Review: Crystal Xcelsius
 
Published: 18 Jan 2006
Unedited - Community Contributed
Abstract
In this article, Eric reviews the Crystals BI dashboard presentation product geared toward end-users. He looks at the product from a developers perspective.
by Eric Landes
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Introduction

Business Intelligence products have always interested me. I've done most of my writing based on using BI in some manner.  Besides standard reporting tools like Crystal Reports and Reporting Services, lately, I have been implementing OLAP in a web environment and investigating utilizing digital dashboards in a SharePoint environment.  When I saw that Crystal Xcelsius had some of these features, especially the digital dashboard part, I was eager to look into what the product could do.

Product Definition

Crystal Xcelsius is a reporting tool that focuses on the presentation portion of the data analysis of your report.  You can create dashboards, email presentations, or deliver what-if analysis in many different manners.  Xcelsius appears to utilize combinations of flash and html to create digital dashboards that can be exported to a web page or emailed.   The main data source is from Microsoft Excel, although the Workgroup version offers the ability to source data from web services.  The Crystal Xcelsius UI is targeted toward the non-programmer. 

There is a Crystal XCelsius Standard edition, a Professional edition,  and an Xcelsius Workgroup package.  Both the Standard and Professional packages are intended for standalone workstations.  For this review, I downloaded the Xcelsius Workgroup software.  The workgroup software can source data from XML sources which the Standard/Professional class cannot do.

Xcelsius is advertised as one that doesn't need any programming experience.

This review will look at the strengths and weaknesses of this tool in the following areas: Creating Executive Dashboards (including data sourcing) and Implementing Xcelsius in an Enterprise.

System Requirements

Minimum Recommended Hardware Requirements:   

PC with Pentium 3 or equivalent processor and 128MB of RAM

Operating System:   

Windows 2000 with Service Pack 4 or Windows XP

Microsoft Office:  

Office 2000, Office XP, or Office 2003

Creating Executive Dashboards

When creating a report, I am normally looking for a few things.  Since we don't always have programmers developing reports, we look for ease of use for power user type users.  I also look for the ability to get data from different data sources.  Finally, I need to be able to integrate the reports easily into our corporate portal. 

Flexibility with Data Sources

Xcelsius is created to work with Excel.  The Workgroup version introduces the ability to also utilize Web Services as a data source.  So the user can utilize existing Excel spreadsheets, or, if they have the Workgroup version, they can utilize a Web Service as the basis for their reports.  In this way, I could envision organizations putting up some custom web services for users to access internal organization data rather than giving those users direct access to a database.

But even if the main direct data source is an Excel spreadsheet, keep in mind that Excel can access a wide variety of data sources.  So you could potentially utilize an OLAP data source, a web service, a database, or simply data entered in an excel spreadsheet.  All these can be accomplished from your standard Excel environment.  In the image below, you can see the different sources available.

Figure 1:  Screen Capture of Data Sources Menu

Since the basis of Xcelsius is its utilization of Excel data, I suppose I shouldn't be disappointed with how a user sources data.  For me, I'd prefer to be able to directly use SQL Statements or even MDX queries.  But I don't know how that would work when the focus of the product is marketed to end-users, rather than IT types.  However, in my opinion, that's a bit of a downside.

Creating a Report

To start out creating a report, the assistance Crystal has is easy to use.  When initially opening the application, there are links on the side to quick start tutorials.  Three main tutorials walk you through initially creating Digital Dashboard, Creating a Map Bound data viewer, and creating a "What-If" presentation.  These tutorials quickly show you the concepts of how to define ranges in your charts, titles for the axes, and formatting.  The dashboard tutorial goes through putting in parameters to make the dashboard dynamic for the users.  These are readable, understandable tutorials that get you started quickly.  There are not really any advanced tutorials in the application; there may be at the Xcelsius web site, though.

Xcelsius gives the user the ability to add a Chart or Charts, Parameters, Input Values, and more.  See Figure 2 for a screen shot of the components available in the WorkGroup version.  Creating the reports is all drag and drop from here.  This allows the non-programmers to create interactive reports by dropping drop-down boxes, Radio Buttons and more.  Each object can be "bound" to something in an Excel sheet range or from your web service.

Figure 2:  Components Toolbox

Integration into Enterprise

With my background of using Business Intelligence projects in large and medium size enterprise applications, I looked at how Xcelsius integrates with corporate intranet applications. 

From my perspective, the main question is:  can it integrate with SharePoint easily?  The answer I found was, no.  In the future, it looks like they will have a release that integrates with SharePoint on the drawing board, but the Workgroup version only has a publishing option for PlumTree.  See Figure 3.

Figure 3:  Exporting Options

So, the current way Xcelsius could work in the enterprise would be to set up a share on the web server, giving the user appropriate rights to that share.  Not the ideal situation in my opinion, but that looks like the way this would be done.  For SharePoint sites, you probably could publish to a document library or something, but I would think you would want the dashboard as a web part.  So the share on the web server looks like the best option.

For the future, it looks like Crystal is developing a version of Xcelsius that will work with SharePoint.  I did find mention of this in a news release, but there was no link to the actual product.  So it looks like that is in development.

The users of this product, in my opinion, are going to be analysts in financial or other departments (in the enterprise).  These users are going to want access to data using existing Excel spreadsheets or connecting through the custom web services that connect to their corporate data stores.  

Summary

I originally was interested Xcelsius as an enterprise dashboard product.  After reviewing it, I don't think that is the intent of the product.  Without easy integration for publishing to, for instance, SharePoint sites, utilizing this product across an enterprise might be difficult. 

However, the ease of use for creating dashboards and reports is exciting.  I love the idea of users creating most of the reports, because users generally want a report that's customized just for them.  Giving the end-user a tool that allows them to create complex reports with minimum IT intervention could save your IT group a lot of development time at the end of projects. 

If your end-user community wants to do some complex reporting on their own, this product might be for you.  I particularly like the options available to add to the report for parameters.  And I look forward to a version that supports.  Happy Coding!



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