In last three articles (1, 2, and 3) of this series, we discussed the overall Business Intelligence system architecture, different components, and how ETL helps store source data in the required form, followed by how OLAP (CUBE) helps to process, aggregate, and store huge amount of data. In this article, we'll discuss another part of the overall BI system architecture: information delivery. How can we visualize or deliver data to help business owners and other users in the community? You can help them to know business trends and usability of the system, including other benefits. In the next the part of this series, you'll know more about information delivery and various ways to represent data to help business owners in decision making.
Importance of Data Presentation
With the basic understanding of Business Intelligence, we should know the importance of data presentation in information delivery and how useful it is for business users. After storing data in the required form, either in a data warehouse/data mart database or an OLAP cube, data can be showcased in certain forms that will become the source of required information for all BI users; this is known as Reports in the BI world. These Reports can be data reports, executive dashboards, or conference presentations.
Data Reports may have different types of layouts to present the data, such as Metrics, Chart, Funnel reports, animated representation of data, and so on. All these kinds of data layouts can be considered, based on the targeted audience.
All these reports may represent Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to visualize/present the data. These KPIs are a type of performance measurement. An organization may use KPIs to evaluate its success or progress, or to evaluate the success/progress of a particular business in which it is engaged. This data presentation is the logical end point for any BI system and becomes the source of truth for decision makers.
In the next article, we'll discuss how data can be leveraged further and you'll know about new dimensions in the data analytics world.
A reporting tool is an interactive data exploration and visual presentation of data that is stored in a database or cube and can be achieved by using various available reporting tools; the selection of a reporting tool for your purpose is solely your discretion but with supporting facts like we discussed, some selection criteria for OLAP tools in the previous article. There is no thumb rule to adopt a reporting tool; I want to reiterate this fact that the identification and adoption of any BI tool is not a personal decision and can't be finalized without thorough study. You need to refer to the previous articles of this series to know more about the reasons why this is important for the successful implementation of any BI system.
There are varieties of reporting tools available that can be useful to present data and deliver the information. Some of them that come with Business Intelligence suites are Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services, Oracle Reports, IBM Congnos Report Studio, and MicroStrategy Reporting Suite. Some open source tools are BIRT, JasperReport, Pentaho, and few other available tools for reporting are Tableau, QlikView, and the like.
Reporting tools help to visualize data in multiple, interconnected ways by using data regions. You can display data organized in tables, matrices, or cross-tabs, expand/collapse groups, charts, gauges, indicators or KPIs, and maps, with the ability to nest charts in tables.
Types of Reports
Once we finalize the reporting tool, the next step is to select the report design and data display to present the data as information for the user community. We need to consider key factors to design any report; these factors are the structure and tone of the report, length of report, kinds of data to include (tables, figures, graphs, maps, or pictures), detail of information, data positioning in the report, and the most important: visual sophistication.
We can explore different types of reports while considering the preceding key factors and organizing data in a variety of ways to show the relationship of the general information to the detailed. We can put all the data in the report, but set it to be hidden until a user clicks to reveal details; this is a drilldown action. Data can be displayed in a data region, such as a table or chart, which is nested inside another data region, such as a table or matrix. Another way is display the data in a subreport that is completely contained within a main report. Or, you can put the detail data in drillthrough reports, separate reports that are displayed when a user clicks a link. We'll explore those ideas next.
Drilldown Reports: A Drilldown report provides plus and minus icons on a text box; these icons enable users to hide and display items interactively. This is called a drilldown action. For a table or matrix, it shows or hides static rows and columns, or rows and columns that are associated with groups.
Drillthrough Reports: A Drillthrough report is a report that a user opens by clicking a link within another report. Drillthrough reports commonly contain details about an item that are contained in an original summary report.
Subreport: A Subreport is a report item that displays another report inside the body of a main report. Conceptually, a subreport in a report is similar to a frame in a Web page. It is used to embed a report within another report.
Nested Reports: A Nest report can nest one data region, such as a chart, inside another data region, such as a matrix, typically to display data summaries in a concise manner or to provide a visual display as well as a table or matrix display.
A report can apply to a specific type of report item, a layout design, or a solution design. A single report can have characteristics from more than one type; for example, a report can be, at the same time, a stand-alone report, a subreport referenced by a main report, the target of a drillthrough report in a different main report, and a drilldown report.
Data Sources for Reports
Reports can leverage stored data in databases in the form of DW or DM or a cube to display. Data can be exposed by using a data source and data sets property in any report. These data sources and data sets can be exposed only to one report or shared with multiple reports. Report definition is always independent with the data source and data set and can be managed separately.
Different types of reports allow you to anticipate different report properties, such as drillthrough actions, expand/collapse toggles, sort buttons, Tooltips, and the use of report parameters to enable report reader interactions. To control data display or user interaction, we can use report parameters that can be combined with expressions and provide the ability to customize how report data is filtered, grouped, and sorted.
Industry Trends in BI Reporting
Industry trends are changing rapidly and user expectations are also growing with respect to information delivery by a BI system. In the current data world, a user not only analyzes structured data but also wants quick information on top of huge, unstructured data. We need to adopt and support new trends to meet user objectives in a rapidly changing paradigm.
We are observing great change in data visualization; the initial visual data discovery releases from the big organizations like Microsoft, SAP, IBM, Microstrategy, SAS, and Oracle tended to have limited capabilities, but the gap is slowly closing. The specialty organizations and the heavyweights are trying to find the right balance between analysis and trusted data.
Another important trend is mobility. Initially, the mobility of information was "nice to have," but now it is an absolutely essential component of any useful report. The first mobile BI products allowed users to look at data remotely on their tablets and mobile phones, and as devices improved, dashboards and other visual representations made it easier for people to access the information they needed in the format they desired.
Another new trend is to present enterprise-wide massive amounts of data (Big Data). Everyone is talking about big data, but in the business intelligence world it means one thing: Organizations are being overwhelmed by massive amounts of new information that they need to analyze quickly and accurately. In the current industry trend, unstructured data will be a big part of this change because the ability to look at information not stored in spreadsheets and databases is letting organizations analyze information that they couldn't truly leverage a few years ago.
It's always highly recommended that organizations should change their way of operating and align with industry trends for better results and use the best of technology in their own interest.
In this article, we discussed how data visualization plays an important role for the successful implementation of a BI system. We discussed various types of reports and the factors that help in decision making for designing and implementing any report. Overall Information delivery is the last layer for a BI system, but this is the data presentation layer that turns data in information. It helps a diverse user community leverage to present the information; otherwise, users won't be in a good situation to make any decision.
In the next article, which will be last in this series, we'll discuss how huge unstructured data is changing the whole Business Intelligence paradigm and explore Hadoop with various components.
About the Author
Anoop worked for Microsoft for almost six and half years and has 12+ years of IT experience. Currently, he works as a DW/BI Architect in one of the top Fortune Companies. He has worked on end-to-end delivery of enterprise-scale DW/BI projects. He carries a strong knowledge of database, data warehouse, and business intelligence application design and development. Also, he worked extensively on SQL Server, designing ETL using SSIS, SSAS, SSRS, and SQL Azure.