SAP Analytics Cloud - 12 frequently asked questions

8 October 2018

Karun Soni

Karun Soni

Consultant

SAP Analytics Cloud (SAC) is undoubtedly where SAP is nailing its colours to the mast. As the focus increases on this solution it still leaves many unanswered questions, especially for those used to on-premise solutions. Karun Soni leaves no stone unturned and answers 12 of the most frequently asked questions about SAC.

Contents

1. Is Analytics Cloud safe from external hackers outside of an organisation?
2. How can we keep data secure for employees within an organisation?
3. What does SAP Analytics Cloud integrate with?
4. Can I report in real time?
5. Does SAP Analytics Cloud have predictive capabilities?
6. How dynamic is SAP Analytics Cloud as a self-service tool?
7. How would SAP Analytics Cloud work for everyone in a business structure?
8. What are the collaborative features of SAP Analytics Cloud?
9. In terms of UX, what can SAP Analytics Cloud offer?
10. What extensions can be used for SAP Analytics Cloud?
11. Where does SAP Analytics Cloud sit within the BI market?
12. What are the key benefits of using SAP Analytics Cloud?


1. Is SAP Analytics Cloud safe from attacks originating outside of an organisation?

SAP have used numerous measures to keep your data safe, including:
  • User security training and a dedicated research team to keep up-to-date with trends
  • Analysis of the threat landscape outside of SAP
  • Developing secure products using Software Development Lifecycle (SDL)
  • Using SAP-owned security-penetration test lab which simulates actions of attackers to reveal any system breaches.
SAP have also released a series of innovative products that ensure security without impacting user experience, such as:
  1. SAP Enterprise Threat Detection, which provides a powerful solution for automated attack detection with real-time monitoring.
  2. SAP Single Sign-On enables employees to log in to all applications from their initial authentication.
  3. SAP solutions for governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) enable customers to automate processes associated with managing access to business applications.
  4. The SAP Identity Management component helps enterprises manage user access to applications securely and efficiently.
SAP have built (and continue to research, through a security team who explore the most up-to-date risks) three pillars to maintain security: ‘Prevent’, ‘Detect’, ‘React’. There is a whitepaper that goes into further detail below:
 

https://www.sap.com/uk/about/cloud-trust-center/secure-cloud-storage.html#pdf-asset=5612fab4-707c-0010-82c7-eda71af511fa&page=10


2. How can we keep data secure for employees within an organisation?

SAP Analytics Cloud unifies data from a wide variety of data sources (either on-premise or cloud) into single cloud solution. The benefit here is that there is a single point of security setting from within the tool.

Admin users set security settings for  other users within the business. They can clearly post models and visualisations, within allocated teams or privately. In short, during implementation, SAC has the tools available to ensure that sensitive data does not get into the wrong hands and the task is to ensure this is factored into the design.

This comes from assessing the use cases and finding where any vulnerabilities lie, then framing security around it. Creating teams and configuring user access to models within SAC means that the business can take control of security without IT dependency.
 

3. What does SAP Analytics Cloud integrate with?

A key reason to move to SAP Analytics Cloud is because you can seamlessly integrate a wide variety of cloud and on-premise data sources into one cloud solution.

Below are a list of data sources SAC integrates with: Source: SAP

The live data connection can connect to a remote system without replicating data but querying it directly with:
  • SAP HANA
  • SAP S/4HANA
  • SAP BW, BW/4HANA
  • SAP Universe

Limitations

  • Recommended connection speed of 500-800 kbit/s or faster
  • Recommended browser cache of 250 MB
  • SAP HANA only uses live connection, no import.
 

4. Can I report in real time?

In short, yes you can. With a live connection, (such as with SAP HANA, see SAC FAQ 2) you are able to get fully up-to-date data. With SAC you would still need to refresh reports to get a real-time view of your data, as opposed to SAP Lumira Discovery which enables live streaming of data.

An advantage of cloud accessibility also means that you could view this on a mobile or tablet device on the go, anywhere in the world - as long as you have an internet connection. Obviously, having data in ‘real time’ is only possible with certain data source connections. Saying this, there isn’t too much of a compromise if you have to schedule loads over the day to get the information required.

The benefits of reporting in real time are obvious; as a business you want to make decisions, react to issues - fast. With the right dashboard designs and real-time capability, you can cut down on wasted time and money.

One way of quantifying this is establishing how much time is wasted per day on data loads or running reports for regular updates. If this is multiplied by each user doing these tasks, and multiplied again over a year, you can quantify, in terms of time and therefore cost, the real tangible benefit of getting your answers faster and in a frictionless manner.
 

5. Does SAP Analytics Cloud have predictive capabilities?


Yes! It essentially looks at historical data to identify patterns, and then uses those patterns to identify future outcomes. This could be useful for a sales manager who wants to predict sales revenue for the coming quarters, for example.

It is also user-friendly. You can simply change a trend chart to a time series chart and you are now looking at forecasted data. You can also use a simpler option to ‘auto forecast’. This option will look at the data within the graph at different levels of granularity to create patterns and apply them to the future.

For data scientists there is a more controlled/complex way of creating predictive visuals. There is an ‘advanced options’ selection, where the user can use additional data to enrich the historical data that these patterns are based on- which creates a more accurate and informed forecast. For data scientists there is also the advanced option of integrating with an R server to further customise visualisations.
 

6. How dynamic is SAP Analytics Cloud as a self-service tool?

SAC certainly has ease of use coupled with complex functionality, enabling users to create visualisations that solve complex problems. A lot of the design aspect is reasonably simple, and an end user can reach meaningful conclusions easily. Here are some examples:
  1. Users can drag and drop dimensions into visualisations and change chart type at any time.
  2. Tooltips (a popular feature of Tableau) can now be customised, and you can get a lot of information just by clicking on a data point.
  3. Users can set up hyperlinks between stories to link data visualisations.
  4. Examine data points on the fly.
  5. Easy dynamic filtering- for example by clicking a graph point to filter a map.
  6. Commenting and collaboration capabilities.
  7. Easy to set up user access and team controls.
  8. Calendar integration with visual stories to easily share finding and discuss with teams. This calendar allows task tracking and collaboration to be easier with appointments, individual/team task allocation and plan management for each task.
  9. Options for more advanced analysis where required, such as with predictive analytics.
In summary, users are able to operate with a lot of freedom to get meaningful answers from data. This means there is less of a dependency from IT and a smaller bridge to cross between various departments and BI.
 

7. How would SAP Analytics Cloud work for everyone in a business structure?

SAC has found ways to make its outputs relevant and valuable for every part of the business. The best practice way of operating is as follows:
  1. Junior level: would have access to stories (a story is essentially a visualisation) with more granular data.
  2. Middle management: a higher level view of stories, with trend based analysis and forecast views.
  3. Executives: would see visualisations in the ‘Digital Boardroom’ which is designed to create slick, high-level visualisations by combining various stories in a dynamic dashboard.
Role-based access also means that teams are easily assigned, so that stories are shared in a more effective manner. For example, an ‘executive finance team’ may have access to sensitive data visualisations and communicate between themselves. This means that visual outputs are not only split by position in the company, but also by functions.

The significance of the Digital Boardroom is that it is a transparent, real-time view into a business. It is displayed as a high-level view of the business with great UX, data visualisation and collaborative features. It can be trusted by executives since it originates from real data which can be drilled into & investigated, and it enables them to test scenarios or respond to issues… in real-time.
 

8. What are the collaborative features of SAP Analytics Cloud?

  1. Roles and teams: By their very simple nature, roles and teams allow users to easily share information with the right people. You are assigned a role when your account is created, but teams can be created and edited further down the line.
  2. Annotations and threads: Users can annotate or even ‘draw’ on a dashboard. This is useful for teams to communicate about any issues or areas for improvement. Additionally, SAC have introduced a feature to add discussions to a dashboard, allowing you to post questions or add comments to dashboards.
  3. Web conferences: You can have web conferences to discuss a visualisation with participants of your choosing. This lessens reliance on 3rd party conferencing tools, and means that the team can easily collaborate, no matter where they are in the world.
  4. Mobile capability: SAC only currently works on Apple devices not Android or Windows devices. But touch ID, notifications and a great user interface still makes this advanced in the BI landscape as a collaborative feature used on-the-go.
  5. Calendar: SAC has a calendar which allows further collaboration and ease of use to schedule reports and direct activities within a team.

9. In terms of UX, what can SAP Analytics Cloud offer?

UX stands for user experience and is an increasingly hot topic even for B2B solutions. Our standards of technology outside of the office are so high that using clunky tools during the work day is out of the question. Not to mention the tangible benefit of saving time, effort and ultimately money.
 

So, what are the key UX Benefits of SAP Analytics Cloud?

  • Dynamic visuals - end users can independently edit stories and ‘drag and drop’ dimensions to create meaningful visuals (see FAQ 6 for more information)
  • Collaborative features – the best UX is the ‘frictionless’ experience of an end-user. I feel that collaborative features have always been an after-thought in BI. The collaborative tools in SAC really are a game changer. Annotations, threads, mobile capability and calendars have allowed SAC to become a great tool for teams (See FAQ 8 for more information).
  • Design principles- users are enabled to take full control of the aesthetics. In the example below, fig.1 shows RAG status colour coding, range filters, data labelling for measures, dynamic  numbers linked to the rest of the visualisation and annotations where required:

Fig 1. RAG status colour coding. Source: SAP
  • Digital Boardroom - this is a perfect balance of great data visualisation and UX, to give the board and senior management opportunities to explore business critical data. It can be displayed across three linked screens and if you have touch screen it’s even better. Take a closer look here.

10. What extensions can be used for SAP Analytics Cloud?

  • R Visualisation - this is an open-source programming language that includes packages for advanced visualizations and machine learning. It works within your SAC stories as a visual and can be shared within the tool. This enables you to create far more advanced statistical visualisations which would be difficult to create with built-in functionality - this blog gives a useful case study.
  • Custom Java - this enables you to use programming logic and benefit from Java customisation within a robust cloud platform. Using Java enables options that are otherwise unavailable such as customising a visualisation or colour scheme.
There aren’t as many extensions as some competing tools (or even other SAP BI tools such as Lumira Discovery) but this is kind of the point of the design of SAP Analytics Cloud. The bulk of modelling and customisation should be done in HANA/BW which lighten the work required within SAC.
 

11. Where does SAP Analytics Cloud sit within the BI market?

This is a broad question, but one that certainly every business must address before deciding which BI self-service tool they want to use. Spoiler alert: the answer usually lies with the business itself; user requirements, existing technology and future strategy.

However, to help make that decision, here is an unbiased overview of the SAC versus its competitors: Tableau, Power BI, Qlikview and Spotfire. It’s worth noting that new updates are released on a regular basis for each of these tools as they try to play catch up or overtake the competition.


Pricing

SAP Analytics Cloud sits at $24 a month for a BI module (there is also a free trial), although it is more pricey for a planning model. Saying this, it is incredibly useful to have BI, Planning and Predictive all in one solution. Pricing structures across the market are complex. There are so many different pricing structures and 'add ons' available. Tableau seems to be the most expensive at the moment at $70 per user per month for a desktop license/ $35 for enterprise.
 

Data source integration

These tools all have good integration with a wide variety of data sources. SAC has native connectivity to SAP Applications which is advantageous if you use SAP already. However, Tableau & Power BI have integration with Social Media (Facebook/Twitter) uncontrolled data. There is an argument here that the ease of data source integration depends on whether you are a SAP or Microsoft house.

For example, difficulties can arise with Power BI when connecting to SAP BW using MDX (Multidimensional Expressions.) SAC can only have a live connection with HANA live data, as opposed to importing it. This is being addressed by SAP, however the very nature of this live connection is that data modelling should be done in the HANA layer, with less modelling for the end-user in SAC. Tableau connects to a wide variety of sources and is neither a SAP nor Microsoft house.

However it has disadvantages, mainly around the dependency on hyper data extracts for better performance, which requires data to be duplicated – this can be a problem for larger enterprises.
 

Security

All of these tools have reached a level of maturity when it comes to security. Usually security is inherited from wider SAP or Microsoft roles. Tableau, Qlickview and Spotfire have challenges around single sign-on and security. SAC is the only tool within this landscape to have enabled touch ID for mobile devices.
 

Data visualisation

All the tools are pretty much on par here, however Tableau has the widest offering in terms of  the variety of graphs/charts available. SAC has made lots of improvements in this area. For example, they have improved interaction with geo-layers, mobile enhancements and histograms - making them IBCS certified for data visualisation. Spotfire is the leader for in-built geo-map offerings.
 

Data collaboration

SAC is certainly an industry leader here, with incredibly intuitive sharing and collaboration features, such as annotation, comments and mobile push notifications. However, it has some limitations on sharing: it is currently not compatible with Android and Windows devices.

Overall, it is difficult to narrow down a clear winner – as I say it depends on business requirements. Tableau has always had an edge with UX and data visualisation capabilities but is expensive by industry standards for the desktop edition and when scaled as an enterprise solution. Power BI is rapidly closing the gap between itself and Tableau (take a look at the coverage from Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms from 2016 and 2018). SAC has the advantage of unifying multiple data sources without much reliance on IT; having BI, planning & predictive in the cloud; and the Digital Boardroom: a very popular tool to present visualisations to executives. It is also worth noting that the future for many businesses over the coming years will be moving towards the cloud.
 

12. What are the key benefits of using SAP Analytics Cloud?


Reduce IT dependency

Not only can we unify multiple data sources in a single cloud solution but managing security, customising models and building reports (including building hierarchies and using custom formulae) is more user friendly in SAC.

Advancements in UX and Data visualisation mean that SAC works well as a self-service tool thanks to its ease of use. For example, dynamic filtering (clicking a graph point to filter the neighbouring map), hyperlinks, tooltip customisation and predictive capabilities can be set up and maintained by the end-user.

It is also simpler to control access for individuals / teams without any unnecessary complexity. Although users are enabled to manipulate and model data in the SAC layer, best practice is that any complex modelling should be pushed down to the database, especially for live connection.


Predictive and planning

SAC allows predictive analytics to be available at the visualisation stage, turning a line graph into a forecast visualisation with advanced options available (See FAQ 5). Planning Models are particularly useful, where you can set budget / forecast scenarios. This is a valuable addition to the overall solution, for example, the ‘Value Driver Trees’ run simulations in one area of a business to see how it impacts other areas. Having BI, planning and predictive in one solution is certainly of huge value when choosing SAC - the downside is that this requires buying a planning licence, which is more expensive.


Collaboration

With web conferences, annotations and comment threads on dashboards (please see FAQ 9) collaboration for teams is simple. But SAP have clearly thought about how to make this work within a team structure. For example, ‘input tasks’ can be assigned to one or more colleagues and used to work iteratively on various tasks.

You can create some structure with this, such as a final reviewer, a deadline (which gets added to your calendar) and attachments of related content. ‘Read’, ‘update’ and ‘full control’ permissions on shared stories means that collaboration is done securely. Mobile capability also gives SAC an edge with team collaboration. However, the downside is that it does not currently work with non iOS devices.
 

Digital Boardroom

This is an aesthetically attractive feature of SAP Analytics Cloud, something which provides cutting-edge data visualisation in a transparent manner for executives to explore, drill down and gain insights.

It is fairly common practice to spend large amounts of time putting together PowerPoint decks to present to the board for important meetings. Using SAC is fast becoming a better alternative in these scenarios; communication and collaboration is so much more transparent and intuitive, providing an honest, high-level view with potential to drill down into the data as required.

Agendas are available when creating these visualisations to provide structure and collaboration through comments, annotations and remote interactive options too. (Check out this great blog by Connor Nelson for more details on the Digital Boardroom).


Cloud is very much the future for many companies

I have heard on numerous occasions that people can be apprehensive around security breaches on the cloud (See FAQ 1 and FAQ 2 on security). But, with SAP Analytics Cloud addressing security both internally and externally, there are fewer reasons to be wary of this path. Especially if you are already using SAP, this is an opportunity to unify data sources and create a single cloud solution. Alternatively, one could not fully commit to a full Cloud solution and go with a hybrid option (cloud and on-premise). The benefits of the Cloud has always been its flexibility, being able to deploy quickly so the business can access data faster for upcoming projects.
 

About the author

Karun Soni

Consultant

Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race