Product review: Excel add-in eases OLAP

Playing a strategic role in most industries, business intelligence has grown from specialised departmental applications used solely by knowledge workers and analysts to large-scale enterprise solutions used by everyone from data-entry clerks to CEOs. With this growth, the need for simple but powerful access to data has arisen. Fortunately, the online analytical processing (OLAP) market has responded.

With this increasing competition and growing functionality, OLAP@Work seems to have capitalised on a new approach -- that is, tight integration with desktop productivity tools. Although it operates in the same general category as OLAP vendor Knosys' ProClarity line and Brio's BrioQuery, OLAP@Work's unique approach to OLAP services makes it difficult to draw industry comparisons. Composed of an Microsoft Excel add-in, this product has found a niche in the business-intelligence market and is working very well within it.

Version 1.5 comes with a plethora of new features to enhance report-distribution and -authoring capabilities. For example, the Write Back to Pivot Table option is a feature that will save time and create convenience for Excel users who take advantage of Pivot Tables.

One feature I found particularly interesting was the capability of performing rank-on-rank analysis of data. This enabled me to easily find out the number of unique members in a given dimension within my test report -- not just the number of transactions. When I wanted to perform a Basket Analysis of my report -- a feature which allowed me to analyse my customers' buying habits and needs -- a Calculations wizard was provided to assist me.

I chose to start my testing from a blank Excel worksheet. By selecting the OLAP@Work pull-down menu from Excel's menu bar, I launched a wizard for creating an OLAP report. After defining the spreadsheet cell in which my report would be added, I was presented with choices, such as how I wanted to suppress zeros and whether I wanted to have an Excel chart dynamically linked to my worksheet.

The third step took me to the report layout itself. I chose to create a new report versus having one built for me, and OLAP@Work promptly launched a new set of wizards. These helped me define which OLAP server I wanted to use, the location of my database cube, and any optional text I wanted to add for describing my connection. I was disappointed to find that Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 is the only database product that is supported.

In a matter of minutes, I was able to see and work with my data in a familiar spreadsheet format. Throughout my testing, the only thing I encountered that frustrated me was a poorly designed toolbar, which unceasingly positioned itself right on top of the data I was attempting to view.

In addition to the toolbar problem, OLAP @Work has limited platform support, running only in Windows environments. If you happen to be a Microsoft-centric shop, use only SQL Server, and want to enable OLAP functionality at a fraction of the cost of rival solutions, then look no further than OLAP @Work. Aside from being extremely cost-effective, it can provide faster return on investment by leveraging existing IT experience and infrastructure in Microsoft's Office 97 and Office 2000 suites.

Tim Fielden (tfielden@uswest.net) is a systems architect and freelance writer based in Minnesota.

THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD

OLAP@Work 1.5

Summary: This tool takes a unique approach to OLAP data analysis as a Microsoft Excel add-in, leveraging Excel's familiar interface and making data analysis easy for users new to the business-intelligence domain.

Business Case: OLAP@Work provides the ability to perform powerful OLAP functions at minimal cost. Because the product leverages Microsoft's Excel and SQL Server 7.0, minimal training and infrastructure changes are required, thus enabling a better and faster return on investment.

Pros:

+ Low cost

+ Excellent online tutorial

+ Ability to leverage Microsoft Excel experienceCons:

- Limited to Microsoft platform

- Poorly positioned toolbar

Cost: $US199 per user

Platform(s): Windows 95/98, Windows 2000, Windows NT; Database: Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 with OLAP ServicesOLAP@Work, Kanata, Ontario; +1-613-271-7199; http://www.olapatwork.com

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