Wednesday, December 24, 2008

ADVIZOR's In-Memory Database Supports Powerful Visualization

Back when I was writing a great deal about QlikView, I proposed that its fundamental value came from empowering business analysts to do work for themselves that would otherwise require IT support. (See, for example, this post, which has the virtue of pretty graphics.) This same notion of considering which users do which work has permiated my ideas of usability measurement for demand generation systems and usability in general. But to get back specifically to business intelligence systems, I think there is a particularly large gap between the capabilities available to business analysts and those available to IT. That is, even though the business intelligence systems like Cognos and Business Objects give analysts many ways to slice and present prepared data, they do not let analysts add new data or restructure existing data to meet new needs. This still requires the IT staff to design new data cubes and loading processes.

This gap is partly filled by analytical technologies such as columnar systems and database appliances, which can give good performance without schemas tailored for each task. But those systems are purchased and managed by the IT department, so they still leave analysts largely reliant on IT’s tender mercies.

A much larger portion of the gap is filled by products like QlikView, which the analysts can largely control for themselves. These can be divided into two subcategories: database engines like QlikView and illuminate, and visualization tools like Tableau and TIBCO Spotfire. The first group lets analysts do complex data manipulation and queries without extensive data modeling, while the latter group lets them do complex data exploration and presentation without formal programming. This distinction is not absolute: the database tools offer some presentation functions, and the visualization tools support some data manipulation. Both capabilities must be available for the analysts the work independently.

This brings us to ADVIZOR from ADVIZOR Solutions. ADVIZOR features an in-memory database and some data manipulation, but its primary strength is visualization. This includes at least fifteen chart types, including some with delightfully cool names like Multiscape, Parabox and Data Constellations. Analysts can easily configure these by selecting a few menu options. The charts are also somewhat interactive, allowing users to select records by clicking on a shape or drawing a box around data points. Some settings can be changed within the chart, such as selecting a measure to report on. Others, such as specifying the dimensions, require modifying the chart setup. The distinction won’t matter much to business analysts, who will have the tools build and modify the charts. But final consumers of the analyses typically run a viewer that does not permit changes to the underlying graph configuration.

On the other hand, that in-memory database can link several charts within a dashboard so selections made on one chart are immediately reflected in all others. This is arguably the greatest strength of the system, since it lets users slice data across many dimensions without writing complex queries. Colors are also consistent from one chart to the next, so that, for example, the colors assigned to different customer groups in a bar chart determine the color of the dot assigned to each customer in a scatter plot. Selecting a single group by clicking on its bar would turn the dots of all the other customers to gray. Keeping the excluded records visible in this fashion may yield more insight than simply removing them, although the system could also do that. These adjustments appear almost instantly even where millions of records are involved.

Dashboards can easily be shared with end-users through either a zero-footprint Web client or a downloadable object. Both use the Microsoft .NET platform, so Mac and Linux users need not apply. Images of ADVIZOR dashboards can easily be exported to Office documents, and can actually be manipulated from within Powerpoint if they are connected to the underlying dashboard. It’s also easy to export results such as lists of selected records.

Circling back to that database: it employs technology developed at Bell Labs during the 1990’s to support interactive visualization. The data model itself is a fairly standard one of tables linked by keys. Users can import data from text files, relational databases, Excel, Access, text files, Business Objects or They can map the table relationships and add some transformations and calculated fields during or after the import process. Although the mapping and transformations are executed interactively, the system records the sequence so the user can later edit it or repeat it automatically.

The import is fairly quick: the vendor said that an extract of three to four gigabytes across thirty tables runs in about twenty minutes, of which about five minutes is the build itself. The stored data is highly compressed but expands substantially when loaded into RAM: in the previous example, the three to four GB are saved as a 70 MB project file, but need 1.4 GB of RAM. The current version of ADVIZOR runs on 32 bit systems which limits it to 2-4 GB of RAM, although a 64 bit version is on track for release in January 2009. This will allow much larger implementations.

Pricing of ADVIZOR starts at $499 for a desktop version limited to Excel, Access or source data and without table linking. (A 30-day trial version of this costs $49.) The full version starts at around $10,000, with additional charges for different types of user seats and professional services. Few clients pay less than $20,000 and a typical purchase is $50,000 to $60,000. Most buyers are business analysts or managers with limited technical skills, so the company usually helps set up their initial data loads and applications. ADVIZOR was introduced in 2004 and has several thousand end users, with a particular concentration in fund-raising for higher education. The bulk of ADVIZOR sales come through vendors who have embedded it within their own products.

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