A First Look at BI Composer

Along with support for Oracle OLAP as a datasource, another less well-advertised new feature in OBIEE is BI Composer. BI Composer is a cut-down, wizard-based interface for creating analyses, and is meant to be a simpler environment for users than the full-blown analyses editor (otherwise known as Answers) in OBIEE 11g. You have to jump through a few hoops to get it running, but it's an interesting new bit of functionality and I though I'd take a look, prior to tomorrow's BI Forum event in Brighton.

The first challenge in getting up and running with BI Composer is that you've effectively got to install it yourself, after you do the main OBIEE install. I won't go into the full details here (all the steps are detailed in the docs), but you've basically got to run the WebLogic Configuration Utility to add some shared libraries to the OBIEE WebLogic Server Domain, then set up a JDBC connection through to the MDS schema, deploy the BI Composer application and then configure it to use that JDBC connection. Presumably it'll be installed as part of the main install in future versions, and what we're seeing here is a bit of an early preview.

Once BI Composer is up and running, you access it through switching your account to Accessibility mode, by selecting your account (e.g. Weblogic) > My Account from the common toolbar. This displays the My Account dialog and you need to select Yes for Accessibility Mode.


Now when you go back into the main dashboard or homepage, when you select New > Analysis, select Create > Analysis or open an existing analysis for editing, you're taken into the BI Composer screen instead of regular Answers.

To create a new analysis using BI Composer, I therefore select New > Analysis, and select a subject area for the analysis. This then brings up the first BI Composer screen, for selecting columns for the analysis.

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So the idea here is that BI Composer will take you through seven steps to create the analysis, guiding new users through the process of selecting columns, selecting views, sorting and filtering data, adding conditional formatting and then saving the analysis to the catalog. It's aimed at new users (or disabled ones, going on the requirement for the accessibility settings in this release), and it's a similar process Oracle have taken to the main OBIEE 11g interface, where there's links to create new content, open content and so on right on the dashboard.

To add columns to the analysis, you drill-into the Subject Area listing on the left, tick the columns and hierarchies that you want and then press the Add link, which adds the selection to the right-hand column listing.

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At the top of the page is a listing of the steps in the wizard. The next step on from selecting the columns is Select Views, and you progress to this by pressing the Next button on the far right-hand side of the screen.

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On the Select Views page, you can type in the analysis title, and preview the compound layout as you create it. Note the buttons under the Title area for creating the Table, Graph, and setting the layout.

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Pressing the None Menu button next to Table brings up a menu where you can select the type of numeric display you'd like to have in the analysis. I select Pivot (recommended) which is the recommended option when you include a hierarchical column in your selection.

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Selecting Pivot (recommended) then, if you've got Preview enabled, displays the basic pivot table on the main wizard screen.

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One thing I noticed is that some of the menu options (Summary Table Pivot for example) didn't work, and crashed the application. I think this is very much an "alpha" release of the product and you should expect bugs and functions to not work properly.

I then press the None Menu button next to Graph, and you're then presented with a list of graph types (a subset of what's available in the full Answers product).

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I select the Bar (recommended) menu item, which actually when I go back to the preview, shows the results still as a table.

I then move on to the next wizard step, Edit Table. This lets me move columns around from rows to columns, into the prompt or the sections area, and exclude columns. I move the columns around within the pivot table, like this:

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I then do the same for the graph. Even after fine-tuning the column selection though, it still shows the graph as a table.

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The next page lets you set the sort order, and define filtering, for the analysis. The filter dialog is very basic; you have to type in the filter values (rather than selecting them from a list of values, as with Answers); there's no selection steps, no access to saved filters, no help with variables and so on. Also the interface is a bit "clunky", with scrollbars not working properly and text boxes too small.

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Next is a step to define conditional formatting, which works quite well except for the colours being listed in hex, rather than by colour.

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Finally you get to save the analysis in the web catalog.

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So once you've saved the analysis, how does it look? Well you can view the analysis directly in BI Composer, but the graph doesn't show again, but if you come out of accessibility mode and then view the analysis using regular Answers, it looks as you'd expect, because all BI Composer is is a simplified interface for creating analyses, using a wizard.

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So, what's the conclusion then? Well, it's pretty basic and buggy in this release, and the interface is very unpolished compared to Answers - to be honest, it looks like something you'd quickly put together as a POC for a client who asked for a simpler environment to create reports, and in fact we've done something very similar on projects in the past. I'm not sure what the direction is for the product - presumably, the accessibility settings hack is the only way to provide access to it in this release, and in future it'll be pre-installed and available through the regular homepage, or perhaps it's just a skunk-works project within the development team to try out some UI ideas? It's an interesting concept though, and if anyone else gives it a try, leave a comment on this posting.

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