Tuesday, 4 September 2007

ClearBI - Clearly the Online Business Intelligence Enterprise Reporting Winner

I have two main gripes when it comes to database reporting tools: They are way overpriced, and end users are unable to manipulate reports for a particular analytical goal, which requires heavy dependence on the IT department's availability to create derivative published works.

Even the grandiose of enterprise reporting, 'Business Objects - Crystal Reports', provides end users with only a basic set of web tools that hardly make a mark compared say with the functionality of MS Excel. Adoption costs are so extraordinarily high, even big companies can't make sense of it. Smaller companies may never achieve sufficient ROI and are forced to lay low in the isolated realm of cutting data to Excel.

Having worked as a Business Analyst, Internet Strategist and Developer for many years I can assimilate my experience relating to the subject of Enterprise Reporting in one simple sentence: "Even today the people who need vital business decision making information are unable to get to it quickly, easily, and on their own."

Along comes Farata Systems with ClearBI (Clear Business Intelligence), a RIA Reporting Application where 'Report Templates', composed by IT or end users, using Adobe Flex or Flash player, can be fully manipulated, and saved as new versions (by authorised personal).

Targeted at end-users, ClearBI enables clients to eliminate the dependency on IT when it comes to any report modification, ranging from simple formatting changes and adding/removing columns to introducing grouping, sophisticated formula-based columns, and being able to persist the changes, optionally saving it as new report or report template.

Targeted at IT personnel, it automates creation of the "canned" report layouts for the end-users, who can then run them in Flash player, PDF print and Excel export these reports, with or without the ability to persist the changes.

ClearBI combines with Farata's Clear Data Builder, a Rapid Application Development tool, allowing production of complex database reports within minutes, rather than hours or days. A few simple gestures and configurations, and Flex developers can create base template reports for stand-alone use, or as custom containers within larger Flex applications. Publishing is a simple upload of the html wrapper and swf file. After that, end users can begin making their own variations and incantations with all manner of sophisticated beautification and complex literal and boolean expressions for aggregating and highlighting information.

Reports can stored in the database in XML format as meta-data structures. Data can be persisted using a Master/Detail Flash-based-form. Indeed there is no limit to the functionality placed in the user's hands, as application developers may simply combine ClearBI reporting into their own pre-existing or new RIA's.

ClearBI's interface is presented as if it were an extra, rather nice looking, toolbar in your browser, as shown below. (click the images for a larger view)

Clicking on the 'edit' icon opens a fully featured panel in which users can modify base reports and save them as derivative works, or new templates. The 'edit' panel provides layout, filtering, sorting, grouping, printing, and query functionality in a simple and well thought out, drag and drop interface.

ClearBI toolbar is easily accessible and offers the following 20 functions:

1. Template - Basic and end-user modified templates
2. Report - End user's published reports
3. Refresh data
4. Edit - pops up the report edit panel
5. Copy - allows users to copy the new report or turn it into a new template
6. Delete composition
7. Composition Wizard - allows end user to create new templates from scratch
8. Remove Filter
9. Show/Hide columns
10. Auto-resize columns
11. Edit Layout - pops up layout beautification panel
12. Edit Group - pops up drag/drop group editing feature
13. Sort - pops up drag/drop column sorting feature
14. Filter - pops up conditional filtering feature
15. Save (as new)
16. Zoom magnification
17. Zoom indicator
18. Flat Excel export
19. Structured Excel export
20. Print (to paper or PDF)

There are two versions of ClearBI:

ClearBI Developer Edition allows software developers to visually create and customize reports in Eclipse IDE. The report layouts are captured in MXML and can be compiled and integrated into any Flex application. The end users will be able to work with reports (sorting, filtering, grouping, export to Microsoft Excel, et al.), but won't be able to save the customized report.

ClearBI Server Edition delivers all the functionality of the Developer Edition to the end user; it allows the end users to create reports from the universe of the data fields without need to install any software other than Flash Player. The end users can create, customize and save reports in the centralized database server without any help from the IT department.

Developer License is around - US$799 per developer. This license is the best fit for the organizations that need a tool to create canned reports to be viewed by the end-users. These reports are read-only and can be viewed independently or integrated into other Web applications. Production support is not included but is available on a yearly subscription or hourly rate basis.

ClearBI Server Edition OEM is around US$999 per server (up to 2 CPU). The end users can customize and save their reports. The number of the end users is not limited. This license is a good fit for small businesses. Production support is not included but is available on a yearly subscription or hourly rate basis.

There is also a ClearBI Server Edition Enterprise and you'll need to contact Farata or myself for a quote.

Rich Internet Applications Australia was appointed by Farata System's to represent ClearBI and Clear Data Builder in Australia and New Zealand as of August 2007.

ClearBI is a clear winner in the business intelligence reporting space with RIA-ware that provides unmatched end-user accessibility to time sensitive analytical information. The combination of RIA and RAD with Flex/Flash makes report generation by end users incredibly fast.

For a demo of ClearBI go here. For Farata Systems web site go here. To contact me for a corporate demonstration in Australia or New Zealand, email me at: steven.rich[at]klikhir.com

RIA L.o.a.d.i.n.g...Does Usability Outweigh The Wait?

We all know RIA applications can present users with a great experience and provide superior usability. Significantly, one of RIA's main goal is to improve usability by offering seamless state changes on the client, which requires preloading of the core application, as well as initial images and data. But once this is done all manner of data filtering, animations, and screen changes can be performed without call backs to the server for new pages thereby drastically speeding up interactivity, improving productivity and enhancing end-user experience.

There is evidence suggesting users dislike silly flash introduction animations to web sites, or worse, poorly designed totally Flash'ed web sites that take forever to load. It appears users do not expect a totally Flash'ed web site, rather, a nicely placed Flash ad and the optional animation demo, where appropriate.
When they arrive at a web site and see ....L.O.A.D.I.N.G.... .... ... horrified and panic struck, they aim for the back button.

Has Flash (or Adobe) inadvertently created a problem (perceived or otherwise) for serious RIA web developers in that users arriving at these arguably 'much more dynamic and brilliant' web sites, turn back, because in their mind they think they're going to get a Flash animation - or something equally vulgar or useless.

Is the loading issue really the issue? Ironically, well designed RIAs may cause some marginal delay, but the benefits of not re-requesting data from the server every time a user clicks poses a radical gain in usability, efficiency and experience. It also reduces the payload on the web server as far fewer requests are being made.

I recently converted my web site www.klikhir.com into a totally RIA web site.
From a usability point of view I hope it presents the user with a great experience, and is very user friendly. But I have put up a notice in the Flex/Flash preloader to indicate to the user that the wait is worthwhile. I have also removed any ideas that unsophisticated users may have upon arrival that they are loading a Flash application.

Flex provides an incredible opportunity to create the types of application you've seen in Tom Cruise's Minority Report movie - far beyond what's possible with HTML or AJAX. I just wonder whether users will give RIA's a chance or whether they are destined for corporate use only rather than the general web surfing public.

I will be monitoring klikhir's traffic performance over the coming months more closely to see whether its up or down. If you see regular web pages again in a 3 months time, you'll know the RIA failed.

What do you think about Rich Internet Applications - does the potential gain in usability outweigh the negative perceptions that it's, 'god-forbid', Flash, and that it takes 'forever' to load? Are visitors panic struck by totally Flash'ed web sites and more eager to escape? Is it worth the wait when the application is useful (how would the user know up front)? Would the user prefer the same functionality in HTML/AJAX? And given the option, which option would they end up using more?

I look forward to your thoughts on this highly relevant subject (relevant because RIA's have advanced and matured - i.e. Flash has grown up)

Maybe its just something you love or hate.

(footnote: Flash apps that have been loaded once before are much quicker at reloading than html pages are.)