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Is BI ready for the masses?

Business intelligence (BI) tools have long been the purview of the IT business analyst -- a power user whose job it is to dig deep into enterprise data and look for trends and opportunities. Most casual users, such as business managers and executives, have long lacked the programming skills needed to use traditional BI solutions. As a result, non-power users must often wait days or weeks for IT to create specific reports or queries.

Actuate Corp. officials aim to change that history with the shipment of Version 7 of its Actuate BI toolset, which incorporates an object-oriented development environment, a server-based infrastructure and drag-and-drop templates that officials say allow the less-technical user to develop their own reports and database queries. The casual user's ''favorite data manipulation and display tool is Microsoft Excel,'' said Nobby Akiha, vice president of marketing at Actuate Corp. in South San Francisco. ''But if they want to further investigate some Web-based reports, do some manipulation of data and dump that data into Excel, that's a one-off request.''

Dumping data into one-off spreadsheets creates an environment of disconnected, standalone end-user applications, contends Akiha. ''What IT worries about is the impact on data integrity from runaway queries,'' he added. ''That's why they can't handle all the countless ad-hoc requests from casual users.''

Actuate 7 is said to eliminate this problem by creating server-managed spreadsheets that generate reports by retrieving data directly from the original source. A tool called Information Object Designer can help IT managers to control the data sources that individuals or groups can access. IT managers can define data streams and then create an Information Object that gives a user or a group of users access to only the data approved for them. The Query tool, which employs a dashboard point-and-click GUI, allows users to develop their own reports to retrieve information, Akiha said. The e.Spreadsheet Designer tool allows users to design reports using a spreadsheet template. ''Our object-oriented capabilities make [the creation of reports] a drag-and-drop process,'' said Akiha. The reports are then saved as Excel documents, put on the server and served up to the users on a regular basis.

Users can also choose to receive HTML, DHTML, PDF or XML content, and, from a personalized information view, can also automatically update, transact or trigger workflows.

''Our process is different than building a data warehouse and giving the user tools to access the data. Our way makes the user more guided, but also more accountable,'' Akiha said, adding that ''initial projects may take a little bit longer, but because of Actuate 7's object-oriented nature, deployment time does get much faster as you build more and more applications.'' Since Actuate tends to go after corporations with $1 billion or more in revenue, that trade-off may be worth it, he contends.

The Actuate 7 platform will be rolled out in three phases. The first release, which gives the casual user ad-hoc query and report-creation tools, will be available at the end of April. Pricing starts at $35,000 per CPU or $495 per named user. Pricing for the Actuate Query Option starts at $5,000 per CPU.

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