SAN MATEO (04/24/2000) - You know that stored away in your data archives is a treasure trove of information that you could use to make faster and more efficient business decisions. But boiling that data down into a usable nugget has never been easy. Fortunately, many fine tools have emerged that mitigate these problems by offering easy-to-use, highly graphical, and powerful data-mining solutions.
One such solution is Max 2.0 from Maximal Corp. Max delivers to any user the ability to derive maximum value from corporate data with minimal effort or skill. With Max, an immediate ROI is almost assured.
Max 2.0 looks to be every bit the business-intelligence workhorse of its brethren, although it is limited to Windows environments. Max competes with products such as BrioQuery (now sold as a part of Brio.Enterprise) from Brio Technologies and ProClarity from Knosys.
Max is designed with a non-technical audience in mind. I found the application extremely straightforward, easy to use, and capable of enabling all corporate users -- regardless of their experience or background -- to analyze data quickly and intuitively. This will save your IT department countless hours of training and supporting users new to business intelligence.
Max is capable of exploring and displaying information that spans more than three dimensions in a single view. Users can see relationships between these multiple dimensions and measure them up at a single glance. The product uses a unique mixture of dynamic bars, colors, and animations that make specific nuggets of data about your business easy to find.
Max's graphical interface opens additional panes (views) dynamically when necessary. During my testing, I was able to instantly see the reciprocal effect each dimension had on another as each new view was presented. This made spotting trends and extremes much simpler.
Max also has the capability of changing the color of a displayed item to enhance the distinguishability of on-the-fly changes. Although this is a great feature that contributes a lot to the product's usability, it did require me to grudgingly change the display parameters of my Windows 95 desktop to support 65,536 colors or higher. You can also set the product to use only static colors in its display.
If users should find they need help, Max comes with a slew of wizards and help texts to assist them. But what makes the tool truly stand out is its capability of guiding users through the discovery process by simply answering a few wizard-prompted questions. Once you have answered Max's questions, the product will sniff out the data you need.
Other nice features include the ability to create "smart groups." Smart groups allow users to reorganize data dynamically from various levels in a way that makes sense to them -- ignoring the structure placed on the data by the IT department. Using these smart groups, users can explore associations and hidden relationships as well as perform what-if scenarios on data to see the potential impact of a change, such as adding a new division or line of business.
Although the tool can work on a single machine that is running both Max and Microsoft SQL Server, I chose to test it in a client/ server configuration using two machines. The first, a dual-processor machine with 256MB of memory and Windows NT 4.0, was employed as the SQL Server host and the second, a low-end desktop running Windows 95 and Max 2.0, was used as a client.
I had little trouble with the product, despite the fact that the build I tested was still a release candidate. It installed easily, and I was offered the choice of saving any files that were changed during installation.
I began my testing by creating a new work space as well as a new view. I chose to use the sample FoodMart database that is included with SQL Server 7 as my data source. I was pleased with the way the wizards walked me through the selection of dimensions as well as with the length and color definition of the member data used for measurement when displayed in bars.
After playing with the tool's many features, I was able to begin an analysis quickly by invoking a wizard, which allowed me to choose my method of analysis.
Max offered both low-level deviations, wherein the criterion is to look for members with subordinates that display unusual deviations, and the ability to sort by influence on other dimensions. I was able to substantially dig through the data in no time at all.
By right-clicking on any of the items or dimensions, I was presented with a submenu from which I could select, deselect, drill up, drill down, or even perform a "Find Similar" search. The latter feature allowed me to locate members within a dimension that had a similar distribution of the chosen measures and even allowed me to put members into groups with known properties.
Other nice features included the ability to select and filter my data without defining values. During this part of the testing, a few beta bugs did crop up; many of the sample views caused run-time errors.
Non-Windows shops should know that Max was designed to be used solely with Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 and Microsoft clients. That said, however, the technical implementation is excellent. Max 2.0 fully exploits all of Microsoft's advanced analytical processing capabilities, delivering a solution that is not only tuned to perform, but also integrates with other desktop productivity applications, such as Word and Excel. End-users can export data to either of those applications to create reports or otherwise massage the data.
Max 2.0 also provides a nicely documented COM (Component Object Model) API.
Using the API, application developers can easily enable an external application to automate the creation or opening of views on the fly.
Regardless of whether your company is just starting a data-mining or business-intelligence effort -- or even if it currently has either of these under way -- I highly recommend Max 2.0 once the full release is available.
Whether you use it to augment your existing suite of business-intelligence applications, or it is the first and only data discovery tool in your IT portfolio, Max will extend untold value to your organization. Thanks to its extremely easy-to-use graphical implementation, it will earn its keep in no time.
Tim Fielden is a senior analyst with the InfoWorld Test Center. Send him e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BETA
Business Case: With more individuals using business intelligence to find trends in data, your organization should be able to stay competitive more easily. Max 2.0 can quickly enable any user to discover meaning from data with no training.
Technology Case: Max adheres rigorously to the APIs of the Windows platforms, assuring top-notch scalability and integration. A COM API is also included, enabling developers to make use of Max 2.0's functionality in other applications.
+ Requires no training
+ Uses industry standard technology
+ Extremely easy-to-use interfaces
+ Able to export data to Microsoft Word and Excel+ Affordably pricedCons:
- Limited platform support
- Requires Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 with OLAP (online analytical processing) servicesCost: $495 per seatPlatform(s): Windows 95/98/2000 and Windows NTShipping: May 2000Maximal Corp., Reston, Virginia; (703) 925-5959; www.maxsw.com.