OK, I know this isn’t exactly cutting edge stuff and we now have PowerPivot, the forthcoming Power View, tabular data models and more in SQL Server 2012 but let’s face it, there are a great many organisations for whom none of these new features will actually be in production in 2012. These organisations have invested in SQL Server 2008 R2 and spent time in 2011 building SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) cubes from their line of business data – and getting SharePoint 2010 up and running. Now they want to get a return on their investment before they spend more on licences, upgrades and more hardware.
Now Excel pivot tables and charts aren’t perfect, certainly not cutting-edge. But if the infrastructure is in place then using Excel 2010 as a client for your SSAS cubes and publishing workbooks or workbook items to SharePoint 2010 is an excellent “self-service BI” entry-point. In my opinion Excel 2010 is still the best choice for validating the quality and accuracy of the data in your cube and I often get users who know what to expect from the data to play a major part in this task. And of course Excel Services pivot tables and charts can become part of the bigger BI picture later as a part of PerformancePoint dashboards.
However you still need to make it as easy as possible for your “self-service BI” contributors to find their data and publish it. This is what I’ll cover here. Note that I’m not intending this post as a guide to creating Excel reports with SSAS Cubes and SharePoint (see links at bottom of post for various walk-through examples and tutorials). My main objective is to show how to put together a SharePoint environment which your Excel Services user population (both contributors and consumers) are comfortable using.
Before Your Contributors Get Started
To kick off, let’s briefly cover some things that need to be in place before you let your Excel Services contributors loose (all of which assumes you are working with Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010):
You need SharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise – I mention this because I still frequently see the “which SharePoint version do I need” question asked online. Excel Services is a feature of SharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise, so if you have SharePoint Foundation or SharePoint 2010 Standard you are out of luck.
You need Office 2010 Professional or higher – many of the Office 2010/SharePoint 2010 integration features aren’t available in Standard Edition.
Decide where your Office data connection files will be located in SharePoint – all of your published Excel workbooks that connect to SSAS cubes should use an Office data connection (ODC) file stored in data connection library. If you are using the default SharePoint Business Intelligence Centre site collection template then you will already have a Data Connections library in place. If you are using your own site you will need to create a Data Connections library – and don’t forget that data connection files created in these will by default require approval once created and uploaded, so make sure that this isn’t overlooked.
Decide where your Published Excel workbooks will be stored – I normally create a specific document library for these (and as you will see later, may well enable content types).
You must configure Trusted File Locations and Trusted Data Connection Libraries in your SharePoint Excel Services application – This is frequently overlooked and needs to be planned and configured in advance. If things aren’t configured correctly here then your Excel workbooks may not open in the browser (trusted file location not configured) or refresh data connections (trusted data connection libraries not configured). TechNet has more details on this here and there is a good troubleshooting guide available for download here.
Assign appropriate permissions to the Excel document library in SharePoint – you need to assign Contribute permissions to the group of users who will be allowed to publish workbooks (this gives them permissions to view, add, update and delete workbooks). Typically I recommend other users be assigned View Only permissions within the library as this ensures they can view the published workbook items in a browser but only download a snapshot containing values and formatting (users with next-highest Read permission can open the workbook in Excel and view all underlying details). If your Excel contributors are also creating/editing dashboard pages containing Excel Web Access components then you will need to assign Design permissions to them.
Assign appropriate permissions in the Analysis Services Cube – if you are using Integrated Windows Authentication to connect to your cube, you need to do more than grant appropriate SharePoint permissions. All users connecting to the cube via Excel and SharePoint will also need to be given permissions to access the cube itself. I would recommend that when the cube is designed in Business Intelligence Developer Studio, a “cube readers” role is set up and an Active Directory group is assigned the appropriate permissions, then all that is needed is to add existing and new users via Active Directory.
Making Data Connections Easier
I’m assuming here that your Excel contributors are already familiar with pivot tables and charts and may already have connected to a cube themselves. However, connecting using an Office Data Connection file stored in SharePoint may well be new to them and the process of creating a new analysis and re-using the existing data connection isn’t that intuitive. Here are some suggestions:
Create the Data Connection files for them, before they get started – you won’t normally need a lot of data connection files (typically one for each cube or cube perspective) so I would absolutely recommend getting the data connection files created, published and approved before your contributors get to work. Here is a Microsoft Office article on creating and using Office Data Connections – it dates back to Excel 2007 but most of the instructions still apply. The article does talk about using a “DataConnections” web part. Just to clarify, what they mean here is view of your data connections library which in the article is called DataConnections. Below is an example in SharePoint 2010 where a view of approved ODC files in my DataConnections library is shown on a site page (click image to open full-size) -
The default action that will take place when clicking on either of the links is for a new Excel workbook to be opened with an empty pivot table created, using the stored data connection you clicked.
Consider using Content Types in your Excel document library – this is another way of making it easier for your contributors to create new cube-connected Excel reports. There are already a great many online tutorials on how to create and use SharePoint content types (here for example). What I’m suggesting here is that the document library which will be used for your Excel workbooks has “allow management of content types” enabled. Each content type added to the library can then use a different Excel document template which already contains a data connection pointing to the appropriate Office Data Connection file that you’ve already uploaded. Your contributors then just need to select the appropriate new document from within the library:
then create a new pivot table in the workbook and select “Use an External Data Source”:
and choose the existing connection in the workbook:
So the contributor creating the workbook doesn’t need to find the connection file, and you have the added advantages of being able to add other metadata columns to your content type and of course re-use in other libraries. Additional metadata columns are particularly useful if your library is likely to contain a large number of Excel documents – they will allow you to create custom list views of your reports by type, department, owner etc. Something else you may find useful here is enabling content rating on your document library.
Make Sure Published Workbook Items Refresh
One other quick point to note before I finish this post – I frequently see published workbooks which don’t show the most up to date data when opened in the browser. It’s important to ensure that workbook connection properties have “Refresh data when opening the file” checked, otherwise you will be looking at stale data:
Links for those Getting Started
Here are some links you might find useful if you are just getting started with Analysis Services, Excel and SharePoint –
Getting Started with Business Intelligence in SharePoint Server 2010 (well worth downloading the PDF or Visio document)
Excel Services in SharePoint 2010 Dashboard Improvements
Excel Services Data Refresh Troubleshooting Flowchart
Connecting to Cubes and External Data with Excel in SharePoint (excellent blog post from John White)
Excel Services Module of SharePoint Server Business Intelligence Insights Training – good info in this video series and you can download the accompanying Lab02 here.
That’s it for now – I hope the points I’ve covered help you with a successful SharePoint BI solution. If you’re interested in more posts on this topic leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.