In the self-service business intelligence (BI) solution market, there are several products that let users analyze corporate data and create dashboards with minimal help from the IT department. All these products connect to data from many different sources, offer a variety of data visualizations that meet the needs of most analysts, and offer other standard functions that you'd expect in this type of product. However, one product that I tested recently, Panorama Necto, has not only the expected standard functionality but also some functionality that's completely unexpected. Panorama Software has added social features, exception tracking, and automated insights to its self-service BI solution.
Necto's social features include the ability to subscribe to users, initiate context-based discussions, and search for users and relevant content within the system. Necto maintains its own list of users and provides its own security mechanism but integrates with Active Directory (AD), third-party authentication tools, and in-house custom security mechanisms.
Subscribing to users. In the same way you follow users on Twitter, you can subscribe to users in Necto. Subscribing to one of your colleagues lets you follow all the changes made to his or her workboard. Because you can view users' shared workboards, you can concentrate on those that are active. Subscribing is easy. You just need to click a person in the social bar, then click the Subscribe icon. A second click will unsubscribe you.
Initiating context-based discussions. In Necto, discussions are more than just text in a chat box. They include context and annotations, which are saved as part of the workboard to add more depth and foster knowledge sharing. When you open one of your discussions by clicking it, the related workboard view also opens. In this way, you can see and investigate the issue being discussed as you read the text and respond. To initiate a new discussion, you drag a person from the social bar onto a data point.
Searching for users and relevant content. I've worked with many organizations where it's difficult finding relevant BI content. Necto uses its social features to make finding this content easier. Users can tag their workboards, which allows other users to find them using tags. Users can also click the Advisor button to get recommendations. Recommendations highlight similar workboards as well as workboards that have been viewed by users who have viewed the current workboard. You can also find content by subscribing to users who might be able to help you understand the data you're viewing. Necto's social bar displays either these users or a full list of users.
Exception Tracking and Automated Insights
Necto provides exception tracking and automated insights. In Necto, an exception is a variance from a measures standard. Users can define when a data point is considered an exception. An icon is displayed in a grid cell when the data falls within this definition, as Figure 1 shows. You can customize the icon (e.g., star, exclamation point) and its color. Data that has been flagged as an exception can then be drilled into, along any of its dimensions, for a better understanding of the issue and faster decision making.
When users click the Automated Insight button, Necto notifies them when it sees what it considers to be a change in the data in which they would be interested. It operates in a manner that's similar to user-defined exceptions, but it's automated. Automated insights are represented by a triangle in a grid cell.
Necto integrates well with Microsoft Office and SharePoint, facilitating better collaboration among users. It natively supports PowerPivot for Excel.
Although Necto was specifically designed to work with the Microsoft platform, Panorama Software's Universal Data Connector allows Necto to connect to almost any data source. Supported data sources include OLE DB compliant databases, Oracle 9i or later, SQL Server 2005 or later, Microsoft Excel 2003 or later, comma-delimited files, and SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS).
Necto is a completely web-based experience and supports Internet Explorer (IE) 8.0 and IE 9.0. Figure 2 shows the UI. On the client side, it requires Windows 7 or Windows XP updated to the current patch level, Adobe Flash 11.2 or later, a 32-bit 2.2GHz Pentium 4 CPU, and 2GB of memory. On the server side, it requires 64-bit Windows Server 2008 R2 or Windows Server 2008 R2 and IIS. A 100-user installation requires four 2.4GHz or higher CPUs, 4GB of RAM, 5GB of free space on the operating drive, and 1GB of free space on the installation drive. Larger installations will require more resources. Panorama also suggests that Necto be installed on its own dedicated server with no other server-based products, except SharePoint.
A Large Step Forward
I found Necto easy to use and was pleasantly surprised with the social features it offered. Adding a social aspect to self-service BI solutions is a large step forward in the quest to generate quality collaboration, so I see a lot of value in Necto's social features.