Some more comments about XLCubed

Some weeks after my blog post about Bonavista Dimensions I’ve been able to look at a comprehensive demo of XLCubed, but since then I’ve been too busy to write about that (and in general to blog – I have several topics I will blog about as soon as the job pressure will allow me to do that). And I finally found the time to write this post!

First of all, XLCubed is a product that recently reached its version 6: this means it has a large existing user base and it is a mature product with a large compatibility matrix (it supports Excel XP, 2003, 2007 and 2010), two important attributes that summed up with the main characteristics of being an Excel Add-Inn make this product a very interesting BI client for the Microsoft BI platform.

The basic principle is to offer Analytics, Reporting and Dashboard capabilities inside Excel, leveraging on the freedom of layout that Excel can provide to any user. It uses an OLAP engine, that can be a local one (local cubes) or on a server running Analysis Services. The workbooks created into Excel can be published on the web by using XLCubed Web Edition. Without relying on a server instance of Excel and/or on SharePoint Excel Services, it can generate HTML pages containing data gathered directly from OLAP data sources.

At this point, it seems really similar to BonaVista Dimensions but in reality XLCubed is positioned at a different level. XLCubed has an higher cost, but it also has more complex and advanced features that in my opinion are very interesting especially in case the end user is really who is creating the reports, and not a BI Consultant that uses a similar product in order to compress development time (in this last case, some complexity might be pushed on server calculation and/or on MDX queries written by hand, allowing the usage of less expensive but more complex to use competitive products/solutions).

The following are the main points of interest of XLCubed, which are oftentimes unique to this product:

  • Sort / Filter / Ranking operations: this type of operations are very frequent and the user interface makes them easier to use and very accessible. The end result might be a complex MDX query that the end user can define without having any MDX skills. As always, nothing is like writing native MDX code, but it seems that most of the more frequent operations results in pretty decent MDX code anyway.
  • Advanced Selections: I’ve been positively impressed by this user interface that allows an end users to write an MDX expression resulting in a set of members by looking at the definition in a very graphical way, similar to a flow chart. It still requires users to think in terms of abstract sets, but removing the MDX language syntax barrier it really makes things easier to real end-users.
  • Smart member selectors: the way you can select members in a dimension, also starting from a member in your report, is very good improvement in productivity.
  • Dimension Slicers: yes, dimensions slicers are a new feature in Excel 2010, but with XLCubed you can use a very similar concept also in previous versions of Excel. Moreover, Dimension Slicers in XLCubed can be more flexible, showing only filtered members like top 10 customers, or all regions that sold more than 1M € last year. This is very useful especially for publishing certain reports/dashboards and is not available with regular slicers in Excel
  • Access to data with both SQL and MDX: the end user can access a relational data and customize the generated SQL code without moving out from Excel.

I’ve been told that several former ProClarity users are migrating to XLCubed. It is not possible to directly migrate an existing ProClarity workbook to XLCubed, but the tool seems easy to use enough to allow users to be productive in creating also complex reports and dashboards. From the point of view of tutorials and examples, there is a YouTube channel containing 10 videos about the latest release (V6).

What I don’t like very much of the marketing approach is the lack of a clear pricing of the tool on the XLCubed web site. You have to contact XLCubed or one of its partners to get a quote, depending on your needs. I understand that the marketing of this tool is based on a partner network, but in my opinion a more direct information would help better than other marketing investments. However, I’ve got a few information about the common license packages that I can share on the blog. The entry level cost is a 5 Pack of the Excel Edition for € 2,200, plus € 440 for support and maintenance. The 10 Pack is priced € 4,050 + € 810. The Web Edition Starter Pack is priced € 11,200 + € 2,240 (support & maintenance) for 5 concurrent web users and includes the 5 pack XLCubed Excel Edition. In other words, the Web Edition Starter Pack includes also the desktop license and the licensing is for concurrent users, not named users (which is important if you have few users publishing and many readers).

The product is a very interesting one and it deserves attention especially if your users want to use a single tool (Excel) for both analytical and reporting capabilities.