For some 30 years, companies have envisaged arming executives with sets of diverse tools to easily define business objectives and view their ongoing progress. Companies pursuing this vision, now commonly known as BPM, can cobble together homemade products or lean on a single vendor, such as Hyperion, which has strengthened a key building block of its overall BPM products.

Hyperion Solutions' Essbase 7X adds a lot of interactive exploration to the BI reporting muscle it already had and complements the reporting abilities of the Performance Suite Hyperion, acquired when the company bought Brio Software last year. The new features should be a boon for companies already running Essbase, although they are not justification for companies using competitors' BPM products to switch to Hyperion.

Among the key additions to Essbase is a new user interface, the HVE (Hyperion Visual Explorer) client. HVE allows analysts to view and explore the data BPM taps from data warehouses, databases, and pre-processed data cubes. Previous Essbase versions sported only two end-user interfaces: an Excel-based client that best serves "spreadsheet jockeys" (those users who have a passion for the perverse panorama of pivot tables) and a UI that churns out static reports designed by others and intended for those with almost no tech capabilities.

The addition of HVE has advanced Hyperion's objective of providing users who have business knowledge with a way to interact with a generous selection of possible data "dimensions" without having to know a great deal about either the structure of the back-end data or the mechanics of how to manipulate it. To a healthy degree, the company has succeeded.

To prepare data sources for the analyst users of HVE, database administrators use EAS (Essbase Administration Services) to build applications and data sets from back-end sources. DBAs also use the utilities to define canned calculations and administer users.

EAS requires a typical set of DBA and Windows-management tool skills. The utility relies on the now-standard Windows tree-based navigation panel and tabbed properties boxes. Using the EAS software requires craft and data source knowledge, as well as mastery of Hyperion terminology and structures.

Attaching to data sources is simple enough, but Essbase does not currently support the broad spectrum of back-end data types that more processing-intensive analytical products, such as SAS's Enterprise Miner or SPSS' Clementine, do.

On the other hand, in this version Hyperion has improved on its OLAP-centric data source model. To the traditional block storage model (one that assumes most every intersection will have data and therefore sets aside space for it), the company has added an aggregate storage model that diminishes storage requirements and ratchets up performance when dealing with sparse data sets.

Support for sparse data sets expands the practical range of back-end data sources to which Hyperion customers can attach. The designers crafted wizards to perform the conversions, and these are well-designed and documented, making the conversion effort worthwhile.

Once a DBA or expert user has configured access to specified dimensions in EAS, HVE users launch their work area from within Excel. The analyst then works in a drag-and-drop interface that's best described as a lower-friction pivot table scheme. Dimensions and measurements appear on the left, and users drag and drop them to columns and rows, grouping them, applying filters, and choosing from a small palette of display methods.

Once mastered, it's effortless to use. Yet achieving that mastery requires an investment of trial-and-error time. Those comfortable with data manipulation will find HVE a fast way to navigate a lot of dimensions, ask a lot of questions, and find a lot of indications.

Hyperion has given much thought to squeezing the most juice out of HVE. HVE has some thoughtful and convenient features, such as a menu command to take a snapshot of the current chart or graph, which can be copied to the clipboard and pasted into a presentation or file. Further, you can make compound charts that show quite a bit of data, which can make them confusing for for many viewers - even the author. HVE helps sort things out by displaying a data description of the bar or part of the graph you're hovering over, and that makes reader absorption a little easier, too.

We hope the company chooses to beef up the business analytics abilities of the product, adding to the forward-looking aspects of performance management to complement the backward-looking muscle the tools already have. And if Hyperion keeps easing the analysts' work routine with usability touches the way it has in this release, the company will continue to merit extra attention. That's because BPM, like any mission-critical metasystem, can only be as valuable as its administration and UI allows it to be.


This version's highlights include a smoothly interactive BI client, a performance-enhancing sparse data model and upgraded administrative tools. Those already committed to Hyperion, or still looking for a product, can benefit; those already committed to other providers shouldn't jump ship.