The unavoidable SAP front-end BI7 upgrade: lessons learned

24 July 2014

Jan van Ansem

Jan van Ansem

Principal consultant SAP Data Warehousing

It takes some convincing to get buy in from your stakeholders to provide a significant budget for IT resources, time available from business users, and to some degree disrupt ‘business as usual’ activities for many users, for any IT project let alone a “simple” upgrade in return for, well… not much really, from a business perspective.

This may explain why many companies have not bothered upgrading their BI application even though it is based on fourteen year old technology. For many companies, the SAP Business Explorer (BEx) toolset as delivered in 2002 (BEx 3.x) by and large still meets the business requirements and the upgraded version (BEx BI7), introduced in 2006, simply does not have enough to offer to justify the investment required for upgrade. If you mainly use the Excel plug-in (BEx Analyzer) then there is very little reason to celebrate when upgrading to BI7. 

However, this does not hold true for all organisations using BEx. Those companies using different channels for reporting (Web and Excel) and those companies using integrated planning will find there are significant benefits in running BI7. 

The strength of the business case will vary for many considering this upgrade, but it looks like upgrading to BI7 will become inevitable. SAP has stopped support for BEx 3.x in 2013. There is no more product development and SAP will not provide resolutions for issues any issues you might still find. In addition, the latest SAP GUI does no longer contain the old BEx version. If you have to upgrade your GUI (for example if you want to run SAP Business Client, which requires the latest GUI version) then you lose the old BEx environment. 

Suddenly the ‘very late adopters’ find that they have no choice but to upgrade their front-end to BEx BI7. And again, unfortunately, the upgrade might be more challenging than you might think. During the upgrade you will be confronted with choices where the only options are ‘bad’ or ‘even worse’.  The upgrade should not be taken lightly and this blog post will help you to prepare you for the task ahead. But before going into the detail let’s have a look at the wider context.

Is there a future for SAP’s ‘Business Explorer’ toolset?

BEx is not the answer to all the BI requirements you will have. It is not a dashboarding tool, you cannot build composite web applications with it, it does not run on mobile platforms and there will be other shortcomings if you look for specific use cases or deployment scenarios. SAP does not believe in ‘one tool fits all’ approach. Instead, it offers a set of reporting tools, some strong on dashboarding and mobile, others on ad-hoc analysis or data exploration. Having said that, it is important to recognise that Business Explorer is an extremely adaptable, very powerful and user friendly BI reporting tool.

Every now and then we hear rumours that the Business Explorer tool will not be further developed and it has reached the end of its life, but I have not seen any evidence of this. There are more reliable indicators of the opposite (although not yet on officially published roadmaps):  The OLAP engine will be redeveloped to optimise it for execution on SAP HANA. 

With the exception of the ‘Web Application Designer’ (see footnote) the Business Explorer toolset still has a promising future ahead and it remains a tool worth investing in.

What is going to change?

At first glance, very little. Business users can still navigate through their reports the way they did it before, and in addition to this they have the option to drag and drop. This drag and drop feature makes navigation a lot more intuitive and you will find that if you need to train up new employees they will more easily master the tool. This is the biggest improvement the business users will see, if not the only. The application to maintain and develop reports has changed significantly, so your power users and BI team will be happy. They will benefit most from the upgrade. You can set properties for multiple items at the same time, it is easier to copy and paste sections of a report definition, the whole interface has become more intuitive and the advanced report writers will benefit from some new features and settings.

So far, this is good news. The not so good news is that some of the existing functionality in 3.x is no longer offered in BEx BI7. And to add insult to injury, this missing functionality is poorly documented in the official SAP documentation. The best place to go to is the SCN WIKI “Migration of BEx Analyzer 3x to BEx Analyzer 7x”. In this blog post I have listed which of these undocumented changes have the largest impact on the user community.

Some of these undocumented changes have a workable workaround. For others the workaround is so cumbersome it is probably best to accept the functionality is no longer there. In any case, you have to be aware of this reduced functionality when upgrading your system. In addition to listing this undocumented functionality loss I have also added some lessons learned from the upgrade project I recently worked on.

Changed or reduced functionality: the surprises

  • Detach queries from workbook – this is no longer possible (the workaround is very cumbersome)
  • Edit local query - the layout is not as intuitive
  • Refresh single query -  this works differently and isn’t as straightforward as it used to be
  • Run queries from different BW systems in one workbook – this is not possible
  • Sort by key figure when using two structures or when combining a characteristic with key figures in a row or column
  • Variable values - these are no longer automatically displayed in the navigation panel. You can make them appear in the navigation panel again by adding them as ‘default values’ (as well as ‘filter values’). If you do this, wildcard searches are not possible; selections might disappear when changing variables and in some cases annoying error messages appear
  • It is not possible to ‘remove data’ from a workbook and then save it so what was previously best practise (users open an empty workbook and have to refresh to see anything) no longer works. In addition, if you leave the option ‘Process Variables on Refresh’ enabled then the workbook opens up with a refresh, using the selection criteria from when the workbook was saved, which in most cases is useless.

The upgrade project: lessons learned

  • Consider your strategy. Big bang or a phased roll-out? The big bang requires a huge organisational effort, coordinating training, support and upgrade activities that everything can come together in that one weekend. The latter might seem attractive but can be difficult especially if the same query is shared across different teams or divisions. The last project I worked on we thought there was a ‘get out of jail for free card’, by copying existing queries to new, upgraded queries. That way, part of the user community could still use the old (3.x) query and part of the community could already start using BEx BI7. This turned out to be a mistake though. Because queries are used in different contexts and have personalized data we got ourselves in trouble, and ended up doing a lot of manual work which would not have been necessary if we had simply upgraded the queries. Think about users’ favourites, variants, APD’s, pre-queries, Open Hub, Workbooks, Web Application Designer and interfaces to other systems and you start to get an appreciation of the impact of effectively changing a query technical name
  • Identify which functionality has gone missing and what has changed and discuss the impact of this with the user group. Agree workarounds and plan time to implement these. Communicate clearly to the user community what functionality has gone missing and which things work differently
  • Test, test, test. Especially for computer savvy people it is easy to say it is ‘just another upgrade’ and people will get ‘like for like’. This is not true. It is not just a technical upgrade but a significant change in end user functionality. Plan the project accordingly
  • Upgrade your BW Back End and Front End (GUI and BI plug-in) to the latest patch level.  It is not obvious that you have to do a Back End upgrade when you are looking to do a GUI upgrade but you do. Each support pack still comes with lots of notes for Business Explorer so make sure your house is in order before you upgrade the GUI
  • Develop your own Workbook template and do not use the SAP delivered template. The SAP template looks pretty, but does not let you incorporate a second query in a workbook looking the same layout and has some hidden VBA which is difficult to get rid of.

Hopefully these ‘lessons learned’ will help you to avoid some common pitfalls. With the right resources to find and apply the best possible solution for the changed functionality, and given sufficient time to prepare the user community for the changes ahead, the project will be successful. 

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