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SAP Cloud for Analytics brings BI to the cloud ... again

SAP Cloud for Analytics is SAP's latest stab at a cloud business intelligence platform. How does this compare with previous tries like Lumira, BI OnDemand and Crystal Reports?

As you might already know, SAP Cloud for Analytics -- nee, Project Orca -- is SAP's newest foray into business intelligence (BI) in the cloud. SAP had lots of reasons to bring it to market, but do you have any reasons to be interested? What you may not know is why SAP went there and whether you should follow along.

So, why did SAP feel compelled to build Cloud for Analytics (CforA) when they've already taken at least three stabs at a cloud business intelligence platform?

Previous iterations of SAP BI cloud-based solutions -- SAP Lumira Cloud, BI OnDemand,, not to mention cloud-hosted versions of their regular SAP BusinessObjects BI platform -- have all been based on moving existing content and existing experiences to the cloud. In each of these early attempts at cloud-based reporting, content was created with a client-side or other on-premises tool. Developers would create something in their environment -- such as a Crystal or Web Intelligence report, an SAP Business Objects Dashboard (formerly Xcelsius), or a Lumira story -- and publish it to the cloud. In these scenarios, managing data connections and user experience were clunky at best.

This is not SAP's aim with CforA. Intended as a ground-up cloud experience, CforA is not meant to migrate your existing reports and dashboards to the cloud. Right from the start, the user experience and all user-facing content are generated directly within a browser. And since the experience starts in the cloud, the first data sources you can use will also be in the cloud. Many organizations already have cloud data sources (S4/HANA or other data hosted in the HANA Cloud Platform or HANA Enterprise Cloud, SuccessFactors, Ariba, and Concur all fall under the SAP umbrella and can be expected first) and CforA makes a strong case for being the foundation for any net new development with that data. While it won't migrate your existing analytic content to the cloud, SAP would eventually like to support your existing data sources there. SAP BusinessObjects has, after all, never met a data source it didn't like, and SAP would very much like the data available in your on-premises semantic layer available to CforA. If you just can't wait for that on-premises universe connection to be built, you could always just move all of your data to the HANA Cloud Platform.

Planning and collaboration join BI in CforA

One big differentiator for CforA is that it isn't just reporting. You can subscribe to just the BI piece (currently $25 per user, per month), but the real magic happens when you also bite off some planning (SAP is the only company that offers both planning and BI in one integrated system). This is exciting because you can start a planning activity with your cloud-enabled data or a blank worksheet right from there. Pricing is still a little loose based on what engines you're going with, so as always, talk to your account rep.

Built-in collaboration is also a central value proposition for the platform. No clunky forums, segmented discussion threads, or haphazard SAP JAM or Streamworks (now defunct) integration here. In CforA there are just collaborative tools thoughtfully included into the platform from day one. This should sound pretty compelling for departmental use and should be particularly helpful when you've got a geographically distributed department.

Enabling real-time analysis in the boardroom

CforA's boardroom functionality was easily the most popular part of the CforA demo during the SAP TechEd keynote in Las Vegas this October. First mentioned by Hasso Plattner at Sapphire 2015 in May, the SAP Digital Boardroom enabled through SAP Cloud for Analytics is really meant to enable the strategic management of an organization through governed and guaranteed real-time metrics.

The real value here isn't just some pretty graphs that render well on an oversized touchscreen. SAP wants to deliver an up-to-the-minute, completely accurate information portal that can not only tell you how many widgets you sold today and what your inventory is, but will align that volume with your established strategy. It should then go even further and predict what will happen next, and eventually prescribe to an executive what the ideal course of action is.

The key enabler of a successful Digital Boardroom experience is a top-to-bottom, by-the-book implementation of HANA as an application database. Trying to build such an experience on old technology can give you some benefits certainly, but will expose you to great risk of inaccurate or outdated data which will make your predictive and prescriptive abilities far less effective.

SAP's Cloud for Analytics has a chance to be a solid business intelligence and planning application. It makes a lot of sense to get your feet wet with it on existing cloud data sources, but don't expect get to rip out your current enterprise reporting platform anytime soon.

About the author
Jamie Oswald is a business intelligence and SAP BusinessObjects expert for Mercy, a national healthcare network of 34 acute care hospitals and more than 700 outpatient facilities, based in Chesterfield, Mo. He is also an SAP Mentor and ASUG Volunteer.

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