ShowCase Essbase 11 for IBM i: It’s About Time
June 9, 2009 Alex Woodie
SPSS and its ShowCase division today announced the general availability of Essbase 11 for IBM i , the latest release of its powerful OLAP software for the Power Systems i server. With this release, SPSS has made several big changes to the way it handles time, which is one of the most essential–and challenging–elements to creating and maintaining multidimensional data “cubes.” Now, Essbase for IBM i users don’t have to choose between including time as a dimension in a cube, or sacrificing the inclusion of detailed data.
Hundreds of System i shops rely on the ShowCase suite of tools for their business intelligence products. The most popular tool remains ShowCase Query (formerly Vista), a graphical Windows-based query tool. Many of ShowCase’s largest customers in the retail and manufacturing industries also utilize Essbase for OLAP (online analytical processing) and multidimensional analysis of large data marts or data warehouses.
Essbase, which is now controlled by Oracle, is one of the most powerful and respected multidimensional database management systems on the market. In fact, the original developer of the idea of OLAP was E.F. Codd, who developed Essbase for Arbor Software. (Hyperion Solutions bought Arbor in 1998, and Oracle bought Hyperion in 2007. ShowCase, which was bought by SPSS in 2001, had an agreement with Arbor before the SPSS acquisition.)
Codd’s original idea behind the multidimensional database, or OLAP server, was that spreadsheets are lousy at depicting data that include multiple variables. Add too many variables in the form of time, accounts, regions, products, and customers, and pretty soon you have a series of duplicate tables that aren’t easy to read or maintain. The breakthrough in OLAP came in considering each of these as core dimensions of a centralized database, which can then be queried with an outside tool.
Because of the risk of making the multidimensional databases too big and queries too long to calculate, the Essbase architecture has required that cubes be constructed of summary data, according to Kathy Konkel, product marketing manager for SPSS’ ShowCase business. However, some Essbase users wanted to have more detailed data in their Essbase cubes–such as sales data down to the individual day–so Hyperion started making changes to the core architecture of the product to allow that.
In a previous release of Essbase, Hyperion introduced a new hybrid storage model that allowed some of the data to be stored in a relational database, and other parts of the data to reside in a multidimensional database, Konkel explains. However, that solution introduced problems of its own, and even put some of the basic date and calendar functionality that Essbase users enjoyed out of reach.
“You could build an outline within Essbase to mimic the calendar of your business, but it was kind of a tedious process and you had to be a really good Essbase programmer to be able to do it,” she says. Since many users on older versions of Essbase for IBM i needed to have that date functionality, they could not move to newer versions of Essbase (which provided access to more detailed information) without incurring a lot of redevelopment to get there.
With Essbase 11 for IBM i version, ShowCase has re-instituted some of the core time and calendar functions that are central to multidimensional analysis, enabling users to get the benefits of more detailed data, without forgoing basic time functionality. “Hyperion recognized this weakness in their product quite a while back, but frankly it took quite a bit of re-architecting in the product to be able to handle the level of detail that customers were asking for,” Konkel says.
Specifically, the new release brings a set of wizards that mimic the best practices of the smartest Essbase experts, including Gregorian, manufacturing, retail, ISO, and fiscal calendars. It allows organizations that don’t have the best Essbase experts to be able to analyze information the way they want to, Konkel says.
The importance of time and a calendar in an OLAP implementation can’t be overstated. “Time is almost always a dimension [in an OLAP cube] and it’s usually the most difficult one to build. It’s different for different business,” Konkel says.
For example, many retail organizations like to analyze their data based on when holidays occur, or based on another calendar, but the exact dates of holidays and other days that are important to retail outfits change from month to month and year to year. For some retail shops, the third Saturday of the month may be their baseline day. “Previously you’d just have to go in by hand and mark what was the third Saturday of every month,” Konkel says. “Now you can just say, ‘I want the third Saturday of every month to be this.’ And then you can do analysis based what happened the third Saturday of every month.”
Essbase 11 for IBM i also brings support for built-in time calculations, such as year-to-date and rolling averages. Essbase users can also create analysis based on specific points of time even after organizational changes, such as last year’s sales territories or product packaging over different markets.
SPSS has also introduced a new “view only” license for Essbase 11 for IBM i that is designed for users who only consume reports, and don’t develop them. Previously, the licensing terms did not differentiate these two different classes of users. This change will save customers money.
SPSS also unveiled a new release of Web Analysis 11 for IBM i, which was formerly known as Analyzer. This is the product that is used to navigate the OLAP cube and create charts, graphs, and dashboards that make sense of the huge amount of data the OLAP server is accessing.
The main enhancement with this release of Web Analysis is the move away from a Java applet-based architecture to a Java servlet architecture that is faster and doesn’t require loading code on the customer’s desktop.
The product also gains a new integration with Microsoft Office applications that enable charts and graphs linked to Word or PowerPoint to be refreshed with the latest Essbase data quickly and easily, thanks to a handy “refresh” button (see Fig. 1).
Also announced today was the capability to integrate IBM i-based ShowCase Suite products with PASW Collaboration & Deployment Services 4. This enables users to initiate reporting processes through a Web browser. It also brings new report automation capabilities through support for Java Messaging Services (JMS).
Essbase 11 for IBM i and Web Analysis 11 for IBM i are available now. For more information, visit www.spss.com/showcase.