Here at CFO, we get a lot of information from technology vendors offering products that promise to do everything from scrubbing your numbers to cleaning your computer screen. We dutifully evaluate these offerings so you don't have to. Lo and behold, some actually merit a little ink.
To winnow down our list, we summarily dismissed any product described by a vendor as "seamless," "mission critical," or "way cool." Even then, we also had to omit several excellent products for space reasons. For example, we recently visited the latest version of Teliris's VirtuaLive, a telepresence conference room replete with high-definition screens and integrated audio, and it's a knockout. Managers at any multinational business looking to cut down on travel expenses should seriously consider it. Those who have no choice but to hit the road on a regular basis will do well to look at Siber Systems's RoboForm2Go. This souped up thumbdrive offers road warriors a painless — and secure — way to take their passwords with them. On the road or at home, these five picks merit a closer look.
Picture This: Tableau v3.0
Who: Tableau Software
What: Data visualization and rendering software
Why: Brings some intelligence to business intelligence
Data visualization is nothing new. CFO wrote about cutting-edge efforts to create 3-D and interactive charts from financial information back in the primordial ooze known as 2002 ("Now You See It," July 2002).
Many of those attempts sputtered. Historically, graphics programs in business-intelligence software have tended to produce rudimentary, dull charts. And despite recent improvements, producing truly useful pivot charts in Excel has always been a bear.
That's where Tableau comes in. Built on a database visualization query language called VizQL (Visual Query Language), Tableau takes data visualization to a new level. Users are able to point to a data source, then easily create drag-and-drop views. Practically any query can be transformed into a chart. A finance worker doing budget analysis, for example, can quickly uncover exceptions, outliers, and hidden clusters — then compare the results against different time periods. More elaborate charts can be assembled to give real insight into what was once a stack of numbers. In a sense, the software creates visual spreadsheets.
Tableau, the brainchild of two Stanford professors, can trace its roots to a concept developed by film company Pixar. Essentially, it's a front-end rendering engine that is data agnostic. It's able to tap into relational databases, OLAP data warehouses, and other sources of corporate information. Thus, users don't need to know query languages like SQL or MDX. What's more, finance managers can create dynamic dashboards that pull data simultaneously from SQL Server, Oracle, and Excel.
How good is Tableau? In terms of generating useful, multidimensional visual analysis, it's like going from an Etch-a-Sketch to Industrial Light and Magic. Quite simply, it's the best piece of software CFO has run across in years.
Others seem to agree. PC magazine has repeatedly named Tableau an Editor's Choice. Hyperion recently added the program to its BI suite. And Microsoft's controller (for global platform and operations), Taylor Hawes, uses Tableau. That speaks volumes, given the prodigious amount of data they are rumored to produce in Redmond.
Support for Less: TomorrowNow
Who: SAP America
What: Third-party ERP support and maintenance
Why: Sometimes you want to keep older applications but not go broke.
Talk about maintenance and support costs for ERP software and people usually cringe. Typically, such fees range from 17 percent to 22 percent (and that's on top of the original licensing fee). What's more, most ERP vendors support new releases of their products for only five years, forcing customers to upgrade on a regular basis.
TomorrowNow solves that problem. A Texas-based outsourcer, TomorrowNow provides third-party support and maintenance for Oracle apps, including PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and Siebel, as well as Baan (in Europe). The company says it does this for about half the cost the vendors charge. Why so cheap? Because, unlike ERP vendors, TomorrowNow doesn't have to spend millions on developing new versions of software.
Equally noteworthy, TomorrowNow provides software support and maintenance for as long as the customer wants to stick with an application — akin to an extended-warranty policy. That support includes tax and regulatory upgrades to software, as well as bug fixes.
A caveat: in a move to lure PeopleSoft customers away from Oracle, ERP heavyweight SAP acquired TomorrowNow in 2005. Earlier this year, Oracle filed a lawsuit against SAP and TomorrowNow, alleging corporate theft "on a grand scale." SAP has acknowledged "improper downloads," but says no data was passed from TomorrowNow to SAP.
Potent Portable: Q1 Ultra-CMV
What: Ultra mobile portable computer
Why: Laptops are too big and smart phones are too small.
The battle over the sweet spot in portable computing and communications rages on. Notebook manufacturers continue to shrink full-featured laptops, with ultraportables like the remarkable Sony Vaio TX weighing in at less than three pounds. Meanwhile, sellers of smart phones (Palm, Blackberry, and Apple, among others) continue to increase the functionality of their products, with better screens, improved keyboards, and easier Web and E-mail access — plus wireless phone service.
Ultra mobile portable computers (UMPCs) sit between these two groups. The best of the bunch, Samsung's new Q1 Ultra-CMV (available this month), is a big improvement over its predecessor. The Q1 Ultra-CMV features a built-in QWERTY keyboard (split, to allow for thumb entry, like some PDAs), a seven-inch LCD screen (akin to some smaller laptops), and integrated Wi-Fi and broadband cellular (service plan from AT&T). Battery life has been improved, too, with the Ultra running about four hours on a single charge. The improved functionality hasn't bulked up the Ultra, either: it tips the scale at a Lilliputian 1.5 pounds.
Despite its diminutive size, this is no 99-pound weakling. The Ultra includes an 80-gigabyte hard drive, a full gigabyte of memory, and an 800-megahertz Intel dual-core processor. And since the Ultra is a true computer, it runs Windows Vista (Home Premium Edition), meaning users can run full-blown versions of Word, PowerPoint, and Excel on this UMPC.
This mighty mite from Samsung is not perfect, though. Those looking for a UMPC with a true keyboard (not one that's split) may want to consider the HTC Shift. Staff members who travel a lot probably would prefer a portable with a built-in DVD player. Then again, integrated optical devices add pounds and bulk. And UMPCs are all about small. In fact, the only thing that's not tiny on the Ultra is the price: it retails for around $1,500.
Form-Fitting: Financial Statement Reporting
Who: Clarity Systems
What: Statutory reporting software
Why: Because churning out loads of regulatory reports is all it's cracked up to be
Sometimes, small things matter a whole lot. Take the statutory reporting program that resides inside Clarity Systems's Clarity 6 reporting module. An outside observer might read a description of the program and dismiss it as no big deal. But to finance-department staffers who manually crank out reams of reports for regulators, this software is a godsend.
Launched in January, FSR helps automate the production of statutory reports like 10-Ks, 10-Qs, and board books. The application can pull data directly from an ERP system or data warehouse, as well as other sources containing financial data. Once a report is generated, it can be output as a Word document, Excel spreadsheet, PDF file, or Edgar-ready format. Another option: files can be saved in XBRL.
Of real value to CFOs: each section of a statutory document can be assigned to a separate user. Thus, several finance-department staffers can work on the same document simultaneously, greatly speeding up the process. The software also features compliance checklists, so a finance manager can define the activities that need to be followed for the production of each section in a document.
In addition, FSR boasts an audit-trail feature, enabling managers to see which employees did what, and when.
Besides eliminating large amounts of scut work, FSR also reduces the chances of manual errors being introduced into a regulatory document. The price is right, too: the licensing agreement runs $30,000, which covers a base set of five users. FSR can also be purchased as part of the Clarity 6 platform, a corporate performance management suite.
How Green Was My Server: Dell PowerEdge Servers
Who: Dell Computer
What: Energy-efficient servers
Why: Carbon caps are coming. So, too, are higher electricity rates.
True, the IT industry has been pursuing energy efficiency for some time, and Dell isn't the only PC maker to jump aboard the green bandwagon. In fact, in June, Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo joined forces with scores of other businesses and government agencies to form the Climate Savers Computing Initiative (see "Power Scourge" in the August Topline section). That program aims to drastically reduce the energy consumption of computers.
But Dell's PowerEdge line offers corporate customers a fast fix for cutting the power consumption of their servers starting now. Even better, the estimated 25 percent reduction in electricity use comes with little trade-off in performance. Dell achieves this neat trick by using low-flow fan technologies, power-optimized BIOS settings, and a power supply that has lower volt processors. Admittedly, a PowerEdge server costs about $100 more than a comparable Dell model without that technology. But with the lowered energy use, customers make that $100 back in about six months.
Businesses looking to reduce the energy consumption of their desktops might also want to consider Dell's OptiPlex brand. Those PCs come with a power-management setting that puts a computer into hibernation and sleep mode when it's not in use. Dell reckons the setting could translate into as much as 60 percent in energy savings over the lifetime of the system.
Esther Shein writes frequently about business technology and office automation.