Jedox have finally published a roadmap for the Palo BI Suite Community Edition, having caused considerable confusion by pre-announcing its availability last April. See here for the details. The headline dates are, a beta version due 1st of July with a Release Candidate due 1st September.
Although the announcement in April was essentially vapour-ware (no Worksheet Server V3, no Amazon EC2 images), one very significant actual deliverable was the addition to SourceForge of the Palo Excel Add-in sources (GPL licence). This, at least for me, is very welcome as it now means that Palo is truly open source. Prior to this, the server sources were GPL’d but not the main front-end tool used by the vast majority of end-users. In fact, the deep Excel integration offered by the Add-In is Palo’s main attraction to the business-focused “datasmiths” who make up the bulk of the product’s user-base.
What has Palo BI Suite to offer, besides being open source? Well, even if Jedox’s offering consisted of mediocre products, being open source as I explained above is in itself a huge advantage. Having an agnostic FOSS pivot engine that can be shared across many technologies, from Excel to Open Office to a PHP based website, is extremely useful.
However, Jedox’s BI suite is far from mediocre. Palo is now a very polished and powerful in-memory MOLAP server with excellent integration with Excel (through the Add-In, or if you take out a support contract, via ODBO/MDX powered Pivot Tables). The addition of a browser delivered spreadsheet (Worksheet Server V3) will add significantly to the product’s street appeal. Version 3 differs significantly from previous WSS versions; being open source is one, but the entire product was also completely redesigned to meet the challenge posed by web-based products from the likes of Zoho, EditGrid and of course Google Docs (not to mention the ever-present threat of a MS response). Web-based spreadsheets are becoming a commodity, so Jedox’s response was to open source the product but at the same time make it more usable for real-world business analytics.
Current browser-delivered spreadsheets suffer from two shortcomings;
- Spreadsheets with large numbers of inter-related cells (typical of business models ) tend to perform poorly, in many cases being unusable compared with Excel or Open Office.
- Only available as hosted SaaS; not a major problem for some businesses, but for others, services outside the corporate firewall, especially for sensitive information such as what-if, budgeting and sales analysis models, are a no-no.
WWS V3 gets around both problems. Performance is improved by the use of Palo as the spreadsheet’s pivot engine but also by the “lazy calculation” of related cells i.e. a cell that’s not visible, and itself not yet referenced by other visible cells, remains uncalculated, saving on the constant churning that can effect large models. This combined with a DynaRange concept means templates and models react dynamically and efficiently to the ever changing datasets being presented to the sheets from the Palo OLAP server. The look’n’feel is very similar to Excel with even array-formulae being fully supported.
The second problem of only-behind-the-firewall access is solved by the open source GPL licence and by the front-end being coded in PHP (very approachable to most in-house support staff and even the odd accountant). The core (the bit not yet released) is, as far as I know, C++, so is likely to join Palo Server as being highly efficient and well engineered but perhaps beyond the technical skills of most.
If multi-dimensional analysis and budgeting could benefit your business and spreadsheets are your preferred method of communicating and working with such analysis, you need to check this out. Palo is a well kept secret (at least outside of Germany), hardly ever mentioned by the mainstream BI community, but don’t let that put you off; this is one of the best solutions out there, it’s open source but also comes with the backup of a professional company that can offer not just technical support but also implementation know-how (Jedox eats its own dog-food, being both a BI consultancy and development house).
Update July 4th 2009:
Beta Community Edition is now available. I downloaded and installed WWS V3 and gave it a quick test-drive; looks good, Palo interface has the look’n’feel of the Excel Add-in and the general spreadsheet functionality is very Excel-like, incluing CTRL-Shift-Enter to assign array formulae. Overall, the Palo BI suite offers a intuitive end-user-friendly interface; from download to effective use in less than 60 minutes, how many BI tools could you say that about?
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