Examining the ongoing challenges of delivering high-quality, value-added ERP services in Higher Education.

Monday, August 26, 2013

It slices, it dices, it does mobile? (BI Publisher)

Quick BIMAD Dashboard
It's no secret (among those who have worked with me) that I'm a big fan of Oracle BI Publisher (still aka XML Publisher in some camps). I remember seeing it for the first time at Oracle OpenWorld 2005, when it was a new tool (and I was new to Oracle Apps). I rushed back to my project at that time (E-Business Suite in the Caribbean) and extolled the virtues of this tool -- "and the main development tool is Microsoft Word! How effin cool is that?" Images of functional users writing their own report layouts danced in my head.

I remain a huge evangelist today, although I have struggled at times to raise my teams' exuberance to match my own. There have been moments when product teams opted to propagate SQR, Hyperion Interactive Reporting, and even Oracle Reports instead. And I have encountered resistance from OBIEE gurus with a parochial predisposition toward Answers (in truth, when the integration of BIP into OBIEE limped along through 10g and early 11g releases, I can understand them to a point). 

Few will challenge BI Publisher's strengths -- high-volume pixel-perfect reporting uses cases such as customer invoices or purchase orders. The ease of integrating conditional logic within the template to toggle the letterhead or signature, embed data points within text paragraphs, multiple templates (especially localized) for a single SQL and XML definition...
Configuring Tile Layout in BI Mobile App Designer (aka BI Publisher)
As an online reporting tool, things have been a little murkier. While the integration of BI Publisher into the various Oracle Applications has maintained a focus on MS Word and Adobe as the primary authoring tools, OBIEE has been trying to build an online graphical user interface. On the data modeling side, they have done a fine job (despite my blog on the limits of using Answers as BI Publisher data source, which has since been remedied by providing direct query access from BIP). On the layout side, for a while I have given advice to skip the online editor and stick with Word. 

So imagine my surprise when I watched the slick YouTube video intro to Oracle BI Mobile Application Designer and thought -- is that BI Publisher under the hood? Yup, it sure is. 

The rough example above uses a simple Excel data source (in this case, tickets exported from Atlassian JIRA) to show the new tile capability (BIP's response to trellis charts in Answers, with a dash of performance tiles). It is remarkably easy to create a simple layout (though formatting a whole data table is still easier in MS Word...) and there are some snazzy built-in features such as sub-pages to drill with one tap from tile view to details. 

There are a lot of unanswered questions for me about BI Mobile strategy -- although the new designer starts to solve the iOS-only problem, it doesn't really... If you want to expose full-featured OBIEE Dashboards you are restricted to building specialized views that display nicely on iPhones and iPads. But at the same time, the options the App Designer opens up are quite interesting... I look forward to spending some more time dabbling in "BIMAD" (a great acronym, by the way, one of Oracle's best) in coming  months!

Friday, August 23, 2013

OOW13 Planning Begins

Hard to believe that Oracle Open World 2013 is just a month away. Harder to believe the obvious implication of that fact -- that summer has once again slipped away into history. (Sigh.)

Planner that I am, it has been absolutely killing me that the agenda builder has not been available so I could put together my itinerary. In the last two years, I represented a broad portfolio of Applications and dabbled here and there and everywhere. In my new capacity, several applications -- while still of great intellectual interest -- are no longer my responsibility. It feels strange to skip over E-Business Suite and Hyperion EPM sessions in favor of PeopleTools. While it won't be surprising to friends of the blog that I'll be hitting as many OBIEE and Exalytics sessions as I can, with our big push on mobility and user experience, I will be flipping the techie switch in my brain and trying to understand a host of sessions on ADF, SOA, and UX. The resurgence of APEX is also of great interest, so I will need to carve out a few hours for that. All in all, I expect another exhausting and brain-fatiguing week! Now back to that agenda builder (finally launched yesterday) to see what fits.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The "Big Data" of Vacation Photographs

Looking for answers in Paris
Before my wife left for a weekend with her folks, she gave me only one around-the-house to-do: process the pictures from our 2012 European vacation so we can finally print images from our sans-toddler trip to Switzerland and Paris.

Last July I blogged about my failure to synchronize dates and times across the multiple devices used to capture our memories. This is a non-trivial problem and one that I fear I will repeat. But as I clicked through my photographs today, I started thinking about storage, big data, and myriad things I am paid to think about during the week.
My wife dancing in the clouds on Mt. Rigi
[Before I go on, let me recognize this as a set of true "first world" problems. Woe is me, with my DSLR and trips to Europe!]

Today's photographic technologies are remarkable in terms of speed, cost, and flexibility. While the latest and greatest (non-professional) Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera might cost hundreds, the cost per photograph is basically $0.00. Back in college, when I didn't have a real camera, I bought disposables -- let's say they were $10 in today's dollars, plus $15 for prints -- and you didn't know until you went back to CVS whether any of the pictures had come out. Today, you have instant feedback and you it doesn't cost you anything for continuous shooting since you can just delete the failed images. Couple this fact with the parallel reality that we are armed with a camera 24x7 (our phones, irrespective of brand, have fantastic cameras compared to those crappy disposables). So what happens? An explosion of images.

Let's use my trip as an example. AFTER massaging the photographs, deleting the true duds and the complete duplicates, my eleven-day trip resulted in 1370 photographs. The folder takes up 16GB. There are original photos, staged copies from the devices, extra copies Picasa saves while I'm editing, exported (smaller) images for Facebook... Think about this data volume and where it will go -- first it sits on my PC, which is backed up to at least one location. Then it sits on a cloud service, which is backed up to at least one location and probably more than once. Then many of the photos get independently posted to Facebook. And Twitter. And the ones taken on the iPhone are in the Apple Cloud. My single trip might be consuming a terabyte of storage when all is said and done! 

Yet half these photos should be deleted. Some are redundant with previous trips (how many photos of the Eiffel Tower undercarriage does one really need?). Others are close enough to each other to be redundant, but I just can't bring myself to delete them... And some just aren't that interesting (as if I remember who is depicted in that statue in that random park...)

Adding insult to injury, the meta data is garbage. First, because of the issue with the date/time; second, because location data only exists on the iPhone and not always accurate because I was on and off airplane mode; finally, because modified versions (crops, color boost, lighting) can overwrite key metadata elements.
Worth its weight in gigabytes, the Eiffel Tower at night...
But all that said, I took some great pictures of a spectacular place during a brilliant trip with an amazing girl. In the end, that's what justifies it all!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

OBIEE iPhone Design Pattern

So you want to deploy some OBIEE reporting to the iPhone. Are you sure? The harsh reality, despite the sexy-factor, is that rich visualizations simply do not translate to the smart phone. But it looks cool in demonstrations and there will inevitably be some valid user stories. But you need to recognize the real limitations of not only delivering business intelligence to a 4x2 device but also some quirky challenges of OBIEE itself.

I have been playing with this most of the afternoon to deliver a set of guidelines and illustration. First, let me show you a couple pictures before I explain how I got there…
Original “Mobile” Dashboard in Sample App Lite
Original “Mobile” Dashboard on iPhone - Ugh!
iPhone Optimized Dashboard in OBIEE Web Version
iPhone Dashboard in Action
Modest tweaks make BI Mobile look pretty good on the iPhone!
Hopefully it is obvious what a difference it makes to build for the target form factor. Now let’s talk about the steps to get there…

Overall Design

Start with one column and fix its width at 320; while you could make this wider for the iPhone 5+, coding to the smaller form factor is wise. You will then create additional sections for each piece of content; my advice is to make each section collapsible, show the section heading and section title, and give the section a meaningful name. OBIEE does this weird thing and reserves the white space for the title even though the default behavior is NOT to show the section header/title. But in my opinion, any collapsible section should have a name so you can remember what’s there when it is hidden!

My gut inclination is to show the Apply buttons because I personally don’t want a report repainting with every selection of a parameter, especially if I’m on cellular network. But it does take up precious screen real estate, so this is a tricky call.

Prompts: In the newest Sample App, the illustrative Mobile dashboards relocate the prompts from the left side of the dashboard layout to the bottom. This is not the right answer for the current rendering pattern of BI Mobile on the iPhone. If designing for the iPhone, follow these guidelines and you’ll be fine.

1. Place the prompt section at the top of the column.

2. As otherwise noted, make it collapsible and show the section title.

3. Keep it simple. Opt for choice boxes instead of list boxes. Don’t use sliders or other wacky prompts. Be careful of width because OBIEE will let content spill outside the fixed width of the column or section, which is annoying.

Performance Tiles: I love these little guys. They work really well on the iPhone in the following configurations: 2 columns of large tiles or 3 columns of small tiles. Medium tiles are too wide to fit three across (just barely). They are really made for the mobile device, without a doubt the best single way to tell a story on a small screen.

Tables and Pivot Tables: Limit to four columns, font size 8 or 9, and think about height – while long tables can work fine, is that really the purpose of mobile BI?

Trellis Charts: Be very, very careful. Spark bars can be an ally in the quest to optimize use of space. Interestingly, the trellis view has the most effective “maximum pixels” control but you are going to be limited to two columns without having a horizontal scroll bar. And nobody likes those.

Funnels, Gauges, Tickers: No, no, and no. 

Bar Charts: Consider horizontal bars because you simply have more room to tell a story. OBIEE does not behave itself with vertical bars and restricted canvas widths. Or at least that’s my experience!

So there you have it, a few tips and tricks on delivering OBIEE to the iPhone! Hope it helps…

Oracle BI Mobile - Good, Bad, and Ugly

Oracle’s first attempt at BI Mobile was pretty weak; I remember telling the sales team that they needed to achieve parity with plain old Safari before we would pay incremental license fees for BI Mobile. Fortunately, Oracle transformed the iOS mobile application and repackaged it as Oracle BI Mobile “HD.” I recently spent a few hours experimenting with the app on my iPad2 and iPhone 4 (connected to our Exalytics sandbox and SIA proof-of-concept). Below are some initial observations.

The Good
Email Report: I am going to write another blog on this feature (and how I wish it were ported back to the browser) but suffice it to say that it is incredibly easy to email a dashboard as an attachment, as an image in the body, or as a URL.

Local Content: You can quickly “Save to Local” if you want to hold onto a report for later review when disconnected from the server. (NOTE: This feature can be restricted by the Administrator).

iPad BI Mobile: Major improvements in interactivity, gesture support, etc.

Interaction / Interactivity: The application supports many gestures (you really need to read the Getting Started Doc) so you can drill-down, view tool tips, etc.

iPad Prompts: The application is smart enough to pull user prompts into a special header region and it also renders sliders as tablet friendly drop down lists. (Now if only the iPhone version did the same…)

The Bad
iOS Only: Thus far, there is no Android mobile application. This doesn’t bother me since most of the user population at my institution
iPad BI Mobile Settings
Settings Page: It isn’t always easy to jump back to the settings page, which is problematic when certain options are not available “on the fly;” for example, the decision whether to send dashboards as PDFs, URLs, or in-line images is a universal one so you have to toggle the setting, then go to the dashboard you want to send, repeating the steps if you want to send differently next time!

The Ugly
iPhone Display: Ugh. By default the application shows reports in “Mobile Format” which is often worse than viewing in “Original Format” – in both cases, dashboards do not resize to fit the screen and you can’t pinch to shrink.
BI Mobile on iPhone: I can see part of my Scorecard...

In addition, unlike the iPad, prompts are not treated in any special way – they appear in the same location and format as the browser, which can be terrible. For better or worse, I think the only answer is that if you expect widespread adoption of BI Mobile on the iPhone, you’d better design specific layouts for that form factor. (Another blog on this soon.)

Catalog Contents: My suggestion is there should be a feature to flag Dashboards or Analyses as available to the Mobile App. Because unless you are diligent about segregating those tailored for BI Mobile, the users can open any report they want. This will result in support calls and complaints, at the minimum…

Synchronized Recent Activity: In theory this is a great feature. Right now if I pull up OBIEE on my table, phone, and PC the “recent activity” lists are identical. The problem is that as a user my expectation was to see the recent activity on each of the devices, especially if there are going to be specialized reports targeted for mobile!

Implementations of OBIEE should carefully examine the need for delivering dashboards and reports to mobile users and prioritize development of tailored versions for such use. While the iPad experience is maturing nicely, the iPhone remains a clumsy fit. Ongoing investment in the mobile application makes me optimistic; in reality, the bigger challenge (at least in my world) is about people and culture – no matter how perfectly the application works, do my users want to run reports on their iPads? Or would a suite of handsome iPhone-customized dashboards wither on the vine?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Oracle Usability Meeting

Today I attended the Oracle Usability Advisory Board for the first time. We covered a whole range of topics: user adoption, diverse user populations, visualization, gamification, etc. I can’t talk about Oracle’s future product direction or details shared by the customers (all such things are preotected under non-disclosure), but I think the following observations are in the clear...

1. Much as I love #highered conferences, there is something to be said for cross-industry collaboration; while there are vast differences in the goods we produce or services we deliver, people are people and technology is technology. We are more similar than different; finance pros across industries just want their spreadsheets, change is scary, etc., etc.

2. Did you know that Purina dog / cat food lines are owned by Nestle but Purina feed for all other beasts and critters is produced by Land O’Lakes? Or that there is such a thing as “polar bear feed” and “Monkey Chow”?

3. The new simplified user interface for Oracle Fusion is slick. See this article http://www.oracle.com/webfolder/ux/applications/successStories/130724-FUSE.html on Oracle.com to see some screenshots and a few quotes from the people who ran my session today!

Overall, it was great to meet some new people and learn about what others are doing with Oracle technology, where Oracle might be heading in the future, and how all of it might apply to my institution! Next up on the Usability front: a bunch of sessions at Open World in six weeks!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

OBIEE Form Factor Design

Onboard the Acela, en route to an Oracle Usability meeting, I was indulging my unhealthy OBIEE habit. As you know from earlier posts this week, I finally got my hands on OBIEE on Exalytics and although we haven't started building or deploying any content, Sample App Lite comes with two demonstration dashboards -- one clearly "optimized" for Oracle BI Mobile HD (that bold inference courtesy of the Dashboard named "Mobile").

In looking at the "regular" and "mobile" dashboards side by side, there are not all that many differences. Fundamentally, the design changes can be boiled down to:

a.) Moving the prompts section from the left side of the dashboard to the bottom (BI Mobile for the iPad automatically pulls prompts to the top of the screen no matter their placement)

b.) Simplifying the dashboard layout such as breaking the contribution wheel visual onto its own Dashboard page, separate from the strategy tree visual.

Below are illustrations of these two techniques.

Sample Dashboard for Browser; Prompts on the Left
Same Dashboard in BI Mobile on iPad; note orphaned non-prompt content at left
Mobile-optimized Dashboard with prompts at bottom shown in browser
Same dashboard, note the prompts at the top and "orphaned content"at bottom

These examples started me thinking about design patterns, best practices, and the definition of "mobile." I'll blog later this week about the user experience of Oracle BI Mobile, but what concerns me most is the challenge of delivering information-rich analytics to diverse platforms.

Forget tablets and smart phones for now; let's talk browsers and PCs. My lead technical analyst has a large monitor on his desk. Nothing outlandish, just a typical extra-large monitor, standard issue these days. The delivered sample Dashboards look fantastic on his screen. But I exclusively use a laptop with a 14" screen, no big desk monitor for me. Consequently, any dashboard page designed to fill my analyst's screen will have vertical and horizontal scroll bars for me. Yet optimizing a view for my machine (or a tablet) will make insufficient use of the real estate on a big-ass screen.

So what form factor / screen size should be the basis for OBIEE Dashboard design? When is it worth building multiple versions of reports and dashboards to support each possible layout? (Because those same "mobile" pages that look slick on the iPad are borderline useless on the iPhone screen). (See below for examples). When should we encourage iPad users to fire up OBIEE in Safari instead of the BI Mobile App (browser is still our only option for our Android and Surface friends)? How do we make it simple (training-free) for users to know which reports they should use and which they should not? These are non-trivial obstacles to promoting mobile analytics.

"Contribution Wheel" on the iPhone; cannot scroll!
Now that's a useful funnel chart!

I don't pretend to have a lot of answers right now. I absolutely see the value in delivering intelligence to mobile devices (though I'm not entirely sure I have a user base that's ready for such things) and think it could prove a transformative opportunity...but we will need to spend a lot of time on standards and focus groups and experimentation first!

Sample Sales Lite on Exalytics

Last week I wrote about the exciting events around here when the Oracle techs came on-site to power up and network our first Exalytics machine. Today I got my first chance to touch it, and also my first time looking at Sample App Lite. Very exciting.

My first observation is that it is fairly remarkable how far Sample App Lite has come since the version, with all the newer visualizations of the last year showcased in six tabs: trellis charts (in their many variations), the "contribution wheel" for scorecards, waterfall charts, performance tiles. For newbies -- especially those for whom the overhead of VirtualBox and Sample App (full) are just too much -- this is a great tool for quickly seeing capabilities, reverse engineering how the visualizations were constructed, and then proceeding with building their own. I'm so glad that Oracle continues to invest in the sample applications.

Figure 1: Tiles and Trellis Charts in Sample App Lite
Figure 2: Waterfalls, Gauges, and MORE Trellis Charts

My second observation is that I just don't care for "go-less prompts." There was a lot of hype about this capability when Exalytics came out, and then the ability to hide the "go" button became available on non-Exalytics OBIEE. Perhaps I'm unusual, but I just need my screen repainting as I click options in a multi-select such as the one in Figure 1 (above).

My third observation is that I just love performance tiles. They're nifty. And quite easy to configure, although this excellent post on Performance Tile Mobile Dashboards by Kevin McGinley shows how fancy you can get when you also link each tile to a meaningful drill-down view via Action Links (another feature that I love, even if it is a bit clunky).

And my final observation (for now) is that trellis charts are pretty cool and much more flexible than I expected. This is another case where the hype about trellis charting and deep visualizations at OOW and other events was a bit exhausting, but I am incredibly eager to showcase this capability for my project's data!

I'm sure I'll have more observations in the coming days, especially as we load Student Information Analytics and connect to a few other data sources -- never mind TimesTen, which is still a bit far on the horizon. But these are exciting times in Harvard Square for an aspiring data geek!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Always Learning

A couple weeks ago, we visited with my grandparents-in-law. They knew I had taken a new position at the University and "Grams" asked me "are you learning anything?" My gut reaction was that this seemed a rather strange question. I chalked it up to her not necessarily understanding my job and fumbled through an answer.

Yet, isn't this exactly why I love my profession? For all the inevitable tedium inherent to any job (and I eat my fair share) information technology and project management are rarely stale. So let me reflect for a moment on what I've learned in the last three months.

For starters, how about a whole new community of stakeholders. Twenty-one project briefings delivered (plus the Harvard IT Summit) for a total audience of approximately 300. That's 300 new names to memorize, 300 new sets of concerns and questions. A community so vast (and that's just the senior and middle management layer) that I have to implement Salesforce.com.

I've been a higher ed guy for my whole career, so CRM has always been off the radar. But I knew it was only a matter of time, with CRM increasingly prevalent as a tool for admissions and advancement. But who'd have guessed what a great project management tool it can be? Six months from now, if an executive at one of the schools wants to know how we've been engaging his team, I will press a button and hand him a nifty dashboard. (Or at least that's the plan). Prior to this experience, most of what I knew about Salesforce was courtesty of the Benioff-Ellison OOW row back in 2011. Now I'm synchronizing contacts, events, and tasks between Outlook and Salesforce, experimenting with Chatter, exploring campaigns and more. (I feel a HEUG Alliance or EDUCAUSE presentation coming out of this...)

I did not expect to learn so much about building renovation and space planning on this project. Yet I spent three hours last weekend importing CAD drawings into Visio, drawing new walls, and proposing demolition. I have learned all about Walltalkers and can't wait to carve out a happy collaboration space of bean bag chairs beside an expanse of white board. Perhaps I should snap some before and after pics in case I need a portfolio for a future career in interior office design. (One never knows...)

And then there is technology -- perhaps the most obvious opportunity for learning in an implementation project. Friends of the blog know I'm already immersed in OBIEE and Exalytics, but PeopleSoft is a behemoth, especially when you factor in emerging features within Campus Solutions and PeopleTools, the new alpha release of Campus Mobile in Oracle ADF, and User Productivity Kit. So much to learn and so little time... Good thing I have a whole team on the job for that!

Finally, we have User Experience. The charter for my program explicitly says "excellent user experience" and I have to put my money where my keyboard is. The journey begins with a UX meeting in New York this week, continues with ethnographic studies (something I actually do have experience with from college) of users in their environment, and extends throughout the next two years as we scope and then design a new bespoke user experience for faculty and students. I look forward to learning a whole new vocabulary of design patterns, gestures, and interactions...

And now, off to learn something (obsensibly) unrelated to my day job. The Sunday The New York Times just landed on my porch!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Exalytics Journey Begins (Finally)

Tuesday morning was thrilling yet anti-climactic for the University (or at least my little corner of it) as an Oracle technician arrived on site to power up the first of our Exalytics In-Memory BI Machines. Despite the opportunities presented by the engineered solution to power our investments in Essbase and OBIEE, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the implications of bringing this system into our environment. To what extent is this truly an "applicance"? How can we possibly integrate a "black box" into our backup and monitoring infrastructure? (Answer: it's not really a black box). What are the implications of Oracle Enterprise Linux and Oracle VM when we are standardizing on RHEL and VMWare? Is it required to have Oracle do the software installation? And so on...
Two Exalytics Machines in the Rack
Turning on the machine may have been a little disappointing to the team -- as the deployment instructions say "press and hold the power button." Some basic diagnostics passed, IP address configured, machine handed over to my OBI team for the rest.

So what has happened since then (3 whole days later)? Some minor challenges finding the latest base image and BI Foundation Suite media -- e-delivery fail, time for a few service requests. Meanwhile, the team put the finishing touches on the partner server for Exalytics: a virtual machine loaded up with the relational database (for the OBIEE repositories, OBIA data warehouse, Oracle Data Integrator, and a shadow OBIEE install because it is required to sit on the same machine as OBIA -- I really hope that situation changes).

Today the real Exalytics software installation is happening... And by the end of next week we should have a fully functioning prototype of Student Information Analytics in Exalytics (which will be just a bit more machine than we need for a prototype, but that's another story). I am eager to finally experiment with all the special features -- cube spin-off, go-less prompts, TimesTen summary advisor. You know, in my spare time. :)