Data and the Web

Archive for June, 2008

Kirix Strata 4.1 Maintenance Release Now Available

Monday, June 30th, 2008

 We’re happy to announce the release of Kirix Strata 4.1, which is a maintenance upgrade that adds some new functionality and also fixes some problems.  Here are some of the new and improved items in this version:

Reports

  • Added the ability to create formulas within reports.  To add a formula to a cell in the report design view, just begin the expression with an equal (=) sign.  These formulas allow you to use all of the functions that you normally use in calculated fields.
  • Added a right-click option to insert both common, pre-built formulas into cells as well as custom formulas.  Some pre-built formulas include the current date, page numbers and and page count.
  • Improved the usability of the report design view and fixed some drawing problems.

Connectivity

  • Added the ability to access database views directly from database connections.  In the previous version, when you connected to some of the external databases like Oracle or SQL Server, you only were able to access the tables; now, you can also access the views in your database.
  • Added the ability to open additional data tables, such as TSV files, directly from the web. Data tables that are opened directly from web tables now use the MIME type to load properly rather than relying exclusively on the file extension.

User Interface Enhancements and Fixes

  • Added a German translation for Strata’s menus, dialogs, and other parts of the interface.  However, please note that the documentation remains in English only.
  • Fixed a problem where the software would crash if the first mark color was changed from the default and then an additional mark was created.
  • Fixed a problem that prevented new projects from being created on Linux.
  • Added an option to download extensions, instead of just install them.
  • Improved the structure checking for tables and queries.

Scripting

  • Added additional script functions for integrating scripts with the main Strata application, interacting with a web page’s document object model (DOM) and passing post data in HTTP requests.
  • Added improvements to considerably increase script load times.
  • Added additional SQL functionality for connecting to different databases and converting from numeric and date values to character values.

This upgrade is free to anyone with Strata 4.0, so please download the new version, or simply, select Help > Check for Updates inside Strata.  Then, let us know what you think!

The Long Tail of Enterprise Software Demand

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I was able to attend Dion Hinchliffe’s webinar yesterday (sponsored by Snaplogicthree more free seminars to go) called “Bringing Web 2.0 into the Enterprise with Mashups: Drivers, Requirements and Benefits.”  The session was a very a nice overview of how mashups have impacted the consumer space and how they are creeping into the enterprise.  However, there was one point that struck me as particularly salient… it was something Dion termed “The Long Tail of Enterprise Software Demand.”

Image - Long Tail of SoftwareDemand (source: Hinchcliffe & Company)

I always find it interesting when the concept of the long tail is applied outside of its original scope, and I think Dion nailed it on the head with this analogy.  The synopsis is that there is a large demand curve for software in the enterprise, but only the biggest, most global projects get funded and developed.  The rest of IT’s resources go to maintaining existing systems.  However, there is an extremely long tail of other customized software needs at the business unit level, the departmental level, and even at the individual level that never get created.

The point Dion was making was that there is a lot of potential for easy-to-develop mashups to fill this gap — a self-serve model, if you will.  Mashup tools would make it easy for individuals to create the specific applications they need with a short turnaround time.  In fact, one of Dion’s wrap-up points was that mashup tools should be as easy to use as a spreadsheet.

To take a step back for a second, it may be useful to define what a mashup is.  I would venture to say that when people think of mashups, the first thing that comes to mind is something that integrates a Google Map with other web data, like housing data.  Zillow would be a classic example of this type of mashup.  In fact, Programmable Web states that a full 39% of mashups on their site are related one way or another to mapping.

Wikipedia puts it this way:

In technology, a mashup is a web application that combines data from more than one source into a single integrated tool; an example is the use of cartographic data from Google Maps to add location information to real-estate data, thereby creating a new and distinct web service that was not originally provided by either source.

I suppose it is helpful to define mashups solely as web applications in order to create a nice clean line, but I’d argue that it does the genre a disservice, particularly in the realm of Enterprise Mashups.  This is because there is a storied, if sordid, history of “mashups” that have existed in the long tail of the enterprise for many years.

At a base level, regardless of IT budget, people need solutions to their issues and are often crafty enough to figure out a way to get things done.  These “mashups” often take the form of a duct-taped visual basic script that makes Access do some specialized app for the receivables department.  Or maybe someone creates an, ahem, “untidy” Excel macro that goes way beyond anything Microsoft ever envisioned, but it does a perfect job of forecasting inventory for the sales folks.  It always seems like there is at least one “guru” at the departmental level that knows just enough “programming” to be dangerous.  Dion referred to these types of workers as Prosumers, or folks that have just a bit more technical sophistication than a standard consumer, but are not programmers.

In any event, their circa-1997 Access apps are often cursed by IT.  Their franken-spreadsheets are the scourge of management concerned about security.  But, in the end, they get the job done.  And, they do it with $0 of IT investment.  Their important role in the business shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Now granted, these ad hoc apps don’t currently take advantage of the data in the cloud, but it is this long-tail that has been active for years, mashing up data from different internal systems.  It was the dependable (if low-mileage) four-door sedan compared to the efficient hybrid roadster that is currently on the production line.

It is in this realm that a data browser fits in very nicely as a long-tail mashup tool for the prosumer who needs to divine something from their data.  Clearly a browser is not in the cloud, but being local does carry some benefits, such as:

  • Handling as much data as you throw at it, using the power and speed of the PC for processing and manipulation.
  • Securely mashing up local data, enterprise database data and web data (APIs, CSV bookmarks, RSS feeds, etc) and never needing to push the private business data to an external server.
  • Being extremely flexible and having an interface that is familiar to existing business users, similar to Access or Excel.
  • Offering extensibility, such that the long-tail prosumer folks can quickly knock out a JavaScript plug-in for an ad hoc app only needed at the departmental level.

There is a real beauty in the idea of mashups flourishing in the workplace.  There is this certain intangible, ad hoc “thing” out there that every business person runs into at one time or another, which  just can’t be solved by a single over-arching IT project.  This is why people still use spreadsheets for everything.  And this is why it’ll be fascinating to see how mashup tools will be applied by these ingenious long-tail workers to boost productivity and efficiency in the coming years.

P.S.  As a quick aside, it is interesting to see the parallels between this discussion and the “last mile of business intelligence” that we talked about previously.  Maybe they’re just different sides of the same coin.  Hmmm, this may require another blog post in the future…

Everything You Wanted to Know About Kirix Strata and More…

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

RSS FeedIn addition to today’s announcement about the Extensions section, we’ve also released an equally important new part of our website — the Kirix Strata™ Blog.

If you use Kirix Strata, we would recommend you subscribe to the Strata Blog feed (or get a subscription via email).  This will be the place where we  post examples, tips & tricks, case studies and interesting links.  There are lots of things that Strata can do to make your data tasks more efficient or let you discover new things within your data; you just need to know how to use the tools in the toolkit.

If you have data questions or would like us to demonstrate a particular concept, please let us know and we may be able to create a Strata Blog post for you and let everyone join in on the education.

Also, while we’re talking about feed subscriptions, the other feed that may interest you is our Extensions feed (again, this can be subscribed to via email).  This feed will alert you whenever a new extension has been posted to the Extension Library so you can try out the various things that interest you most.

As with any new blogs, we are obviously starting with a humble first post, but we plan to expand rapidly from here.  And, if you have any feedback on these two new sections, please let us know how we can best serve you.  Enjoy!

Extend and Conquer: Introducing Kirix Strata Extensions and Developer Resources

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Puzzle PieceWe’re really excited to announce our Kirix Strata™ Extensions section along with a load of resources for developers.

As with other browsers (like Firefox, which is making some news of its own today), Kirix Strata is extensible and supports a plug-in architecture.  It uses the JavaScript syntax, so any developers who are familiar with Javascript should find creating Strata scripts pretty easy.

Unlike other browsers though, Strata packs a full database engine for the journey. Combine this power with the ability to access stuff on the web (web content, APIs, DOM manipulation) as well as local files, and you’ve got yourself a highly customizable rich internet application for data-centric tasks.

We’ve been scripting a lot for client projects and it has pleasantly surprised us how much one can do with Strata’s engine.  We’ve also been creating a bunch of extensions in-house that we’ll be rolling out in the coming weeks for everyone to use.

Here’s a full list of the stuff we’ve added to the website today:

Extension Library

The library is the place where we’ll be listing all new extensions.  We’ll be rolling these out as we create them, but we’d also be really happy to publish any extensions developed by the community that may be useful to a wide range of people.  Got an extension to share? Please submit it and we’ll post it.

Extension Wizard

The Extension Wizard makes some of the mundane tasks of creating scripts and extensions a little less painful.  There are three things it offers:

  1. Extension Packaging:  Create the appropriate “packaging” for an extension.  Just write your script and let the wizard package it up for you to distribute.
  2. Script Templates and Components: This area provides a number of pre-packaged scripts that you can use in your own development.  It has scripts for such things as form controls, form layouts, database/SQL examples and API examples (e.g., FTP requests and an RSS feed parser)
  3. Sample Applications:  You can also create variations of a full application which is helpful when you want to take an already-built extension, open it up and see what makes it tick.

Build Your Own Extension

The build-your-own page provides a high-level view of creating an extension for Strata.

Developer Resources

With the Developer Resources section, we’ve finally put some meat around the skeleton API documentation that we previously made available on our website.  This section provides an overview of working with scripts in Strata as well as information about the syntax and API.

Submit an Extension

Got an extension that you’d like to share with the world?  Submit it here and we’ll post it to the library.

Kirix Strata does a lot of great stuff out of the box for working with and reporting on data.  But scripting and extensions offer power users an opportunity to develop customized applications for themselves and their co-workers.  If you are a developer, we hope you dig into the documentation and find it valuable.  If you aren’t a developer, we just hope that the extensions library will  prove useful to you over time.

Lastly, please let us know if you have any questions about scripting or extensions and we’ll be happy to help!

Moving Toward Business Intelligence 2.0

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Elephant Crossing SignI just read a pretty interesting article by Neil Raden called “Business Intelligence 2.0: Simpler, More Accessible, Inevitable” (HT: Snaplogic) and would recommend giving it a read.

Historically, business intelligence hasn’t been all that its cracked up to be. Very expensive data warehousing systems are put in place. Existing reports are re-created and all kinds of new objects/reports are added. Everyone is thoroughly trained on the system. Pretty 3D graphics are added to the dashboard. The project goes over budget. Users revert to using Excel.

Some would say that BI is just a fancy way to do organizational reporting. There’s a lot of truth to this; why else do people continue to rely on their spreadsheets when they need to do some quick and dirty analysis? I think the answer is that there is a substantial ad hoc component to the “intelligence” part of business intelligence that will never be captured by a large, centralized system.

Having a few BI gurus setting up reports for everyone just isn’t an efficient use of resources. Nor does it capture the collective brain power of the organization. And there is quite a bit of this power ready to be tapped, even in the deepest corners of a company.

For example, we’ve done a lot of work with folks in the accounts payable industry. AP is not what you’d call a very sexy part of the organization — however, billions of dollars flow through it each year, as the keepers of the company checkbook. There are efficiencies to be gained, analyses to be done and, in our experience, a whole slew of people eager to do a bang-up job. However, when an AP manager needs to get something from the legacy system or just wants to create a new type of report they have one of two options — either go to IT and hope they can get a report created within the next couple weeks or go to mattresses with Excel/Access and do what they need to do themselves.

Neil echoes this when comparing BI 1.0 to BI 2.0:

BI 1.0 Fallacy: Most users want to be spoon-fed information and will never take the initiative to create their own environment or investigate the best way to get the answers they need.

BI 2.0 Reality: The Consumer Web invalidates this idea. When given simple tools to do something that is important and/or useful to them, people find a way to “mash up” what they need.

We’ve seen people’s initiative on display time and again and are really happy that Kirix Strata is playing a part in making this type of ad hoc analysis, integration and reporting easier than ever.

So, give those articles a read and see what you think. Also, please consider joining us on Wednesday at 1 PM EDT for our free hour-long web seminar with Snaplogic called “BI 2.0: Data Visualization and Spreadsheets on Steroids.” All the pertinent details can be found here. Hope to see you then!

About

Data and the Web is a blog by Kirix about accessing and working with data, wherever it is located. We have a particular fondness for data usability, ad hoc analysis, mashups, web APIs and, of course, playing around with our data browser.