I had a chance to speak with Pierpaolo Vezzosi, Solution Manager , and Didier Mazoué, Group Product Manager, for the Semantic Layer about the four year journey to the 4.0 release.
First a little background about my interviewees. Pierpaolo Vezzosi started with Business Objects in 2000 as a Technology Alliances Manager. In this capacity, he worked with partners such as IBM and Oracle to understand their technology in order to help Business Objects use it as well as possible, and at the same time, evangelized the Business Objects technology to influence their roadmap. After this role, he joined the Offshore Management Team, setting up a partner development team in Bangalore which led to the eventual purchase of the company by Business Objects. In 2006, he became the product and then solution manager for the Semantic Layer.
Didier Mazoué joined Business Objects in May 2000 as a strategic presales representative. He was hired primarily for his strong OLAP (and data modeling) skills. In January 2005 he became the Senior Program Manager and then in July 2006 he became the Senior Product Manager for the Semantic Layer and worked on BusinessObjects Voyager. Finally, in January 2007 he took on his current role as Group Product Manager for the Semantic Layer.
Didier and Pierpaolo worked in a team of product managers which included Ayhan Ulusoy and Frederic Vanborre during the definition of the BI 4.0 Semantic Layer.
Power to the Business User
For those new to the Semantic Layer (Semantic Layer), it gives greater power to the business user to access, analyze, and share data. Thanks to the Semantic Layer, business users are able to access any kind of data (relational, OLAP, files, web services, etc.) with a unique simple interface that exposes only the business concepts available in the source and hides all technical complexity of the connection method.
With the release of 4.0, the development team had the opportunity to redesign and re-write the Semantic Layer from the ground up in Java as opposed to C++. The overall goal was to make it more open and accessible outside of the universe. In version 3.x the architecture was strongly coupled with the Web Intelligence client tool but in 4.0, however, it became a service, independent from Web Intelligence, thus freeing it to be accessed and used by a host of business intelligence client tools. On the very first release of this new technology there are already four tools accessing the service: SAP Crystal Reports Enterprise, SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards, SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, and of course, SAP BusinessObjects Web Intelligence.
In BI 4.0, the Semantic Layer universe is authored using the new Information Design Tool (IDT), which has been designed for teamwork development and improved user productivity. Working in a team, the designers and data stewards will share a common ‘BI project’ made of multiple resources describing the data sources and their business information and which is then published to a universe for consumption by the BI client tools.
Challenges along the Way
Any major release has its challenges along the way and the Semantic Layer in 4.0 is no exception. Given that it connects with every SAP BI client, one of the persistent key challenges was (and is) to co-define, prioritize, and develop new features with each of the other client development teams based on a limited set of resources. Different geographies, time zones, countries, and cultures inject complexity into the mix, not to mention different development schedules. Where there was no clear decision, Semantic Layer product management team escalated the issue to senior management to make the decision.
Additionally, before the SAP acquisition of Business Objects, the Semantic Layer did not have strong functionality on top of OLAP sources. At the time, approximately 80% of customers were using relational and 20% using OLAP (mainly those working in finance, marketing, and sales) which led to relational access as the continued main focus for development. It took some effort and an unexpected opportunity to increase the focus on OLAP.
Fortuitously along the way of planning the 4.0 release, the SAP acquisition of Business Objects happened. While this presented a major change in operations and processes, it also offered significant opportunities. Given that SAP BW is OLAP-based, post acquisition it was much easier to convince the decision makers that the Semantic Layer needed to evolve along these lines. While the planning and development had already started on BI 4.0 a year before, it is likely that there would not have been such a strong Semantic Layer (OLAP) strategy and roadmap as we do today had the acquisition not happened.
There were of course, other opportunities beyond OLAP. Originally there were two ways to connect to BW in a multi-dimensional fashion. One was via an MDX connection to BW using a public API; however it did not perform well, contain sufficient features, and take advantage of customers’ existing investment in BEx queries. The other option was a new technology – direct access - that leverages BEx queries and was faster. Based on customer feedback and internal analysis, the team determined that the best way to support customers was to
- Leverage their investment in BEx queries and
- Take advantage of an existing Semantic Layer using direct access.
With the direct access technology, SAP customers now have a high performing, feature rich, and flexible way to access BW, which is one of the most important data sources for our customers. Other opportunities include embedding analytics into Business Suite, embedding industry-leading SAP standards of lifecycle management, monitoring, and auditing, and having the Semantic Layer the primary means for accessing data from HANA.
While BI 4.0 is a significant and major release, it is just the beginning of a new roadmap. Like with many projects around re-designing a product from the ground up, there were many ideas considered and many difficult choices to make. One component that did not make it into the 4.0 release is the SDK, which would have enabled OEM partners and others to develop add-ons. Given the choice of ensuring a robust user experience vs. spending time on an SDK, the team had to make the choice to leave it out but it is planned for a near future release. The team is also hard at work on other features and functionality such as even better integration with HANA to ensure that the Semantic Layer is the best access technology to this new SAP technology. The Semantic Layer also retains its strong agnostic support for any data source and will add Essbase and Oracle EBS in an upcoming release.
Other ideas on tap include making the Semantic Layer more business user friendly – that is, helping them be more self-sufficient in managing the data access instead of having to rely on IT to intervene. Examples include creating, sharing, and re-using parameters, queries, and list of values.
The early feedback from the over 100 ramp up customers has been positive. In particular, the multi-data source capabilities, performance of business intelligence consumer services (BICS), ability to leverage BEx queries, information design tool (IDT), more flexible architecture of universes, and the ability to test a query in the IDT without having to go back and forth between the IDT and client to do so.
You’ll be able to try out these new features and capabilities when BI 4.0 is released for general availability this year.