Column: Why one expert says third-party SAP reporting options are best

Many applications are available for reporting in the SAP system. But what type of toolset do you really need to drive your business? Discover why it is helpful to evaluate the existing tools first.

Many companies are familiar with the SAP BEx reporting tools and have been using them for the last 10 years. The addition of the SAP BusinessObjects reporting tools provides a new generation of applications that companies can use through the Web, Excel and other front ends such as Xcelsius (now called SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards).

In general, I see companies switching from one tool to another because SAP has a reliable sales force, and management typically chooses the new tools. There is no black and white when it comes to SAP reporting.  A management user, such as a CEO, might want to see if the company’s KPIs are positive (green) or negative (red), while a CFO might prefer to dig into the data.

I conduct many training sessions and at those sessions I see that companies only use a maximum of 50% of the capabilities of BEx or SAP BusinessObjects -- similar to Microsoft studies about Office products.

Companies should not evaluate reporting applications based on colorful options such as 3D charts or glossy pictures, but by business needs. When looking at reporting options, decision makers should ask, “Which tool will enable me to spot problems in my company or enhance my daily life in reporting?”

Where SAP BusinessObjects needs to improve

In general, SAP and BusinessObjects are generating new tools to optimize their income, and both tools tend to forget about customer needs. For example, in SAP BusinessObjects Analysis (successor of BEx), a key function is missing. Companies using BEx typically store their workbooks directly in SAP NetWeaver BW so they can access and save (back up) the reports with SAP NetWeaver BW.

SAP BusinessObjects Analysis cannot store workbooks in SAP NetWeaver BW -- it needs an additional BusinessObjects server. In this case, it is difficult to see a customer- based approach!

After more than a decade of experience with SAP reporting, I tried to store an SAP BusinessObjects Analysis workbook in SAP NetWeaver BW -- using SAP NetWeaver BW functionality -- and it works. If SAP will not change that malfunction, good for me; I'll sell the add-on.

Another tool, Xcelsius, is great for dashboards and what-if predictions. However, what is the point of doing what-if analysis if it is not possible to save this new information directly back to SAP NetWeaver BW for use in other processes (unless third-party coding or add-ons are used)?

I am definitely not a BI/BW evangelist but sometimes I ask myself, “Is SAP and BusinessObjects development doing development for their customers or are they just keeping the programmers busy?”

Both tools have their strong points, but at least in current versions, there is no single tool that includes all the good functions. Currently, it looks like SAP is trying to convince users that Web-based tools are the solution for the future. From my experience, 70% of users like to see their data in Excel because they are used to Excel and its functionality.

So why not keep those users happy as well?

Third-party options

A number of third-party tools are available, but they have similar pros and cons when it comes to functionality. Some third-party applications are simple to use and offer easy-to-create dashboards but have a complete lack of integration with SAP NetWeaver BW data. Companies have to define an additional set of authorizations in the third-party tool -- these cannot be extracted from SAP NetWeaver BW. 

A third-party option I like to use is Microsoft PowerPivot. It is a free add-on to Microsoft Excel 2010 that allows you to analyze millions of rows of data in Excel. Normally, Excel (version 2007 and later) is only capable of working with 1 million rows of data.

PowerPivot is an in-memory solution that uploads the data into your client PC memory and organizes the data. After uploading the data -- which is pretty fast, as I uploaded 5 million records in less than two minutes -- data is available for all kind of analysis, either by pivot table or pivot chart.

Currently, you have to use SAP Open Hub downloads or third-party connectors to SAP to provide the data. File-based data is limited to 150 GB per file, but this should fullfill your needs. A good approach would be using a direct connector to SAP NetWeaver BW (already available from third-party vendors).

Organizations can use in-memory technology to explore data in a fraction of the time needed by SAP or BusinessObjects, without expensive hardware. For example, with Microsoft SharePoint, companies can also use the Web-based approach using PowerPivot.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joerg Boeke is independent BI systems architect and senior consultant with BIAnalyst in Germany. He has been working with SAP BW since 1998 with a focus on designing, implementing and enhancing automated scenarios. You can reach him by email at joerg.boeke@bianalyst.de.

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