Sunday, March 23, 2014

Developing BI/BA Web and Mobile Applications with WebFOCUS

WebFOCUS for BI/BA Application Development

WebFOCUS is a powerful enterprise Business Intelligence and Analytics platform well-suited for today's complex and rapidly-changing environment. The software is produced by privately-held American software vendor, Information Builders.

As part of WebFOCUS, Information Builders provides two BI/BA application development tools, one for business developers and another for IT technical developers:

  • BI Portal and InfoAssist for business developers (web-based and mobile)
  • Windows-based Developer Studio for IT technical developers 

With WebFOCUS, companies can provide business users with self-service intelligence and analytics:

  • Dashboards and scorecards 
  • Self-service guided ad-hoc data exploration
  • Mobile BI with right-time data on any device 
  • InfoApps to easily analyze and manipulate information
  • Deep integration with desktop products such as Microsoft Excel and Adobe PDF 
  • Integration with open-source software such as R statistical programming language and Python 
  • Dynamic report scheduling and distribution, with real-time alerts
  • Integration with enterprise data and information management  

Note: Within the next month or two, Information Builders will release the next generation of Developer Studio which will be called the Application Studio. The new product’s “look and feel” will be consistent with that of InfoAssist. For example, Application Studio will also have a ribbon-based user interface.

BI Portal and InfoAssist

The WebFOCUS BI Portal enables business users to easily create and share sophisticated portals, launch pages, reports, and graphs hosted within the corporate WebFOCUS environment or in the cloud. The users have no software to install.

InfoAssist, the report and graph layout tool, is appropriate for business users as well as for light-weight IT development. Information Builders will license BI Portal/InfoAssist based on a certain number of users (e.g., one hundred) or on an unlimited basis.

WebFOCUS 8 comes with sophisticated multi-tenant security enabling companies to open up web and mobile BI to not only their internal employees, but also to external partners and customers.

Picture: BI Portal with InfoAssist

Windows-based Developer Studio (IDE)

The Developer Studio is a Windows-based IDE enabling IT technical developers to build complex, interactive BI applications hosted within the corporate WebFOCUS environments or in the cloud. 

However, the Developer Studio product is not an appropriate tool for business users. Instead, Information Builders provides for business users the web and mobile InfoAssist product.

Picture: Developer Studio IDE 

Developer Studio Features

The Developer Studio provides an IT BI/BA developer with a variety of software development features, including: 
  • Metadata Management: tool for generating and maintaining the metadata layer 
  • HTML Composer: layout tool for designing and creating web launch pages 
  • Procedure Viewer: layout tool to visually display multiple-step procedural logic 
  • Report Painter: layout tool for designing and creating interactive and dynamic reports 
  • SQL Report Wizard: tool for building reports using SQL requests 
  • Define Dialog: tool for creating virtual columns using business rules 
  • Join Painter: tool for logically connecting tables across the enterprise 
  • HTMLForm: tool for embedding HTML commands inside WebFOCUS procedures 
  • Match Wizard: tool for logically matching tables across the enterprise for either join-like functionality or exceptions
  • For creating graphs, Developer Studio utilizes the InfoAssist product  

Developer Studio Editions

IT technical developers can purchase and install one of two different “editions” of the Developer Studio product:
  • Report Developer Edition
  • Full Edition: includes MAINTAIN development and full personal WebFOCUS image 

Information Builders offers a lower-priced Edition for IT technical developers who do not need to develop online database maintenance applications or have their own personal WebFOCUS environment. Typically, few IT technical developers need all of the features within the Full Edition.

Report Developer Edition

The Report Developer Edition of Developer Studio has all of the features needed to build web and mobile BI applications, including the Procedure Viewer, HTML Composer, Report Painter, Join Painter, Financial Modeling Language Painter, Reporting Server Management, and Change Management features. 

An IT technical developer can download and install this edition of the Developer Studio on his or her workstation for a reasonable one-time license fee plus on-going annual maintenance fee.

Full Developer Studio Edition

The Developer Studio IDE can also be purchased in the “Full Edition” version with its own personal, stand-alone WebFOCUS environment—a WebFOCUS Client Tier (web server, Java app server, client components, security repository, etc.) and a WebFOCUS Reporting Server. This provides a personal “sandbox” for testing WebFOCUS functionality. 

In addition, the full edition of Developer Studio comes with the MAINTAIN development product for creating web and mobile database maintenance applications. This full edition is limited to those IT technical developers who perform MAINTAIN development or to those few individuals with a valid business case for a personal BI environment.

Note: The IT technical developer’s version of Developer Studio must be kept in sync with the other components of WebFOCUS environments. In other words, the developer should not install a client release higher than the software release of the WebFOCUS web tier and BI server.

GUI Code Generators

These WebFOCUS tools enable a visual application development process by providing layout tools that can translate the design and generate the necessary computer programming instructions.

When developing BI applications with WebFOCUS, several languages are involved:
  • InfoAssist: generates the FOCUS 4GL 
  • Developer Studio’s Report Painter: generates the FOCUS 4GL 
  • Developer Studio’s HTML Composer: generates HTML, JavaScript, and XML 

Being a business user tool, InfoAssist does not provide access to the generated instructions. Developer Studio, on the other hand, lets the IT technical developer get to a text editor from where he or she can modify the generated instructions.

There are really only two valid situations where the IT technical developer needs to manually type instructions: the FOCUS 4GL’s Dialogue Manager and the HTML’s JavaScript. Both are procedural scripting languages that accompany the main logic.

There is no reason for an IT technical developer to manually change any of the actual HTML/XML logic generated by the Developer Studio’s HTML Composer other than to add JavaScript. 

Likewise, the IT technical developer must be careful when modifying the 4GL non-procedural code used for creating reports, graphs, and extract files. It is possible to make manual changes not recognized by the Developer Studio’s parser which will cause the layout tools to fail. Where this might happen is when the developer creates a highly-dynamic layout that cannot be painted.

WebFOCUS technical developers should consciously avoid developing BI/BA applications that cannot be opened in the graphical layout tools. While necessary in some complex situations, having “non-paintable” code dramatically increases the skill-set requirements, shifting from individuals who can use visual GUI development to those who must know how to hand-code the 4GL instructions.

Should You Use WebFOCUS?

A list of Information Builders' customers looks like the "Who's Who" of global businesses and government agencies. For over a decade, Gartner has included Information Builders in the Leader's quadrant for enterprise BI products. 

WebFOCUS runs on a variety of platforms (e.g., Windows, UNIX, Linux, and mainframes) and can scale to handle millions of users. It provides super-secure web access to sensitive data, which can be stored in many diverse formats (Information Builders has always been a well-known provider of enterprise data adapters through their iWay Software brand, partnering with many of the other leading software vendors). 

WebFOCUS provides business users with easy-to-use yet robust BI/BA tools. It provides IT developers with a sophisticated IDE to produce robust self-service web and mobile applications. 

WebFOCUS is highly dynamic. Unlike old-fashioned report writers like Crystal Reports which were limited to a single static layout, a WebFOCUS procedure can dynamically restructure itself to produce thousands of different report versions.  

Legacy tools can be modernized into WebFOCUS. For example, SQL routines can be directly embedded inside the WebFOCUS language to leverage legacy assets. For many other reporting tools, there are utilities to automatically assess and transform into WebFOCUS in order to reduce the time and risk of the BI modernization initiative. 

For more information, visit the WebFOCUS website

Saturday, March 1, 2014

How to Ask Smart BI/Analytics Questions

Many people rush when posting a "how-to" question on a software vendor case, a LinkedIn group, or some other web forum, as well as when sending an e-mail question to associates. Getting a good answer to the question can be dramatically improved by first properly structuring the request.

For a great article on how to ask smart questions, see author Eric Raymond’s article on that topic. Eric has written several well-known books on open-source software and the Linux operating system, one of his most famous being “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”

Eric advocates that “Google is your friend” and you must always search before asking for help. 

He recommends that, before posting a question in a web forum, you try to find the answer yourself by going through these steps:

  1. Search the archives of the forum to which you plan to post
  2. Search the web
  3. Read the manual
  4. Read a FAQ
  5. Inspect or experiment
  6. Ask a skilled friend
  7. If you're a programmer, read the source code (e.g., the WebFOCUS JavaScript engine)

Eric also makes the point that “All diagnosticians are from Missouri,” meaning that the people reading your answer will ask you to “Show me your problem’s symptoms in chronological sequence.” 

Following Eric's advice should help you get answers to your BI/Analytics questions.

Have you been frustrated by people asking for help (or perhaps, have you found yourself guilty of asking vague questions)? 

About Me

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.