Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Are You Ready for WebFOCUS BI Dashboard?

Warren Buffett once said, "Risk comes from not knowing what you're doing."

If you are considering building a BI Dashboard using the WebFOCUS software product from Information Builders, hold on just a minute. Before you jump in, here is a checklist to review to see if you know what you are doing. There is no reason to blindly take on risk.

The BI Foundation
First, you must ensure you have established the right BI Foundation consisting of:
  • Business Intelligence Team (the right People)
  • Business Intelligence Standards (the right Policies and Procedures)
  • Business Intelligence Infrastructure (the right Technology and Data) 

Start at the top (people) and work your way down (tools). Too many companies start first with the BI technology and expect to be successful. They buy a box of software and just hand it to the college intern.

(Rick Sherman said something similar in his blog a few days after this post).

Imagine that you have a home improvement project, so you purchase a hammer, nails, and wood. The outcome of a project using those tools will be very different depending to whom you give that material: a twelve-year old child or a twelve-year carpentry expert. Even if you select an expert carpenter to do the work, if you provide no guidance as to what to build your end result will just be a surprise.

When I list those three critical layers, I am making a big assumption. I am guessing that your organization understands the value of Business Intelligence software, has a strategic reason for implementing it, and has the organizational maturity to pull it off successfully. Some organizations are excited about the idea but do not have the capability to create or support a BI infrastructure.

Your Organizational Readiness
To evaluate your readiness, consider the following checklist:
  • Strategic understanding
  • Formal training in Business Intelligence topics
  • Executive sponsorship
  • Budget approved
  • Technology implemented
  • Key metrics formally identified and calculations codified 
  • Common business language codified (e.g., "profit" means the same to everybody)
  • Data available
  • Resources available (people, environment, etc.)
  • Organizational culture that is supportive of BI 

The BI Dashboard Layers
At a very high level, a BI Dashboard consists of three main layers:
  • Operational Systems
  • Reporting Repository
  • User Presentation

The critical data is being maintained in your secure operational systems. These are the transactional details that drive your organization. You rarely use BI tools directly against this raw data. Instead, you need to extract the information, transform it for reporting, and load it into the Reporting Repository. For details on why this is so important, see my earlier blog posting.

Your Reporting Repository should be designed for quality, speed, and historical trending. In addition to your reporting data, you need to consider Master Data Management.

Your Human Resources
Let's face it. It's all about the people on the team. If you have the wrong people, your BI initiative will never be successful. Here are the people you need to identify to make the project run smoothly:
  • Executive sponsor
  • Project leader
  • Application and BI subject matter experts
  • DBA, network administrator, WebFOCUS administrator, security expert
  • WebFOCUS application developers 

Do you wonder what a great WebFOCUS application developer looks like? See my earlier blog posting

BI Initiative Expectations
Before beginning the BI Dashboard, make sure important expectations have been set:
  • Time and cost expectations
  • Functionality expectations (features, user presentation types)
  • Ease of use of the BI application 
  • Ease of application development 
  • Deadlines (firm/drop-dead or flexible/nice-to-have?)
  • Versioned release schedule

BI Initiative Logistics
This is an important application development project and you don't want to forget to handle the basic logistics:
  • Workspaces
  • Security (network userids, door cards, VPN/Citrix keys, etc.)
  • Location (address, contact, security procedures)
  • Working hours
  • Policies on working remotely 

BI Architecture 
OK, you have the right people involved and you set the right expectations. What about your technical architecture? 
  • Platforms 
  • Complementary technologies (e.g., ETL)
  • WebFOCUS release
  • WebFOCUS images (Development, Test, Production QA, Production, Disaster Recovery)
  • Automated backup routines 
  • Web tier (web server, Java app server)
  • Load balancing, fail-over
  • Security methods (e.g., Active Directory, SiteMinder, MRE, etc.)
  • Databases
  • Data access methods (metadata, tables/views, stored procedures, SQL pass-through)
  • Automated information delivery (Distribution Server and ReportCaster)

WebFOCUS Licensed Software
Consider the different WebFOCUS licenses that you might need for the project, both server and client:
  • On-demand access through the web browser ("pull," WebFOCUS Report Servers)
  • MRE licenses
  • Automated Information Delivery ("push," Distribution Server, ReportCaster, Report Library)
  • Deferred execution
  • Developer Studio copies
  • Adapters (data, application, web services, etc.)
  • Add-ons (Magnify, InfoAssist, Active Reports, R Stat, ESRI, etc.)

BI Application Development Topics
Do not be mistaken: this is a software application development project. Regardless of what you heard about point-and-click GUI Business Intelligence, do not be naive. You need to run a BI project just like you would any other software application development initiative. 
  • Methodology (e.g., none, waterfall, RUP, agile, etc.)
  • Versioned release schedule (phased rollout)
  • Source code management (e.g., none, Subversion, etc.)
  • Quality assurance (e.g., none, Mercury, Bugzilla, etc.)
  • Requirements definition (e.g., use cases, mockups)
  • Status meetings, conference calls, reporting
  • Promotion schedules
  • Naming standards (libraries, programs, etc.)
  • Server backup/recovery procedures

Common Dashboard Components
Common components to consider for a WebFOCUS BI Dashboard include:
  • BI Dashboard
  • Banner images
  • Tab Breakouts
  • Common tab for dashboard release information and alerts
  • Common alert subsystem

HTML Launch Pages
Typically, each WebFOCUS has its own launch page, where the user can provide parameter values ("filters") for highly dynamic reports. Components to consider include:
  • Filters 
  • Static parameter definition
  • Dynamic parameter population routines and MDM data
  • Cascading stylesheets
  • Common JavaScript routines (cookie processing, launch WebFOCUS, edit validations, date logic, toggle logic to "hide" and "show" filters)

WebFOCUS Reports
Of course, with a BI Dashboard you want to display dynamic reports. Consider the following common elements for which you want reusable widgets to reduce the time and cost of the project:
  • Hierarchy drill-down logic
  • Standard headings
  • Standard footings (parameter descriptions)
  • Export to PDF and Excel
  • Security (user entitlement rules)
  • Alerts and Messages
  • Back navigation
  • Standard stylesheet
  • Common No-Data logic
  • Common Error logic
  • Common Documentation block
  • Dynamic legends
  • Common browser window target logic

Common Reporting Development Topics
Before you build those reports, remember some basics:
  • Establish color schemes, logos, fonts, reporting standards before developing 
  • Display descriptions, not codes (pass codes for WHERE selections)
  • Use consistent formatting, look and feel
  • Recommend visualization (peer graphics, stoplights, images)
  • Use different formatting for online viewing (HTML), printing (PDF), and analysis (Excel)
  • Should you use Active Reports?
  • Are there plans for mobile BI or a universal front-end?
  • Is there a desire for sizzle (maps, Flash/Flex, etc.) or practical functionality?

Data Topics
If you do not have the proper data in place, then building reports is difficult (or a waste of time and money). For the Reporting Repository, you need to consider the following: 
  • Reporting Repository population routines (initial load and ongoing incremental loads)
  • Master Data Management creation, load, and maintenance
  • Scheduled batch jobs

Anything Else?
Wow, that is quite a list! Imagine jumping into a BI Dashboard application development project without even considering these topics--that would be costly, painful, and embarrassing. Yet some people do it.

I hope this checklist provides you with an intelligent approach for your WebFOCUS BI Dashboard initiative and enables you to be successful.

If I can be of service, just let me know. 


Kevin Sellers said...

Thank you very much this provides a very good outline for the WebFocus Dashboard and what to consider in implement a project. So many times I have gone into a contract that has been started without considering a number of topics that you have in this document.

Well done.

Kevin Sellers said...

Excellent article, it provides a valuable template to get a WebFocus Bi project up and running, along with the necessary formalities that should be in place.
Job well done, I have worked with character base focus and WebFocus for a number of years and things would have gone better if these procedures were followed.
Thank you very much

Annie said...

Just want to say your article is as astounding. The clearness in your post is simply cool and i can assume you're an expert on this webfocus dashboard, i will search for software product.
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About Me

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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.