Some Excel BI myths debunked – #5 Real-time data exploration

#5: Lack of Real-time data exploration

The argument is often made that Excel is too inflexible to answer spur of the moment questions quickly and effectively. The scenario given is that you’re in a meeting with your Excel workbook, and someone asks a related question not currently accounted for. How embarrassing to have to look at your back up folder of printed Excel workbooks… Really? It may escape the attention of some, but Excel is actually an electronic product too so as a first point you wouldn’t need to dust off an enormous binder of printed reports.

That aside, the overall argument has some merit in specific cases. If Excel is acting as both the datastore and the presentation tool you have a problem. If the data you need isn’t in the workbook, you’re bang out of luck.

There are two key requirements to address the issue in Excel. Firstly the data needs to be stored outside the workbook; in the case of XLCubed that’s in AS cubes or tabular models. This means when the data isn’t currently visible in the workbook it can still easily be queried and brought into play.

Secondly, while it’s a huge step having the data in a cube, that in itself isn’t enough. You need to be able to get it out quickly, easily and flexibly and to display it as information rather than just data. There are significant limitations with pivot tables when used to report on a cube and XLCubed addresses these while adding a lot more capability on top. The additional data you need to answer the question is readily available, and you have tools to do something meaningful with it using slice and dice tabular reporting, interactive charting and straightforward user calculations.

So when someone asks the question in meeting, you can explore it interactively and on the spot. And in Excel.

Some Excel BI myths debunked

“Excel: Great hammer, lousy screwdriver’”

When evaluating BI tools, many of our customers are hit by marketing messages about the limitations and woes of Excel. One white paper we were pointed to is Tableau’s ‘Excel: Great hammer, lousy screwdriver’. It contains 5 key points concerning Excel limitations for BI which we’ll take a look at over the next few weeks, along with a few others which we hear frequently.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”

We fully appreciate that Excel isn’t perfect for all needs, but XLCubed chooses to address the weaknesses and embrace the very significant strengths, rather than throwing everything away.

XLCubed helps users get most value and benefit from Microsoft’s Analysis Services platform by taking the best of Excel, and extending that with an optimised query and reporting environment which lets them do more, and do it more quickly. Excel becomes a very flexible presentation layer, and Analysis Services removes the scalability and data integrity issues.

Let’s take a look at some of the key Excel objections raised, with #2 to follow next week:

#1) Limited data volumes

“Excel only handles 1 million rows – that’s not nearly enough for my business”

The advent of Big data makes everyone think of huge data volumes. In reality if you’re looking at core Financial reporting a million rows may well be more than enough but that’s not the point: for sales and operational reporting over several years a million rows won’t come close.  Big Data is partly around volumes, but also concerns the data structure. These days the challenge of big data isn’t the ability to store it, it’s the ability to do something useful with it.  And doing something useful with it isn’t creating reports which run to a million rows.

We see Excel as a presentation layer, not as a database. While Power Pivot muddies that argument a little, very few people see Power Pivot models as a central repository for Corporate data. XLCubed is a client front end tool for SQL Server Analysis Services (which  laughs at 1 million rows). 1 million new rows per day over several years is starting to ramp up the volume, but the technology is designed to scale, and to scale on significantly less expensive hardware than in-memory technologies (of which Analysis Services 2012 of course now has its own player with xVelocity).

So while Excel and hence XLCubed can only display 1 million rows at a time, the underlying cubes can run to billions of rows. XLCubed gives the user flexible and fast filtering and ranking capabilities, simple ways to leverage the cube hierarchies, and effective data visualisation techniques to let you work with these large volumes of data.

Aside from that, if someone wants a report (a report!) which is a million rows long, our first question is always ‘and can you show me how you use that report?’.  If you print it you’ll get around 25,000 pages of deforestation. By comparison Tolstoy’s War and Peace is  around 1,400 pages in most print editions… We believe there is a lot to be said for a combination of top-down reporting, and ranking and filtering to make that type of data volume useful rather than burdensome.

So in summary, when you’re using XLCubed and the Microsoft BI stack, more than a million rows of data is really not a limitation (though if you put a million rows in the report you’re creating your own limitation in terms of its usefulness).