Essbase for Newbies: a title never released

July 31, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: EPM 

More than ten years ago I read an article in some UK computer magazine which even at that time already stated that IT had “by now”ť so many 2, 3 and 4 letter acronyms that most combinations had been used several times for wildly different technologies already, making it next to impossible to know about all these techniques. Not even a minor subset could be grasped by an individual at that time. We’re now many more acronyms down the line and things haven’t become any easier.

Look smarter than you are with Essbase System 9: cover

Look smarter than you are with Essbase System 9: cover

What makes it even more difficult is that some terms are so widely used that they can mean pretty much anything while some ideas have several names for the same thing. Business intelligence is an example of one such term of the first order, while “enterprise performance management” (which is something like BI, or not, I don’t know any more…) is an example of the second group.

Having worked in IT for years in the CMS and CRM (yep, 3 letter acronyms!) world I got myself hired by a new employer in the Netherlands almost 1,5 years ago, this time in the BI corner of the universe. Luckily my first 5 working days coincided with a bootcamp at the Oracle University, so I could immediately delve into Essbase. A nasty surprise, I can tell you! Essbase is not an easy animal to grasp, especially if you have never ever used any OLAP tool in your life… Loadrules, calculations, dimensions, members, I had no idea whatsoever about the meaning of it all.

Since then I have read a lot about BI techniques and I must say: there is a lot of information about stuff like OLAP (more about that soon in another posting), but almost nothing really in paper form about Hyperion software. Which is weird, if you come to think of it: these systems are extremely expensive, they are rather difficult to work with and they require quite a lot of training and experience. It’s not something you buy off the shelve at consumer prices. Also, the system was independently  owned (by Hyperion before takeover by Oracle) so you would imagine Hyperion, and now Oracle, ordering some copywriter to write a nice book for the end-user, if only to at least to pretend to take the end-user seriously.

Of course, traditionally this type of system is regarded by most people to be a typical programmers system: a system made by programmers for programmers. The end-user is just not so interesting. Within the Hyperion software this can be seen in several ways: you want end-user documentation? Write it yourself… No matter that 90% of the end-user documentation will be the same worldwide (except for the actual language used of course) so it could easily be done, by a central organization like Oracle. Oracle will of course claim that it has actually written a lot of documentation, which is even freely available, but that is technical documentation, which we can’t give to our end-users.

So, it is nice to see that at least some people have stepped into the void and created a book about Essbase (and such) for the end-user, with an end-user perspective. Hurrah for Edward Roske and Tracy McMullen. Whatever else I (or anyone else) may say about the book: at least they did it! That is already an achievement. But now, for the book.

Look smarter than you are with Essbase System 9: example page

Look smarter than you are with Essbase System 9: example page

The book is nicely printed on good quality paper. I just love the fact that you don’t need to hold on to books which look like the 80’s illegal prints from India any longer, these days printing is cheap enough to create a good looking product even at small print runs. I don’t expect this to be a large print run, it could even be pretty much printing-on-demand if I understand the information on lulu.com well enough, so it shows someone has put time and money into this. The layout of the book is not particularly interesting, it pretty much consists of text and a lot of screenshots, like you would expect from a technical book. Okay, this could have been done much better, but this book is not about some graphics software but a business system, so maybe one could call this “functional”.

But the layout is not what you buy a book for (unless it’s an art book or a stamp catalog), so let’s focus on the text itself. The book focuses on two types of users, the business user and the administrator. The business users get attention in the first 180 pages, the administrators get most of the other pages, out of a total of 526 pages.  That may sound as a lot of pages, but since the book is pretty much standard size but filled to the brink with screenshots I guess you actually get 10 to 15% less text than you might think. But that’s fine, since as an end-user I need screenshots. A lot of them!

The book is, in my opinion, not really handy if you are a complete newbie when it comes to OLAP. The biggest problem with OLAP is understanding dimensions and although this book (as it should of course) delivers some short lecture on dimensions in the beginning of the book, I think I would not have understood the first few chapters without the knowledge I already had acquired about OLAP before reading this book. As in: this part is so hands-on it is just a little bit too short on the theory. So, in practice for those who have no knowledge of OLAP whatsoever even the first 100 pages would have been rather difficult to understand. You click a lot, but why? Of course, I know, this is the most difficult part of OLAP anyway, but I think I would not have gone beyond the first 100 pages or so if I would not have understood quite a lot about OLAP already. Not for real dummies then.

But, let’s look at it from my point of few: I have been using Essbase (and other Hyperion software, like the Excel Add-in and Smartview, and Planning etc.) for 1,5 years now and for me, in that situation, the book is quite perfect. You see, when you start to work on a new assignment the people who you learn from are the ones who also simply started to work in such systems sometime before you started. In the end, most of us will learn will experiencing things. Something they call “mystagogical catechesis”: experience first, then get the explanation. Something we are not used to any more, wanting to have precise information first (some sort of fake security I guess) and then do exactly as is written in the handbooks. In previous centuries, this was the other way around. In early Christian initiation, this meant that people first experienced something and then were told what it all meant. See for instance the Didache. It worked quite well at the time.

Now, having said that, in that respect this book is very handy: all of a sudden some things which I never understood about Essbase and the accompanying software became clear. Take for instance the stupid remark that the Add-in always gives about multiple reports per retrieval. I was already wondering when that would change (the answer is on page 91: basically never). And I learned some new things, like “Esscell”. You never learn about such details from coworkers because they were never told about such details either. Just like I only discovered the other day you could actually script the Excel Add-in through a macro. I only discovered that while reading through some documentation. And the “dense sparse” explanation is also always handy! Also, the fact that both Excel Add-in and Smartview are being explained means your endusers can choose themselves which they would prefer.

Generally speaking, this book is so far the only serious printed matter on this subject and as such, it is a good work. It is not for the completely initiated, but then again, which book ever really is? It simply does what it promises: it tells about the most common things you are supposed to do with Essbase, like how to build loadrules, calcscripts, system administration and other normal everyday stuff, and then tell some more about other possibilities. And it does it with a lot of humor. I still think there is a market for an “Essbase for Dummies” book which also tells more about OLAP (but you could get that information from other, well written, books as well!) and there certainly is room for a book which goes into more detail about Workspace and what end-users can do with that. Essbase is only the data storage, but how to show this data for end-users who even have no idea about Excel? But it is exactly as John Kopcke pretty much says in his foreword to the book: everybody always talks about writing a book about Essbase, but nobody is delivering. Now, finally, some people have done this. Therefore: buy this book, even if you are a consultant with 15 years experience. If you don’t need it yourself, you will always find someone who does! Initiatives like this should be rewarded! (In case you’re wondering:  we have bought two copies for our organization, not one. Just to have that extra copy.) And besides that, it could give you some idea of what book to write next. It gave me an idea. Now to put my money etc…

The details:
Look Smarter Than You Are with Essbase System 9 (Paperback)
Paperback: 548 pages
Publisher: Lulu.com (March 16, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1435713516
ISBN-13: 978-1435713512

I ordered my copy through Amazon, were it can be found at:

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Also, have a look at these books, they could be of interest to you as well:

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