Waiting - the circle of death

Reporting Performance Tips

Waiting - the circle of death

Why is my report running so slowly??? The circle of death...

I thought i’d start off the new year and my first blog post with a blast from the past.  Performance enhancing technologies such as in-memory analytics, including SAP’s Business Warehouse Accelerator (BWA) have been available for some years now. SAP’s High Performance Analytic Appliance (HANA) in-memory technology is the newest kid on the block and is attracting the attention of the BI community. SAP are suggesting that HANA is a ‘game-changing’ technology, in respect to the rapid processing speed and analysis able to be achieved over extremely large volumes of real-time data. HANA appears on SAP’s 2011+ BI deployment roadmap, with HANA V1.0 due for release to customers sometime this year.

Throughout this post, i’ll expand on several themes that are converging to put increased focus on reporting performance. I’ll also offer some tips and reference material on how to get the most out of your current SAP BW installation.

Data Deluge Coming

Data Overload - projected data growthData growth is a topical point of conversation right now. Even non-IT publications such as the Economist are pointing out the potential problems (and benefits) coming our way, due to the massive volumes of data being created in the Data Deluge. Hence SAP’s emphasis on the development of tools like HANA that are capable of handling this data explosion.

To give you an idea of the expected data deluge here’s a projection from IDC (available in the Economist article) on the forecasted growth of data versus available storage. Some questions that arise are: How are we going to manage this level of data, How are we going to report on it and drive actionable decisions and What kind of read/write performance are we going to have on such a large dataset?

Whilst some companies have taken advantage of additional performance enhancing technologies on top of SAP BW such as BWA, some companies haven’t.  My experience is that this is particularly evident in the small to medium enterprise market. In this market there are a variety of pressures to not purchase an additional technology solution, including: prohibitive license fees, infrastructure and software setup costs, additional support and maintenance costs and a higher total cost of ownership of an additional technology that smaller organisations do not wish to bear. Such customers more often than not have a plain ‘vanilla’ SAP BW install and rely upon traditional methods to improve their system’s performance.  These include adding additional ‘cheaper’ infrastructure such as disk (and archiving), memory, CPUs and leading onto the crux of this blog – performance tuning.

The Speed of Thought User Expectation

Reporting performance forms a key part of any reporting strategy. The last thing users want is a long wait time when running reports, and hence the ‘circle of death’ screen at the top of this post. Also as a consultant, think about it – after labouring away on building your data model, extracting transforming and loading your data into it – you want your queries to run as fast possible. For all concerned, it may be an obvious statement but it’s worth emphasising; a key factor of user acceptance of a reporting system is how long it takes to display data that they’re interested in analysing.

To function in the digital age, we have developed a new digital infrastructure. It’s like the human nervous system. The biological nervous system triggers your reflexes so that you can react quickly to danger or need. It gives you the information you need as you ponder issues and make choices. You’re alert to the most important things, and your nervous system blocks out the information that isn’t important to you. Companies need to have that same kind of nervous system–the ability to run smoothly and efficiently, to respond quickly to emergencies and opportunities, to quickly get valuable information to the people in the company who need it, the ability to quickly make decisions and interact with customers.

Bill Gates, Business @ the Speed of Thought: Succeeding in the Digital Economy, 1999.

Over a decade ago, Bill Gates described an idyllic digital system infrastructure as being akin to the ‘human nervous system’ in its ability to receive, process and deliver information at the ‘speed of thought’, responding ‘quickly to emergencies and opportunities’.   I believe this concept applies to the ideal functioning of Business Intelligence systems: Fast, responsive and providing relevant data. In terms of reporting performance, ‘speed of thought’ can also be applied to the feedback, interactivity and wait time that a user expects when analysing data.

Bill Gates scratching head... hmmm I'm confused?!

Hmmm... why did I open that report again?

Users should be able to analyse data at the speed that they are cognitively processing the data, seeking insight and searching for answers – thus, at the speed of their thoughts. Regardless of the size, budget and complexity of the organisation, all users want a system to respond to questions at the same speed at which they are asking them (i.e. fast).  It’s not a desirable situation and definitely not conducive to analysing data for a user’s thought process to be interrupted as they wait for the system to retrieve data.

Whilst accessing data at the ‘speed of thought’ represents an ideal situation, there are many tools that are available in a SAP BW environment to get closer to achieving this. A great deal of these do not require additional hardware, just a more sensible structuring of data, star-schema models and queries.  Although more memory, more CPUs, more servers and the BW Accelerator offer significant performance benefits – it is also important to get the data warehouse and OLAP fundamentals right. Here’s where the tips come in.


Dr. Bjarne Berg has posted an excellent presentation on 30 technical tips and tricks to speed query, report, and dashboard performance. Without re-hashing the presentation in this blog – I’d recommend looking in particular at the Aggregates, Query design and InfoCube design sections. Also make sure that you are receiving the SAP Early Watch report to highlight any performance issues and mark ongoing trends before they evolve into a problem.

There’s also some interesting comparisons on the performance of the BW Accelerator vs. Standard BW. Although I’d like to add to Dr. Berg’s point that whilst the BWA technology is no longer exotic, customer’s should now be wary about implementing it as:

  • From a cost perspective there are potentially other solutions available to you that could achieve significant performance improvements; and
  • I believe SAP are indicating that BWA will become obsolete in a couple of year’s time as HANA V1.X matures and stabilises (see Page 34 of the HANA roadmap).

However the reality today is that HANA is not available. Version 1.0 (no doubt with some teething issues) is due to be released in 2011 (Vapourware WARNING… just kidding!). So perhaps BWA is the solution for you and maybe the total cost of ownership will be acceptable for you (i.e. low)… i’m just suggesting that it’s not the only solution.

Have a read through the presentation and for each section, challenge yourself on whether or not your system is performing optimally or could do with a bit of a tune up. There’s plenty of material out there on SAP’s SCN and Dr. Berg lists some great points to get you started on tuning up your SAP BW installation with the technology that you have today.


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