SAP Visual Intelligence a promising, but some say limited, first release

The software is a solid first release despite a number of limitations, particularly the fact it only runs on HANA, SAP’s in-memory platform.

SAP’s Visual Intelligence software is a solid entry into the data visualization market, but one that serves mostly as a way of fending off competition from niche vendors that offer more sophisticated products, according to Rita Sallam, an analyst with Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. 

“SAP does feel some sort of urgency to deliver some data discovery tool,” Sallam said. “I don’t believe it’s unique; I definitely believe it’s more of a ‘me, too.’ ” 

In May, SAP launched SAP Visual Intelligence, a desktop data visualization and manipulation application targeted at business users -- particularly business analysts. Part of the BusinessObjects portfolio, SAP Visual Intelligence lets users alter data structures and correlations without the help of IT, according to SAP.

Since their debut, niche vendors like QlikTech, Spotfire and Tableau have caught larger vendors like SAP, Oracle and IBM, off guard by offering business users an easy way to do fast, interactive analysis, Sallam said. 

From business analytics to visual analytics
While SAP has mostly ruled the world of ad hoc analysis with SAP BusinessObjects Web Intelligence, she said, it introduced SAP Business Explorer to meet the need the smaller vendors were addressing. That ultimately fell short.

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Visual Intelligence grew out of SAP Business Explorer, SAP’s front-end business analytics application that allows customers to look at data in an easy-to-read format, but that was geared to the more casual business user.

“[With SAP Business Explorer], users could create a simple chart from the numbers, from the results, but it wasn’t highly visual, interactive. This basically takes it to the next level,” said Boris Evelson, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

The more data visualization, the better
Neil Watanabe, the chief financial officer for Anna’s Linens, a home furnishings chain based in Costa Mesa, Calif., said he would possibly deploy SAP Visual Intelligence as a way to see the company’s sales data and trends rendered in a more graphical way.

Dashboard reporting is already pretty high on most companies’ agenda right now, Watanabe said. “The more visual it is, the better it can get management’s attention.”

SAP HANA only, for now
Watanabe will have to wait a while. For now, SAP Visual Intelligence runs only on HANA, SAP’s in-memory database, drastically limiting the numbers of potential users. SAP has said a subsequent version will run on a traditional database but has not indicated when.

While Evelson said that although SAP Visual Intelligence does not include any data visualization tools beyond what’s already provided by niche vendors, what gives the software an advantage is that it combines that functionality with an enterprise scale, in-memory database.

But that also means that the data sources users can manipulate and visualize with the initial release is limited to SAP HANA InfoCubes, Sallam noted. SAP said it will be expanding the types of data sources in the coming months to include support for other file types like Excel and CSV, she said.  SAP Visual Intelligence will ultimately also support SAP BusinessObjects universes.

One of the other problems is that users can only share views of visual intelligence content in email, Sallam said. They cannot share interactive content, group content in dashboard format, or share content with users on the web or on mobile devices, like users can do with other vendors’ software.

SAP has said that too will change by the end of 2012, Sallam added. “SAP is being very aggressive with this product’s capabilities.”

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