Smarter ideas worth writing about.

Did Excel Create a Four-Tiered Architecture?


Whether you’re a BI developer or a consumer of BI, odds are you’ve used Excel at some point in your career. There is no doubt that Excel is the most widely used BI tool in the world. Traditionally it’s been used as a presentation tool. BI professionals have chuckled for years at folks who use high end BI tools to simply extract data and dump it to Excel. Recently we’ve used it as a layer in between the semantic tier and the presentation tier for two popular dashboarding tools. Has Excel been so pervasive that it has redefined the classic three-tiered architecture model? Should we be referring to a four-tiered architecture now? Let’s take a closer look at how Excel was used between the semantic tier and presentation tier of two common dashboarding tools.



Those of us that have used Xcelsius (now known as SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards) know that it is highly dependent on the spreadsheet layer behind the canvas. One common method we use to get data to that spreadsheet layer is with a Live Office connection. Live Office is an add-in to excel that allows one to pull data from your semantic tier, a Universe, into Excel. That data can then be piped to your presentation tier, Xcelsius, through a Live Office connection.




PerformancePoint is a great tool to use when creating dashboards in SharePoint 2010. It does require an analytic data source which is SQL Server Analysis Services cubes or a PowerPivot workbook, Microsoft’s semantic tier. Most of our PerformancePoint dashboards are built directly on the semantic tier. However, recently we built a PerformancePoint dashboard on a PowerPivot workbook that sourced from a SSAS cube and a SharePoint list. Again we ran into that four-tiered architecture with Excel between the semantic tier and the presentation tier.

So should we change the three-tiered architecture to a four-tiered architecture?  The answer is no.  With the newest version of their products each vendor addressed the Excel tier issue.  With SQL Server 2012 Microsoft introduced the Tabular Model which can be used to satisfy the business case above.  In SAP BusinessObjects 4.0 one can source a SAP BusinessObjects Dashboard (formerly known as Xcelsius) directly from a Universe. 

Luckily the four-tiered architecture is only a temporary solution for architecting dashboards in Xcelsius or PerformancePoint.  Thank you vendors for recognizing this challenge and making our lives easier.


About The Author

Principal Consultant
Josh is a Team Lead in the Cincinnati Data Solutions Practice as well as a Certified Business Intelligence Professional and Microsoft Certified Solution Expert.