A Comparison of Oracle Business Intelligence, Data Visualization, and Visual Analyzer

We recently authored The Role of Oracle Data Visualizer in the Modern Enterprise in which we had referred to both Data Visualization (DV) and Visual Analyzer (VA) as Data Visualizer.  This post addresses readers’ inquiries about the differences between DV and VA as well as a comparison to that of Oracle Business Intelligence (OBI).  The following sections provide details of the solutions for the OBI and DV/VA products as well as a matrix to compare each solution’s capabilities.  Finally, some use cases for DV/VA projects versus OBI will be outlined.

For the purposes of this post, OBI will be considered the parent solution for both on premise Oracle Business Intelligence solutions (including Enterprise Edition (OBIEE), Foundation Services (BIFS), and Standard Edition (OBSE)) as well as Business Intelligence Cloud Service (BICS). OBI is the platform thousands of Oracle customers have become familiar with to provide robust visualizations and dashboard solutions from nearly any data source.  While the on premise solutions are currently the most mature products, at some point in the future, BICS is expected to become the flagship product for Oracle at which time all features are expected to be available.

Likewise, DV/VA will be used to refer collectively to Visual Analyzer packaged with BICS (VA BICS), Visual Analyzer packaged with OBI 12c (VA 12c), Data Visualization Desktop (DVD), and Data Visualization Cloud Service (DVCS). VA was initially introduced as part of the BICS package, but has since become available as part of OBIEE 12c (the latest on premise version).  DVD was released early in 2016 as a stand-alone product that can be downloaded and installed on a local machine.  Recently, DVCS has been released as the cloud-based version of DVD.  All of these products offer similar data visualization capabilities as OBI but feature significant enhancements to the manner in which users interact with their data.  Compared to OBI, the interface is even more simplified and intuitive to use which is an accomplishment for Oracle considering how easy OBI is to use.  Reusable and business process-centric dashboards are available in DV/VA but are referred to as DV or VA Projects.  Perhaps the most powerful feature is the ability for users to mash up data from different sources (including Excel) to quickly gain insight they might have spent days or weeks manually assembling in Excel or Access.  These mashups can be used to create reusable DV/VA Projects that can be refreshed through new data loads in the source system and by uploading updated Excel spreadsheets into DV/VA.

While the six products mentioned can be grouped nicely into two categories, the following matrix outlines the differences between each product. The following sections will provide some commentary to some of the features.

Table 1

Table 1:  Product Capability Matrix

Advanced Analytics provides integrated statistical capabilities based on the R programming language and includes the following functions:

  • Trendline – This function provides a linear or exponential plot through noisy data to indicate a general pattern or direction for time series data. For instance, while there is a noisy fluctuation of revenue over these three years, a slowly increasing general trend can be detected by the Trendline plot:
Figure 1

Figure 1:  Trendline Analysis


  • Clusters – This function attempts to classify scattered data into related groups. Users are able to determine the number of clusters and other grouping attributes. For instance, these clusters were generated using Revenue versus Billed Quantity by Month:
Figure 2

Figure 2:  Cluster Analysis


  • Outliers – This function detects exceptions in the sample data. For instance, given the previous scatter plot, four outliers can be detected:
Figure 3

Figure 3:  Outlier Analysis


  • Regression – This function is similar to the Trendline function but correlates relationships between two measures and does not require a time series. This is often used to help create or determine forecasts. Using the previous Revenue versus Billed Quantity, the following Regression series can be detected:
Figure 4

Figure 4:  Regression Analysis


Insights provide users the ability to embed commentary within DV/VA projects (except for VA 12c). Users take a “snapshot” of their data at a certain intersection and make an Insight comment.  These Insights can then be associated with each other to tell a story about the data and then shared with others or assembled into a presentation.  For those readers familiar with the Hyperion Planning capabilities, Insights are analogous to Cell Comments.  OBI 12c (as well as 11g) offers the ability to write comments back to a relational table; however, this capability is not as flexible or robust as Insights and requires intervention by the BI support team to implement.

Figure 5

Figure 5:  Insights Assembled into a Story


Direct connections to a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS) such as an enterprise data warehouse are now possible using some of the DV/VA products. (For the purpose of this post, inserting a semantic or logical layer between the database and user is not considered a direct connection).  For the cloud-based versions (VA BICS and DVCS), only connections to other cloud databases are available while DVD allows users to connect to an on premise or cloud database.  This capability will typically be created and configured either by the IT support team or analysts familiar with the data model of the target data source as well as SQL concepts such as creating joins between relational tables.  (Direct connections using OBI are technically possible; however, they require the users to manually write the SQL to extract the data for their analysis).  Once these connections are created and the correct joins are configured between tables, users can further augment their data with data mashups.  VA 12c currently requires a Subject Area connected to a RDBMS to create projects.

Leveraging OLAP data sources such as Essbase is currently only available in OBI 12c (as well as 11g) and VA 12c. These data sources require that the OLAP cube be exposed as a Subject Area in the Presentation layer (in other words, no direct connection to OLAP data sources).  OBI is considered very mature and offers robust mechanisms for interacting with the cube, including the ability to use drillable hierarchical columns in Analysis.  VA 12c currently exposes a flattened list of hierarchical columns without a drillable hierarchical column.  As with direct connections, users are able to mashup their data with the cubes to create custom data models.

While the capabilities of the DV/VA product set are impressive, the solution currently lacks some key capabilities of OBI Analysis and Dashboards. A few of the most noticeable gaps between the capabilities of DV/VA and OBI Dashboards are the inability to:

  • Create the functional equivalent of Action Links which allows users to drill down or across from an Analysis
  • Schedule and/or deliver reports
  • Customize graphs, charts, and other data visualizations to the extent offered by OBI
  • Create Alerts which can perform conditionally-based actions such as pushing information to users
  • Use drillable hierarchical columns

At this time, OBI should continue to be used as the centerpiece for enterprise-wide analytical solutions that require complex dashboards and other capabilities. DV/VA will be more suited for analysts who need to unify discrete data sources in a repeatable and presentation-friendly format using DV/VA Projects.  As mentioned, DV/VA is even easier to use than OBI which makes it ideal for users who wish to have an analytics tool that rapidly allows them to pull together ad hoc analysis.  As was discussed in The Role of Oracle Data Visualizer in the Modern Enterprise, enterprises that are reaching for new game-changing analytic capabilities should give the DV/VA product set a thorough evaluation.  Oracle releases regular upgrades to the entire DV/VA product set, and we anticipate many of the noted gaps will be closed at some point in the future.

The Role of Oracle Data Visualizer in the Modern Enterprise

Chess as a metaphor for strategic competition is not a novel concept, and it remains one of the most respected due to the intellectual and strategic demand it places on competitors. The sheer combination of moves in a chess game (estimated to be more than the number of atoms in the universe) means that it is entirely possible that no two people have unintentionally played the same game.  Of course, many of these combinations result in a draw and many more set a player down the path of an inevitable loss after only a few moves.  It is no surprise that chess has pushed the limits of computational analytics which in turn has pushed the limits of players.  Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, was the first to state the advantages of the human and computer competitor attempting to wrest control of opposing kings from each other:

The computer is:

  1. Very fast at making calculations;
  2. Unable to make mistakes (unless the mistakes are part of the programmatic DNA);
  3. Diligent in fully analyzing a position or all possible moves;
  4. Unemotional in assessing current conditions and unencumbered by prior wins or losses.

The human, on the other hand, is:

  1. Flexible and able to deviate from a given pattern (or code);
  2. Imaginative;
  3. Able to reason;
  4. Able to learn [1].

The application of business analytics is the perfect convergence of this chess metaphor, powerful computations, and the people involved. Of course, the chess metaphor breaks down a bit since we have human and machine working together against competing partnerships of humans and machines (rather than human against machine).

Oracle Business Intelligence (along with implementation partners such as Edgewater Ranzal) has long provided enterprises with the ability to balance this convergence. Regardless of the robustness of the tool, the excellence of the implementation, the expertise of the users, and the responsiveness of the technical support team, there has been one weakness:  No organization can resolve data integration logic mistakes or incorporate new data as quickly as users request changes.  As a result, the second and third computer advantages above are hindered.  Computers making mistakes due to their programmatic DNA will continue to make these mistakes until corrective action can be implemented (which can take days, weeks, or months).  Likewise, all possible positions or moves cannot be analyzed due to missing data elements.  Exacerbating the problem, all of the human advantages stated previously can be handicapped; increasingly so depending on the variability, robustness, and depth of the missing or wrongly calculated data set.

With the introduction of Visual Analyzer (VA) and Data Visualization (DV), Oracle has made enormous strides in overcoming this weakness. Users now have the ability to perform data mashups between local data and centralized repositories of data such as data warehouses/marts and cubes.  No longer does the computer have to make data analysis without the availability of all possible data.  No longer does the user have to make educated guesses about how centralized and localized data sets correlate and how it will affect overall trends or predictions.  Used properly, users and enterprises can leverage VA/DV to iteratively refine and redefine the analytical component that contributes to their strategic goals.  Of course, all new technologies and capabilities come with their own challenges.

The first challenge is how an organization can present these new views of data and compare and contrast them with the organizational “one version of the truth”. Enterprise data repositories are a popular and useful asset because they enable organizations to slice, dice, pivot, and drill down into this centralized data while minimizing subjectivity.  Allowing users to introduce their own data creates a situation where they can increase data subjectivity.  If VA/DV is to be part of your organization’s analytics strategy, processes must be in place to validate the result of these new data models.  The level of effort that should be applied to this validation should increase according to the following factors:

  • The amount of manual manipulation the user performed on the data before performing the mashup with existing data models;
  • The reputability of the data source. Combining data from an internal ERP or CRM system is different from downloading and aligning outside data (e.g. US Census Bureau or Google results);
  • The depth and width of data. In layman’s terms, this corresponds to how many rows and columns (respectively) the data set has;
  • The expertise and experience of the individual performing the data mashup.

If you have an existing centralized data repository, you have probably already gone through data validation exercises. Reexamine and apply the data and a metadata governance processes you went through when the data repository was created (and hopefully maintained and updated).

The next challenge is integrating the data into the data repository. Fortunately, users may have already defined the process of extracting and transforming data when they assembled the VA/DV project.  Evaluating and leveraging the process the user has already defined can shorten the development cycle for enhancing existing data models and the Extract, Transform, and Load (ETL) process.  The data validation factors above can also provide a rough order of magnitude of the level of effort needed to incorporate this data.  The more difficult task may be determining how to prioritize data integration projects within an (often) overburdened IT department.  Time, scope, and cost are familiar benchmarks when determining prioritization, but it is important to take revenue into account.  Organizations that have become analytics savvy and have users demanding VA/DV data mashup capabilities have often moved beyond simple reporting and onto leveraging data to create opportunities.  Are salespeople asking to incorporate external data to gain customer insight?  Are product managers pulling in data from a system the organization never got around to integrating?  Are functional managers manipulating and re-integrating data to cut costs and boost margins?

To round out this chess metaphor, a game that seems to be nearly a draw or a loss can breathe new life by promoting a pawn to a lost queen. Many of your competitors already have a business intelligence solution; your organization can only find data differentiation through the type of data you have and how quickly it can be incorporated at an enterprise level.  Providing VA/DV to the individuals within your organization with a deep knowledge of the data they need, how to get it, and how to deploy it can be the queen that checkmates the king.

[1] Shannon, C. E. (1950). XXII. Programming a computer for playing chess. The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, 41(314), 256-275. doi:10.1080/14786445008521796