A lot is happening in the SAP BI spectrum: new versions of Design Studio, Lumira, BI4.2 just went General Available, the acquisition of Roambi. You would almost forget that SAP is working on a completely new front-end platform called SAP Cloud for Analytics (C4A).
Since the TechEd 2015 in Las Vegas, it was possible to register for demo access to this platform. But, almost nobody got an actual login for this. Fortunately I was able to participate in a 3-day SAP Partner Test on C4A at SAP headquarters in Waldorf earlier this month. This gave me the opportunity to work hands-on with the system and to provide direct feedback to the development team.
The idea behind C4A is that SAP wants to create a platform that will contain at least all existing analytical capabilities, which we know from all the other SAP front-end BI tools. The C4A environment is built from scratch and runs completely – and only – in the cloud (unlike old on-premise cloud solutions as CrystalReports.com for example). This also means that no migration will be possible from existing tools. By the way, the development capacity for the on-premise tools remains on the same level, so no need to panic. For C4A mostly new developers are recruited.
C4A has two strategies on using data from data sources: Import and Online. The import option is very similar to the Lumira scenarios in which the data has to be imported first, and then can be fully customized and used for visualization and analysis. In the online option the data replication is not needed, so the data can be used instantly.
Unfortunately it turned out that C4A still has a lot of limitations in the current version. We can not use SAP BW BEx queries (currently under development) and Universes as data source, so the testing remained limited to flat files only. Currently supported data sources are BPC, CSV, XLS, Salesforce.com and Google Drive.
For the online scenario connecting to SAP HANA is available. Unfortunately, this also contains a variety of restrictions, such as lack of SSO, Geo support HANA hierarchies and merging of different data sources is not yet possible.
The workflow is not very clear and some basic usability features are missing, such as the option to select multiple characteristics/key figures to quickly perform the same adjustments, and an Undo option. In addition, users are regularly confronted with technical and obscure error messages. There is clearly still a lot of work to do for the development team.
Looking at the data visualization and analysis options C4A already seems to be a lot more mature. It is very easy to build charts and create a ‘story’ (dashboard/report). Just as in Lumira the charts change immediately after every setup change, without the need to save or publish the story first. Moving and resizing objects is quite fast, although it must be said that we have only been able to test with small datasets.
Besides a large number of chart types there are also cross tabs, geo maps, images, icons, text objects, input controls, clocks and even RSS reader objects available for usage in a story.
An expert mode with some scripting and custom CSS features as we know from Design Studio is not included in C4A. Also quite a few features that should be pretty standard in every (BI) tool are missing. To name just a few: adjustment of the number of decimal places and the scaling factor of key figures, the ability to copy a page, a grid-like component, an Undo option (!), dynamic filters (for example to show the last two months), etc.
The Digital Boardroom is a premium feature in C4A which requires an additional license. Digital Boardroom basically is an extra layer on top of C4A, in which stories can be used in a setup of three screens in meetings. These three stories are displayed next to each other on a large touch-TV’s and are linked to each other, so users could drill down from a story on one screen to another.
For me this is really more like a gimmick and I do not understand why this should be a separate (premium) product. The marketing value of this is apparently very high for SAP, but if the actual added value can justify the additional (high) license costs is very questionable.
The user and role administration is quite similar to that of the BI Platform and is fairly easy to use. A nice feature is that the C4A users now can apply for a role themselves. Each role has a manager who can grant approval for this from within C4A.
C4A also includes an admin monitor panel in which the usage of C4A can checked. Here you can currently only find a number of predefined metrics such as the number of licenses, memory usage and foutentracelog. It is not yet possible create your own thresholds on metrics and alerts as in the BI Platform. Also, the monitor data is not yet available for analysis (for example, in a C4A story).
A transport/promotion mechanism is not available. It is possible to export and import objects, but converting a source system/data source as is possible in SAP BW and BI Platform is not included.
The Cloud for Planning solution was also covered. Currently, the workflow is as follows: First, data is retrieved from BPC or from a flat file. In a ‘private’ version adjustments can be made. This happens in a spreadsheet-like environment, which provides various planning related functions (for example, the spread of data about various hierarchy nodes) and supports Excel-like formulas. In the end, the changes are published back to BPC. By the way SAP BW is not yet supported.
The tool has a calendar option in which periodic planning tasks can be scheduled. These taks can be assigned to users with different roles (entry planning, reviewer, etc.).
This solution is currently mostly used for organizations the do most of their planning in Excel and want to switch to a more centralized tool. Cloud for Planning should also be seen as complementary to BPC, not as a replacement.
SAP Cloud for Analytics looks very promising. The concept and the setup of the tool is good but it is not there yet. I hoped for a BI tool that you could use without a manual or help. That is absolutely not the case and I think that SAP Lumira for example is way ahead on that. A lot of basic functionality is still lacking; not just the big things like connectivity to SAP BW and Universes, but also some smaller usability features.
So, for now C4A seems to be in the same situation as Lumira was in some time ago: a nice tools if you want to work with flat files, but for serious BI not ready yet. But, I expect C4A will develop and improve extremely rapidly in the coming months. Every two weeks new features and functionality are to C4A, so it is definitely a tool to follow closely!