on 6 December 2012
Writing a book on the Oracle Business Intelligence suite is a tall order. At more than a thousand pages, this book measures up to the task, literally, and as you will read this book - figuratively also.
So, have I read the entire book? No. I have not. It is close to 1100 pages long, and I have read parts of it, and skimmed through much of the remainder. Why am I writing this review before I have read the entire book then, eh? Well, to be honest, reading the entire book is going to take longer than I thought. I have had this electronic version of the book for several weeks now, and I was starting to feel like I should put something out lest I let the year end and a new year begin. For what it's worth, I do hope to keep adding new posts as I read through the unread portions of the book. So take this as a caveat. Anything else? Yes, one more, though more of a disclosure.
Disclaimer: I received a free e-book version of this book, courtesy Mc-Graw Hill, and thanks to Mark Rittman. I also, separately, and later, obtained access to an online version of this book via a subscription to Safari Books Online [...].
Also note that I am reviewing this book in my personal capacity, and not representing Oracle in any way.
Anything else? Yes, one more disclosure. I am a product manager with the Oracle Business Intelligence group, and have worked to bring some of the products and features covered in this book. That is guaranteed to bias my review, in what ways I don't know. Read and let me know.
So who is this book aimed at? Everyone. No, really. Everyone working with Oracle's BI toolset, to be sure. This includes people who have worked with the 10g version and expect to, if haven't already, moved to 11g. It includes people with such roles as administrators, metadata modellers, report authors, dashboard authors, and more. This is basically the big kahuna.
This book adopts a bottom-up approach, which is quite the sensible thing to do when organizing a book for the business intelligence developer. While talking about and presenting to an audience, I have found it useful to adopt a top-down approach, since it makes the audience understand how something they see has being built, that approach is likely to confuse and frustrate the developer. So, the book literally starts with the installation pre-requisites - yes, what you need to install before you install the Oracle BI software. The first hundred pages of the book are spent in covering the basics of business intelligence, how the product came into being, what it is composed of, and the installation.
Each subsequent chapter can be looked at both thematically and from a product perspective. So, for example, Chapter 3, "Modeling Repositories Using Relational, File, and XML Sources", and Chapter 4, "Creating Repositories from Oracle Essbase and Other OLAP Data Sources" cover how to model the metadata repository - as a theme. As a product, these two chapters are focused much on the "Admin Tool". Chapter 6, "Creating Analyses, Dashboards, KPIs and Scorecards", is all about creating the analytic content that end-users will work with, and it covers the Answers, Interactive Dashboards, and the Scorecard and Strategy Management (OSSM) products.
1 Oracle Business Intelligence Overview and Architecture
2 Installation and Upgrading Oracle Business Intelligence
3 Modeling Repositories Using Relational, File, and XML Sources
4 Creating Repositories from Oracle Essbase and Other OLAP Data Sources
5 Configuring and Maintaining the Oracle BI Server
6 Creating Analyses, Dashboards, KPIs and Scorecards
7 Actionable Intelligence
9 Creating Published Reports
10 Systems Management
11 Managing Change
12 Oracle Exalytics In-Memory Machine
The 11g release of Oracle BI EE was a big, major, big upgrade from the previous 10g version. Several "things" got added, several things got changed, many pieces in the plumbing changed, and in general, it fulfilled all requirements of being a big release. The install procedure changed. The underlying middleware changed. The way security worked changed. New products got added to the suite. New capabilities. New products integrated with the suite. A new charting engine for instance. It is therefore heartening to see that the section titled, "Upgrading the 10g Repository (RPD) and 10g Web Catalog (Presentation Catalog)", covers this topic in detail, while also describing "What Happens During the RPD and Catalog Upgrade?", and listing some of the more common error messages and suggested resolutions.
So it comes to pass that Chapter 3, "Modeling Repositories Using Relational, File, and XML", starts at page 101. This is really the chapter that many will actually want to start with straightaway. Within this chapter, there is an example that is worked through, "Example: Creating the Oracle BI Repository", which should make it simple for users to follow through and try on their own. Apart from the expected, introductory material, you will also find coverage of the Aggregate Persistence feature, which is one of the key enablers of Exalytics, of "Advanced Repository Modeling Concepts", which describes how to create skip-level as well as ragged hiearchies, federation (cross-database modelling). For those wanting details on mulit-dimensional data modeling, fear not, worry not, because Chapter 4, "Creating Repositories from Oracle Essbase and Other OLAP Data Sources", is exactly what the data doctor ordered. In case you didn't know, Oracle BI supports four different OLAP data sources, including Oracle Essbase, Oracle Database OLAP Option, SAP BW, and Analysis Services. While some years ago, OLAP was a sine-qua-non for achieving high-performance querying on large datasets, advances like in-memory databases (like Times Ten), massive amounts of memory (think terabytes of RAM, not gigabytes), engineered systems (like Oracle Exalytics and Oracle Exadata), as well as continuing improvements to data warehousing technologies have meant that ever-faster performance can be achieved on ever-larger databases. In this chapter, I think the most space is devoted to Essbase. The last chapter in this section is chapter 5, "Configuring and Maintaining the Oracle BI Server", which, as you would expect, treads the areas like the configuration settings (the NQSConfig.INI file) - some that are manually maintained while others can be managed via Enterprise Manager. Also along for the ride are topics like managing the Query Cache, Usage Tracking (important topic, as you would expect), Aggregate Persistence - also an important topic.
If you are an Oracle BI developer who works more on the front-end, i.e., develop reports and Dashboards, then Chapter 6, "Creating Analyses, Dashboards, KPIs and Scorecards", is the one for you. It's a long chapter, as it needs to be, since you cover the Answers, Interactive Dashboards, and the Scorecard and Strategy Management products. This chapter is a long one, as it needs to be, and starts out with the Answers product, and goes through the basics of creating analyses, from the criteria tab, editing formulae, creating views - like graphs, tables, etc... On the subject of graphs, one trick that I think Mark missed out is that the images and screenshots in the ebook version - I don't know about the physical book - are in grayscale, and not distinguishable from each other. Colors with different brightness levels would have worked better. Yeah, you can tell, can't you, I work with data visualizations.
A bane of writing books for software applications is that often a new product comes out by the time the book goes to market, and thus some things are already out of date. Mark has done a tremendous job of keeping up with the various releases of Oracle BI EE as he wrote his book, but in some cases a few things fell through the cracks, I think. Like with spatial data visualizations, or Map Views, as they are called in the Oracle BI suite. First, some of the interaction designs were cleaned up in Map Views, so they look much cleaner. The screenshot for a map view I spotted was from an older release:
Secondly, the 18.104.22.168.0 release introduced support for "feature themes" in Map Views. Feature themes are simply spatial themes, imported into the BI metadata, but which do not have any keys that can be mapped to BI columns from your repository. I will write a detailed post on Feature Themes later, but it is a useful feature if you plan on using Map Views in your application.
Thirdly, the 22.214.171.124.2BP1 release also introduced support for line geometries - a third type of spatial geometry, the other two being polygons and points. Then there are some minor but useful enhancements like the ability to specify a transparency level for color fills. Small things that are easy enough to miss in all the releases and updates that happen in the world of Oracle BI. Perhaps Mark would consider an ebook update sometime in 2013 to his book?
You may think, as you go over Chapter 6, that the area of the "Action Framework", a major new feature in the 11g release, has been given short shrift. Far from it - there is an entire chapter devoted to it - Chapter 7, "Actionable Intelligence". And for good reason - there is much to be covered in Actions, that can be created and configured to do simple things like navigate to a URL, or open content from your BI catalog, but also very powerful things like invoke a web service, a Java method, a server script, an HTTP request, and so on. The premise of the Action Framework is to help close the Insight-to-Action loop, i.e. from a Dashboard, where insight is gained, allow the analyst to take action based on this insight by invoking the appropriate Action.
How security works in the 11g release of Oracle BI underwent a major revamp. It is very important, if you are working with building the appropriate access privileges and configuring security in Oracle BI that you read Chapter 8, "Security", very carefully. Pay careful attention to the section, "Understanding Oracle Business Intelligence Security Infrastructure, Application Roles, and Application Policies", as well as the sections that follow.
Chapter 9, "Creating Published Reports", is all about Oracle BI Publisher. Another chapter to read carefully if you work with or have worked with the tool in its 10g release. This is another product in the suite that has undergone several major enhancements - whether it is how you construct the data model, or the Online Layout Editor (a replacement for the Template Builder for Microsoft Word plug-in), or even the enhanced level of integration with Oracle BI, especially in how BI Publisher reports can be embedded inside Dashboards.
If you are a serious Oracle BI developer, then at some point in your BI implementations you will need to deal with issues like change management, how to implement multi-user development (also referred to by the singularly glamorous acronym of MUD), how to move your metadata from one instance to another, and how to use version control tools with your Oracle BI metadata. Chapter 11, "Managing Change" (though this chapter title could also work just as well for the title of some management guru's book), is the chapter for you.
Chapter 12, "Oracle Exalytics In-Memory Machine", serves as an introduction to Oracle Exalytics, the latest addition to Oracle's family of engineered systems. At the time this book went to press, a final decision had not been taken, or communicated, as to which of these features would finally make it to the release. Hence a disclaimer in the chapter. So there is only a mention in passing on multi-panel visualizations, Trellis views - both the Simple and Advanced Trellis, as well as a visualization available within the Trellis View - microcharts, available as SparkLines, SparkBars, and SparkAreas. And on "go-less" prompts, and "autocomplete" prompts. As things stand, all of these features are available with the Oracle BI EE 126.96.36.199.2BP release - both as "software-only" and on Exalytics.
You should have gathered this much, if nothing else from my review so far, that this book is not meant for the casual user of Oracle Business Intelligence. You will be better served by perusing the several useful blogs that dot the interwebs. This book is meant for the serious BI developer, who needs to know the nuts and bolts of the Oracle Business Intelligence suite.
So all is good and exciting? Yes. Mostly. Mostly? So what did I not like about this book?
Well, let's get one thing right - this is an excellent book, and I daresay every Oracle BI consultant out there will end up buying, borrowing, or sharing a copy of this book. On the other hand, I can get crotchety and nitpicky at times. So let's continue the cribfest.
Firstly, I did spot a few errors; minor ones. For instance, on page 13, Mark writes that "Oracle announced in 2005 that what was previously called Siebel Analytics would now be adopted by Oracle Corporation as their strategic business intelligence platform..." The product name was actually "Siebel Business Analytics", and the decision was actually taken in early 2006, and communicated, first, to the business intelligence development teams, and then to other groups within Oracle. In December 2005, if memory serves me right, a technical evaluation of the Siebel Business Analytics stack had begun in earnest, and a recommendation was formulated. The external communication of this decision was sometime in March 2006, at an event held in New York. Or that "the core of the product itself can be traced back to groundbreaking work done by the nQuire team back in the mid-1990's." - nQuire started in 1999, and released their first version in 2001, and were acquired by Siebel in 2002/2003.
These are minor quibbles, and the precise dates of how nQuire and Siebel Business Analytics came to be Oracle BI are at best of historical interest at this point.
Or when the text says, "Oracle BI Office Oracle Business Intelligence comes with a plug-in to Microsoft Office 2003, 2007, and Oracle Office..." - there is actually a separate plug-in for Oracle Office. The Oracle BI Office Add-in cannot install on Oracle Office, nor does it work with Oracle Office. The paragraph also left out mention of the Smart View plug-in that comes with the ability to connect to the Oracle BI Server - it is admittedly basic functionality, and it is not part of the Oracle BI EE suite, so it may be ok to leave its mention out.
You will find almost no coverage of the Oracle BI Office Add-in, the Microsoft Office plug-in for Oracle BI EE, available for Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. Nor of Smart View. While Oracle has communicated that its long-term strategy is to build out the analysis and integration capabilities of Smart View to access Oracle BI EE content, the Oracle BI Office Add-in continues to provide support for embedding and analyzing Oracle BI content.
The Oracle BI Mobile product also finds little mention. The 188.8.131.52.0 release of the Oracle BI Mobile product is covered, but the more substantive, and more functional release came with the release of the Oracle BI Mobile HD app for Apple iPad, which introduced much greater support for touch-based interactions, location intelligence support, true-fidelity rendering of Scorecard views as HTML5 components, and much more. Again, this is more a limitation of deadlines - the book, I gather, had to go to print by the time the 184.108.40.206.2BP1 release was going out the door.
Perhaps Mark will consider doing an ebook or online update to this book and include these topics.
The other issue, and perhaps the more substantive one, is that while the book is a veritable goldmine of information once you know Oracle BI, for the completely newcomer, it's a bit daunting. Perhaps some sort of a visual layout of how the book is organized - color coded perhaps - and an indicator at the beginning of each chapter or major section showing which part of the suite and functionality it covered would have eased the job of the newbie. It's a subjective opinion, but hey - as long as we're being negative, let's go the whole hog.
In closing, and after having spent a few hours with the book, I can say it's a mammoth effort that brings, perhaps for the first time in one complete book, all the resources that an Oracle BI developer could want. In short, an indispensable guide for the business intelligence developer.