Product Review: Seagate Raises Bar for Data Sharing

It is imperative for corporate decision-makers to have the best data-analysis tools at their disposal, along with solid methods to share information. Though there is no shortage of business intelligence tools in the marketplace that attempt to meet this need, I found that recent releases from Seagate Software aptly meet the data-analysis and information-sharing challenge.

I tested Holos 7b, a tool for building custom online analytical processing (OLAP) applications; Info 7, an enterprise-grade report serving tool; and Crystal Reports 7, an easy-to-use, powerful, and flexible ad hoc query and report creation tool.

All three of these tools are tough competition for a variety of rivals on a number of fronts. Holos 7b offers a stiff challenge to OLAP competitors such as Hyperion, Oracle, and Cognos. Info 7 fares well against rivals such as Business Objects and Oracle. And Crystal Reports 7 -- already used by many business analysts and developers -- is a strong contender against the likes of Information Builder's InfoCube. Seagate stands out from the crowded business intelligence field with easy-to-use tools that flexibly integrate with a wide variety of existing data sources.

I liked the fact that I could use each of the Seagate Software tools separately. By itself, each is a strong solution. However, I see even greater value in their combined use: The integration between tools is solid, and sites with complex data-analysis requirements will benefit as a result.

Holos 7B

Seagate Holos 7b joins the highly competitive marketplace of OLAP solutions. However, Holos 7b stands apart from the crowd for a number of reasons. One of the reasons is that the product includes an OLAP server as well as development tool support for the Holos language.

This latest version of Holos offers something Seagate calls Open OLAP. I liked this feature because it enabled me to build custom multidimensional analysis applications based on data from a variety of relational and OLAP databases.

For example, I was able to include test data housed in Microsoft and Oracle OLAP databases as well as relational data sources. The Open OLAP support offers more flexible data options than those currently supported by rivals.

Tap into SAP

Sites that have large amounts of data in SAP will find Holos 7b quite appealing. Developers can use the Holos language to access the base SAP tables and extract the data in either OLAP or non-OLAP form. Organizations with a mix of OLAP, relational, and SAP data will find that using Holos is an improvement vs. the disparate methods usually required to access all of these data sources.

My only real complaint about Holos 7b was the initial setup and configuration required. I did not feel as if I had enough information about how to get going. Though I eventually got things working, my start-up time would have been greatly reduced with improved documentation.

This foible aside, developing my test applications was a straightforward affair.

Development helpers

The updated Application Manager was easy to navigate, with its new treelike metaphor. And I was able to quickly access objects in my test applications. For example, a right mouse-click on an object allowed me to edit it.

The Data Manager sports the same treelike metaphor as the Application Manager and it, too, is easy to navigate. I especially liked the new Intelligent Structure Build capability because it provided suggestions for my test structures and then designed them -- a real timesaver.

Other additions to the product include a Java version of the Holos Worksheet client, improvements in usage-monitoring capabilities, and improved OLAP calculation functions.

Info 7

Organizations that need to produce large volumes of reports on a regular basis will find that Info 7 is well-equipped to meet their needs. In particular, Info 7 allows administrators to easily manage report access for both end-users and groups.

I especially liked Info 7's wide array of client choices, including HTML, Java, and ActiveX. This access flexibility sets Info 7 apart from its rivals.

Likewise, Info 7 interoperates well with third-party applications. For example, the Java client enables print and export capabilities to Microsoft Office modules, including Word and Excel.

Host interaction

Sites that tap into host systems will find Info 7 especially appealing. A new import tool allows text-based host reports to be more easily shared across the enterprise.

Import operations can be scheduled via an included scheduler, which is useful for following host-system batch processing. However, the Info 7 import process uses Microsoft Access during conversion -- which presents some scalability issues for sites with large reports.

Report types

New in Info 7 is geographical mapping support. I found this useful to show the breakout of my test sales data by region.

Info 7's report-creation tools are solid: It is straightforward to select tables and fields, group data, and define layouts. However, the report-creation support in Info 7's Java client still needs some beefing up. Adding report labels or titles was not possible with this version.

Like the other Seagate products, Info 7 also sports support for a variety of data sources. I was able to create reports based on both relational and OLAP data stores.

Crystal reports 7

Seagate's well-known Crystal Reports is also much improved in this release. Like Info 7, Crystal Reports can import text-based reports to generate more useful reports, and it is capable of supporting geographic mapping.

However, business analysts and developers will find Crystal Reports more useful on a number of other fronts. A new graphical field-mapping tool simplifies the mapping of report fields with the data source. The mapping is then saved with the report, and I found it easy to change the mapping when adopting a new data source.

Another new feature -- server-side processing -- enables report processing execution to occur on the server as opposed to the client. This results in zippy performance for larger data sets.

Usability extras

I especially like the on-demand subreport capability, which is useful for providing further breakdowns when needed after looking at the main report. Subreports can be built into the main report and executed only upon request.

Crystal Reports 7 includes a new ad hoc query tool in the form of a Java applet. It was easy to use my Web browser to access databases and select the fields that I needed. The applet built a SQL query that I was later able to edit. After viewing my results, I was able to save the query data for later use.

Developers will find that Crystal Reports 7 integrates nicely with a variety of development environments. I was able to access and work with Crystal Reports from Inprise's Delphi. Those using Microsoft's Visual Basic will also find the ActiveX report-creation component to be very useful.

The 7s have it

Seagate's business intelligence upgrades -- Holos 7b, Info 7, and Crystal Reports 7 -- are worth their salt individually. However, taken together, they offer a strong solution for data analysis and decision making. Organizations that need to support multidimensional data analysis, query functions, and report generation will find these Seagate tools up to the task.

Senior Analyst Maggie Biggs evaluates enterprise database and application development technologies at the InfoWorld Test Center. She can be reached via e-mail at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Seagate Holos 7b: Very Good

IT sites that need to build enterprise-grade decision-support applications should definitely evaluate Holos 7b, which neatly combines OLAP serving, application development tools, and flexible access to a variety of data sources.

Pros: Includes a hybrid OLAP server; customizable development tools and 4GL language support; capable of integrating data from third-party relational and OLAP databases; enhanced calculation capabilities; native access to SAP R/3.

Cons: Initial server setup procedures need to be better documented.

Seagate Software Inc., Vancouver, British Columbia; (800) 877-2340; www.seagatesoftware.com.

Price: $2,500 per seat (100 named users); $3,950 per seat (100 concurrent users).

Platforms: Windows NT, Sun Solaris, HP-UX, IBM AIX, Digital Alpha, and other Unix flavors.

Seagate Info 7: Very Good

Sites that regularly generate reports from a variety of data sources will find Info 7 to be an extremely easy-to-use yet powerful server.

Pros: Web query, report-creation tools; supports relational and OLAP data; easy to use.

Cons: Text import tool requires use of Microsoft Access.

Price: Server: Free for Windows NT, $4,995 for Unix; Client: $295 per named user, $395 for Designer Module license.

Platforms: Windows NT, Sun Solaris, HP-UX, IBM AIX.

Seagate Crystal Reports 7: Very Good

Business analysts and developers needing flexible ad hoc query tools and report-creation facilities will find this version up to the challenge. Current customers will also find it well worth the upgrade.

Pros: Supports Web-based queries; new geographical mapping data function; report-conversion tools; server-side processing improves performance.

Cons: Limited platform support.

Price: $395 for Professional Edition.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT.

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