• September 25, 2006
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Spreadsheets That Aren't a Pain?

Business software users who dread the creation of new spreadsheets--and IT professionals who dread the resource and security concerns involved in storing and sharing them--may have reason to hope for better days. Enterprise reporting and performance management application vendor Actuate today released Actuate 9 e.Spreadsheet, a server-based spreadsheet that reduces the errors and time associated with spreadsheet creation while increasing security, data freshness, and scalability, according to the company.

Actuate 9's design changes the familiar model of Microsoft Excel by moving creation and data storage to the corporate server via the SmartSheet Security Option. Actuate creates a master catalog on the server, including data, formatting, and the individual users' information needs. This catalog populates a spreadsheet for the user upon request, executing a single query to the company's data sources and delivering only the data needed in the user's preferred view. No plug-ins are required, and Actuate claims its system is 98 percent compatible with Excel, including the as yet unreleased Excel 2007.

Document sharing is no longer a concern, since users essentially create their own version on the fly. The effect, according to Actuate, is to combine the power of an enterprise report writer with the strong foundation of a repeatable blueprint. "Actuate 9 e.Spreasdheet is truly a breakthrough in spreadsheet automation and scalability," says Jeff Morris, director of product marketing. "Our new SmartSheets securely produce mass customized, data driven workbooks for millions of users." The result, he says, is "fully functional, analysis-ready Excel files without undermining the goals of IT for data control and consistency."

Analyst reaction appears positive. "Actuate addresses one of the biggest problems in enterprise reporting: data governance," says Dan Everett, director of research at Ventana Research. "The typical vendor takes the Excel add-in type of approach, but this creates the problems of managing multiple spreadsheets across multiple desktops, and lack of consistency. Actuate can track data sources."

Wayne Eckerson, director of research and services at The Data Warehouse Institute, also approves of the Actuate approach. "The e.Spreadsheet announcement is a good one. Basically, they generate native spreadsheet reports rather than BI reports that get converted into Excel, with the resulting lack of Excel fidelity," he says. "They've increased the scalability of the solution by using a server-based cache (SmartSheets) that contains most of the data and formats needed to create personalized spreadsheets on demand. Prior, they were pinging the source systems a lot which caused performance delays both on the source and to spreadsheet users."

Eckerson says this approach can save a lot of organizational headaches. "Actuate e.Spreadsheet avoids the spreadmart phenomenon that afflicts most organizations, [where] users create their own reports using data they extract themselves and metrics they define independently, leading to data chaos and putting the organization in jeopardy of violating SOX."

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