is recommended but is not necessary.

Potential advantages of this bundled approach could be a rapid deployment and performance-optimized operations with minimized maintenance. As of early 2009, premium hardware partners have been Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM, Dell, Fujitsu, and Sun Microsystems. The abovementioned SAP’s hardware partners offer tailored support. HP was the co-sponsor of the particular early August event in Boston that I attended.

The components of the appliance (that can be standalone or fit into an existing customer server rack) are blade servers with 64-bit Intel Xeon central processing units (CPUs)  running on SUSE Linux. Optimized storage is also included with a high-speed network switch and a dedicated network between BW and BW Accelerator. The high availability options might include built-in redundant components, synchronized backup, and switchover capabilities.

One must note here that one precondition for SAP BusinessObjects Exporer is to upgrade to SAP NetWeaver 7.0 (the product's Wave 2 release will support non-BW data sources, which should mitigate this precondition). To that end, the prospective customers should perform a sizing exercise via the SAP Quick Sizer toolSAP recommends the use of services provided by SAP Active Global Support (AGS) as a SAP Quality Check. More information in this regard can be found here.

Part 3 will conclude with SAP BusinessObjects Explorer’s traits and room for improvements, especially in terms of user experience. In the meantime, your comments and feedback with regard to SAP’s new product and novel ideas are welcome. If you are applications users, how important are the aforementioned information discovery considerations in your software selections?
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