Entry level B.I.

Posted on 8 Mar 2012

A trusted product with a rich past is finding a new role as an entry-level business intelligence solution, finds Malcolm Wheatley.

The figures are chilling. The world, it seems, is likely to create more data in 2012 than in all the previous five thousand years put together. And what’s more, the rate that this data is accumulating is doubling every eighteen months.

These assertions come from John Wilkinson, vice-president of business analytics for global ecosystem and channels at SAP. And he isn’t slow to point out the downside of this deluge of data.

“There’s a growing wealth of data with which to make decisions – but smaller businesses suffer a disproportionate challenge when trying to turn that data into actionable information,” he notes. “They must compete with much larger enterprises in order to analyse and exploit that data, but lack the same scale of resources with which to do so.” And for resources, read not just IT hardware and software, but also people and budget. Quite simply, data analytics is a skilled job, and one that demands appropriate toolsets and people with the time to sit down and use them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, insists Wilkinson. SAP, as the world’s pre-eminent enterprise software company – and one that is now firmly targeting smaller enterprises – reckons that it is in a position to help level the playing field.

Look at the needs of smaller manufacturers, says Wilkinson, and their data analytics needs are simply defined.

Screen shot in Crystal Server showing drill down analytics of monthly sales data
Screen shot in Crystal Server showing drill down analytics of monthly sales data

For a start, they want data that is reliable. They also want it to be easily accessible, so that anyone who needs it can get at it. And self service availability helps, too: look, for instance, at the transformation that has been wrought by Google. Finally, when data has been analysed, it ought to be a simple job to share the findings with others – so that the insights gleaned can be actioned, or probed further.

“There’s a new type of data hungry user out there in the workplace, especially in the younger generation,” says Wilkinson. “They don’t expect to wait for the IT function to deliver what they want: they’ve grown accustomed to a world that is instant, and they want the answer now. And increasingly, they want it while they’re mobile, too.”

Stalwart performer

So how does SAP think it can deliver on this challenge? The answer, admits Wilkinson, may cause some surprise. In short, it’s the venerable Crystal Reports solution, a reporting – and now analytics – package that goes back to the early 1990s, and which was acquired by SAP in 2007 when the software giant bought business intelligence firm, Business Objects.

“Crystal has been a de facto standard for years,” says Wilkinson. “Many IT personnel cut their teeth on it. But lately, when we’ve talked to people about Crystal Reports, they’ve been asking us if it was still under development. And the fault is ours: quite simply, we haven’t been investing enough in marketing and public relations.”

It’s an admission that isn’t without irony. For SAP most certainly has been investing in the Crystal product, as a recent flurry of announcements has made clear.

What’s more, adds Wilkinson, the company has also rebranded the product, with the successor release to from Crystal Reports 2008 now being called Crystal Server 2011.

“The change of name is intended to underline the fact that Crystal is now an entry-level business intelligence solution,” explains Wilkinson. “It has better graphics, better drill-down capabilities, multilingual reports and dashboards, guided data exploration, and full integration with Microsoft Office and Microsoft SharePoint.”

John Wilkinson, Vice-President of business analytics for global ecosystem and channels, SAP
John Wilkinson, Vice-President of business analytics for global ecosystem and channels, SAP

“There’s a new type of data hungry user out there in the workplace, especially in the younger generation” – John Wilkinson, Vice-President of business analytics for global ecosystem and channels, SAP

In short, among other improvements, usability has been enhanced through a Google-style search capability, with ranked responses; and a ‘hand-holding’ approach to data exploration now makes it easy for end-users to develop reports and filters without needing help from an IT function.

“We’ve brought Crystal Reports up to the same level of graphics visualisation as our other products and there are further advances to come later in the year,” enthuses Wilkinson.


The result, he insists, has been to transform what entry-level business intelligence can deliver to the smaller manufacturer.

“With Crystal, they’ve always had reporting, but now they’ve got ‘drill-down’ capability, and the ability to get to better decisions faster,” he says. “And users don’t need to go to the IT function if they don’t want to. Production director, procurement director, or managing director, they could do it themselves, if they wanted, and if they possessed appropriate IT user skills.”

As SAP’s entry-level business intelligence solution, what’s more, Crystal Server has now become an integral part of SAP’s whole facility of business intelligence applications.

One immediate benefit of this is a re-written user interface for Crystal Server, providing a consistent ‘look-and-feel’ right across the solution range, thereby minimising training when upgrading. More importantly, perhaps, the consistent lookand- feel isn’t just skin deep, but extends to the inner workings of reporting and analytics.

“A report that a manufacturer might have developed in Crystal Reports 2008 or earlier is reusable in Crystal Server 2011, and is reusable in our midmarket SAP Business Objects Edge solution, as well as in our full large enterprise SAP Business Objects solution,” Wilkinson confirms.

And Crystal Server’s appeal, he adds, will extend well beyond the body of users who have been happily running Crystal Reports for years.

A new breed of customer is emerging, says Wilkinson: manufacturing companies that have put in place one or more of the various free, cloudbased or on-demand business intelligence products as proof-of-concept vehicles, now want to move forward as a business. Not just as individual departmental functions with separate toolsets and approaches.

“We’re seeing companies tell us: ‘We’ve got free chaos, and now we need to get control.’” sums up Wilkinson. “Our response? Crystal Server 2011. It’s delivered on its promise for over twenty years, and now it can for you, too.” In short, with a rich legacy behind it, Crystal Server seems assured of a promising future, too.