Give SAP Lumira data visualization software a good look, says expert

SAP Lumira is a solid tool to visualize and share data even if it has some catching up to do compared with niche vendors, writes one BI expert.

Beyond being the newest tool in the SAP Analytics shed, SAP Lumira also represents a change in SAP's business intelligence strategy as it serves as an avatar of an easier-to-use SAP. But what does it mean for businesses in terms of sharing the data, and how big a deal is integrating with SAP HANA? And, more important, how does it compare with best-of-breed competitors as a data visualization tool?

Two complementary technologies

The SAP Lumira umbrella actually covers two different but complementary technologies. The desktop flavor of Lumira is generally talked about as a next-generation data visualization tool, and it does fit the bill on that front. Like its preceding competitors (think Tableau, QlikView, etc.), Lumira desktop allows users to acquire/merge/cleanse/enrich data from sources like Excel, a standard relational database, or even your standard SAP BusinessObjects universe (both .unv and .unx extensions are supported) and present that data in all of the common graphs to which we've grown accustomed.

The SAP Lumira Cloud solution allows users to create and share visualizations with drag-and-drop ease based on predefined data sets. The cloud version also allows users to access their datasets from their mobile device via the SAP BusinessObjects Mobile app.

Native integrations with SAP HANA

Even more compelling than the graphs, though, is just how much data SAP Lumira can pour into each of those visualizations. Originally delivered to the market as a tool for visualizing SAP HANA (a smoking fast in-memory database), both SAP Lumira desktop and cloud versions natively interact with HANA at warp speed. Both tools push the data crunching down to the database level, allowing billions of rows to be aggregated and filtered appropriately for the selected visualization.

While SAP Lumira Cloud relies entirely on HANA for its data layer, the desktop version has one more trick up its sleeve -- Sybase IQ. Sybase IQ, a column store database that's built for analytics, is a real gem from SAP's acquisition of Sybase several years ago. SAP Lumira desktop leverages Sybase IQ's ability to compress data and serve it quickly, allowing it to acquire and merge millions of rows together on a laptop or desktop without using a server component -- pretty powerful stuff. This means that all of the data you pull in from any data source (including Excel spreadsheets, CSVs and HANA cloud in the free personal edition, with Freehand SQL and SAP BusinessObjects Universes in the paid version). And as Figure 1 illustrates, SAP Lumira can even warn you when the data can't be merged, as illustrated below.

SAP Lumira warns users if data cannot be merged
Figure 1: SAP Lumira can't merge every data set, but it's getting significantly better at warning users beforehand when it can't.

Platform matters

The historical knock on SAP Lumira has centered on sharing, as in, "It's great that I can make these stunning visualizations, but I need to be able to do something with them." When first released almost a year and a half ago, screenshots of finished graphs were your best option to share something with someone who didn't have the thick-client installed. Thanks to a super-aggressive update schedule (nearly once a month since it came out) and the release of the Lumira Cloud, sharing options have increased impressively.

The best sharing option is currently, and most likely always will be, SAP HANA. Lumira desktop not only lets you pull data in from HANA, but also allows you to take the models you've built from any data source and push the results back up into HANA. From there, it can be exposed to other users via Lumira or anywhere else that HANA may roam. The only real downside to this option is that you need to have some HANA in order to make it work.

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After HANA, SAP Lumira Cloud is your best sharing option. This allows you to take the data you've pulled together in the Lumira desktop version and push it up to the cloud. From there, the sharing is as simple as emailing someone a link. This is a fantastic departmental solution and allows one very technically savvy analyst to feed data to multiple users. This method does have two potential downsides, however. You have to be comfortable putting your data in the cloud (which can be a real no-no in some industries), and it has a hard time scaling on absolutely monstrous data sets (although it should handle most typical use cases).

Your final sharing options in the current state are publishing directly to SAP BusinessObjects Explorer and publishing to SAP Streamwork. While both are technically possible, the functionality is currently pretty limited and only fits very limited use cases.

An upcoming release of SAP BusinessObjects BI4 will offer some integration with Lumira, but a lot of that integration will have to be predicated on owning SAP HANA. And that only makes sense, really; the only way Lumira can serve up data fast enough for its visualizations is to run through HANA. HANA, at least for Lumira, appears to be the new cost of doing business.

What SAP Lumira isn't

SAP Lumira is not currently a best-of-breed visual analytics solution; it just isn't as mature as a Tableau or QlikView. Those solutions have had at least a decade's head start on SAP, and it shows in the overall completeness of the solution. Since its inception, myriad annoyances have dogged the tool and SAP has often quickly responded with a nearly monthly new release cycle (a recent release included the ability to build "storyboards" to package multiple visualizations together. See Figure 2 below). This rapid upgrade cycle has its own drawbacks, chiefly that users or IT have to deal with the constant updates (or miss out on new features), and -- as with all rapid releases -- quality issues with new features often require a second release before a feature is dependably useful.

Combine multiple visualizations with SAP Lumira
Figure 2: One of the recently released features of SAP Lumira is the ability to combine multiple visualizations into a "story board."

A very common question in all of this is what does this mean for the classic SAP BusinessObjects platform. Quite frankly, not much. SAP Lumira is not ready to take away the enterprise functions currently associated with SAP BusinessObjects. Operational reporting, complex dashboarding, scheduling, security, portal integration -- these are not what Lumira was meant to replace. SAP has some other ideas up its sleeve for the future of Lumira (an option to store and manage Lumira docs within the BusinessObjects platform, as a for instance that currently relies on the "forward-looking statements" slide of a roadmap presentation), and it certainly isn't sunsetting older SAP tools.

In sum, I think it makes a lot of sense for organizations (especially those with any sort of SAP Analytics investment) to start looking into Lumira as long as said organizations can keep in mind what Lumira is and isn't. And the best part? You can even give it a whirl with the free personal edition.

About the author:
Jamie Oswald is a business intelligence and SAP BusinessObjects expert for Mercy, a national healthcare network of 32 hospitals and 300 outpatient facilities, based in Chesterfield, Mo. He is also an SAP Mentor.

For more information on next month's Webinar on SAP Lumira, click here. Oswald will be moderating the Q and A portion of the presentation.  

This was first published in January 2014

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