Well, folks. I guess it just had to happen. You may now run down to your local Toys R Us and pick up the pieces you need for your latest and greatest BI solution. For you guys, it's like buying GI Joe and his 47,000 weapons of mass destruction. For you gals, it's new wave Barbie all over again.

Since they don't give me enough space for pictures here, you will just have to use your imagination while I struggle to come up with words sufficient to describe the "blox" from a Silicon Valley startup called AlphaBlox Corporation. I recently saw a demo of this technology and was quite literally blown away by the simplicity inherent in the approach.

How many of you readers are familiar with a program called Visio? It is a drawing program that uses the old engineering drawing template metaphor as the basis for its application. (Remember the green transparent plastic thingies with the punched out shapes?) The Visio screen is split. On one side is a palette of so-called "smart shapes"; the other side displays a drawing area that looks like a sheet of quad-ruled paper. The user simply drags and drops the different shapes from the palette to the paper, scales them to the desired size and connects them with lines, arrows or whatever to make a finished drawing.

AlphaBlox uses a similar scheme. Picture this. Instead of shapes, the palette contains objects (blox) that represent a variety of functions associated with BI analytical applications. These objects can be graphs, tables, charts, Java applets or whatever. Like Visio, AlphaBlox provides a whole bunch of blox objects out of the box, but you can make up your own and have them reside on the palette as well.

On the right side of the screen, we have a Web-page-in-progress, which can be displayed by any Web page design program such as Front Page, PageMill, etc. One simply drags and drops one or more of these blox onto the Web-page-in-progress, and voilà, the results of your BI solution are permanently a part of the page. In short, as a front-end tool for the rapid deployment of BI applications, AlphaBlox is way out front in the ease-of-use race.

The Web deployment stuff, however, is just a piece of the AlphaBlox story. Behind those objects portrayed on the palette is a whole bunch of server-based technology that actually does the processing of the information that gets displayed in your browser window. Yup, server-based is the operative phrase. Talk about "thin clients." In the AlphaBlox context, clients are downright emaciated! AlphaBlox calls it a "zero-client installation model."

Called the Analysis Server, it consists of the many pieces one needs to build complete applications. These pieces can be assembled like Lego blocks using a proprietary scheme called Dynamic Application Assembly. There are blox for accessing information from relational and multidimensional data stores, query tools that don't require SQL or report script programming, analysis tools including OLAP, presentation blox (the ones on the palette) in 300+ flavors, and tracking and monitoring blox for exception handling and alerts.

Surrounding the application blox is software that manages the highly complex and unavoidable infrastructure of an enterprise-class BI solution. AlphaBlox' system block diagram, resembling a programmer's worst nightmare, is something I won't even try to address here. Suffice it to say that it is loaded with managers, interfaces, admin junk, security modules and the rest of the stuff you are happy to find someone else taking care of. The good news is that the Analysis Server is written entirely in Java and supports HTML. Customers are therefore able to build their own custom blox using any standard Web-authoring or JavaScript tool.

The bottom line is that these Lego-like blox attempt to rid the user of a host of problems he might otherwise have to address in implementing his BI solution. Thus, the user is able to deploy his applications more quickly and, in all probability, at a relatively low cost. If the application is deployed quickly, end users get the info they need that much sooner ­ presumably improving ROI and/or other benefits.

For more than three years, we have emphasized that deployment of BI solutions to the masses via the Web would grow to become the norm. AlphaBlox has not only seized this notion but has made it its mantra. As the information age unfolds in the next millennium, the Web will increasingly become everybody's window to the information needed, not only to conduct business but also to manage their daily lives. Technologies like blox will become the enablers of that vision.

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