E.Spreadsheet Is Excel-lent

BI tool offers familiar interface and dynamic features.

March 31, 2003

4 Min Read
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Actuate's e.Spreadsheet is a comprehensive reporting solution that comprises its flagship Actuate iServer enterprise reporting server, the e.Spreadsheet add-on to iServer and the e.Spreadsheet Designer. The Designer, which is the client portion of the product, allows for integration of data from disparate sources in the enterprise into a single Excel spreadsheet, which is then served to users via the Web or as an e-mail attachment.

Unlike the spreadsheets served up by many reporting products, those generated by e.Spreadsheet are genuine Excel spreadsheets, complete with charts tied to the data as opposed to the typical static image files embedded in the charts. The user can manipulate the spreadsheets and save them locally, making them useful for presentations, forecasting and what-if scenarios.

The product is pricey: The iServer with the e.Spreadsheet option is $35,000 per CPU (or $495 per named user), and the e.Spreadsheet Designer is $495 per user. If you want to reduce the time business analysts spend reformatting reports, or if you'd like to offer power users the capability to design their own reports, the product will likely pay for itself in a short time.

The Widget Business

I installed a beta version of Actuate's iServer with e.Spreadsheet on a server in our NWC Inc. business applications lab. I deployed the included JSP (JavaServer Page)-based Active Portal to provide a Web presence for users to access reports, though e.Spreadsheet will also integrate into popular application servers such as IBM's WebSphere and BEA Systems' WebLogic. The administrative console is entirely Web-based and offers corporate-class features, such as user management, clustering and priority-based job scheduling.

e_Spreadsheet Interfaceclick to enlarge

I installed the e.Spreadsheet Designer on a workstation and used it to develop a report on the daily sales of NWC Inc. Data-source access is accomplished via either ODBC or JDBC (Java Database Connectivity). I set up a system DSN (Data Source Name) to use IBM's ODBC driver for DB2, then walked through the wizard that assists in creating reports.

From tables within the Designer interface, I was able to easily choose columns, then specify how the data should be grouped (by date and then by order ID). The end product looked just like Excel, but don't be fooled into thinking it's nothing more than a pretty face. The Designer offers the ability to do some nifty tasks--things you can't do natively in Excel, such as build a formula for a range of rows to be inserted dynamically.

The Designer component also lets you toggle between design and spreadsheet modes. Design mode lets you specify formats, insert charts and images, and modify the query. Complex queries requiring multiple joins may require you to use the Designer's data-manager feature, which lets you modify and tweak your queries in an interface that's comfortably familiar.

You can even specify parameters, either in the wizard or by using the data manager. These parameters can limit the resulting data and can also be used to create drill-down links within the original spreadsheet. For example, it's a snap to generate a report listing total sales for a specific month by salesperson, then link the people names to a report containing details of their sales--essentially the same drill-down analysis available when using more expensive and difficult-to-use OLAP cubes.

After completing the design, publishing the report to the server requires a mere click of a button, but--and this is a big but--you must also configure the same DSN. Don't forget this important step! After that, you just open a browser, run the report on the server and open the resulting spreadsheet--no plug-ins necessary.

To test the truth of that claim, I ran my NWC Inc. sales report on the server and then clicked on the link to the report on my Linux laptop. Sun Microsystems' StarOffice popped up and displayed the report without a single complaint. I modified some data, and the corresponding chart I had placed in the spreadsheet updated accordingly.

If users need to manipulate the data from reports and do so within Excel--regardless of the report's original format--e.Spreadsheet is an excellent alternative to the somewhat restrictive offerings of competing BI products.

Technology editor Lori MacVittie works in our Green Bay, Wis., labs. Write to her at [email protected].

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