Default and User Friendly Prompting With BI Publisher

As mentioned in the previous post, Dynamic Report Grouping with Oracle BI Publisher, Edgewater Ranzal is working with a client to convert XML Publisher reports to BI Publisher reports. As part of Ranzal’s initiative, we began looking for opportunities to improve the user interface as well as create a standard methodology that report developers could utilize in the future. One of the initial areas we focused on was to improve the prompting feature. To this effort, we concentrated on:

  • Presenting prompts to the user within the BI Publisher tool
  • The displaying of user-entered prompt values within the report
  • Creating a methodology of implementation for report developers.

As expected, many of the reports had time prompts (date, period, or year), but the existing reports did not have default prompt values.  Although it is not published in any Oracle documentation we have seen, Oracle offers five functions that can be inserted into the Default Value option of the parameter:


*Note that you also have to set the Data Type to Date for these parameters. 

Simple numeric mathematical calculations can be performed with these functions to add some flexibility.  For instance, the previous day’s date would be displayed as

{$SYSDATE() – 1$}

By using these functions in conjunction with the Date String Format in the parameter options section, a variety of date value defaults can be displayed in the prompting section of the report. The following table is a sample of the prompts, Default Value, and Date Format Strings that were deployed at the client:

BI Publisher post 2 1

It is very important to understand that, regardless of the Date Format String settings, the actual value used in the date functions is the full date string and an optional numeric number added or subtracted that represents days. For instance, if the Default Value is set as {$FIRST_DAY_OF_YEAR() + 1$} (first day of year plus one) and the Date Format String is set to MM, the user would still see 01 as the default value because the actual value generated (and then converted to the month number) is 20XX-01-02T00:00:00.000+HH:00 (Jan 2, 20XX).

Because the optional numeric value used in the function refers only to days, and no logic can be written into the Default Value function, there is a natural limitation that prohibits generating anything beyond a period and/or year plus or minus one. For instance, if a client wants a prompt default value for two years ago, logic cannot be written to determine if the current year or previous year was a leap year and conclude whether to subtract 365 x 2 = 730 or 366 x 2 = 732 from the first day of year function (or system date function, depending on your preference).

Understandably, this problem would only occur two days every four years (December 31st of both a leap year and the year following a leap year); however, extrapolating from this logic is evidence of the difficultly in going back two or more months from any date function because of the variable numbers in a month. We observed an even more complicated version of this issue when the client wanted to have the default values for a period range equal to the previous period (i.e. during Q3, From Period defaults to 04 and To Period defaults to 06). Depending on the current period, the From Period needs to default from three to five periods ago and the To Period needs to default from one to three periods ago. Further exacerbating this problem was the year prompt that, during Q1, needs a default value of the previous year.

The final piece of the puzzle when using any parameters with the date data type is realizing that the bind value passed to your data model is the full date/time string. Our client exclusively used SQL in their data models; therefore, it was only a matter of using Oracle SQL’s native TO_CHAR function to convert the date/time string to a relationally comparable value as such:

BI Publisher post 2 2

The Ranzal team then looked to streamline and simplify interaction between parameters, parameter input requirement evaluation, and the RTF templates. The client’s reports had up to twelve parameters that required user input, and they used XLST logic to evaluate whether or not users had supplied values. As mentioned in previous posts, XLST is not a robust language as it relates to logical evaluations; after all, XLST was designed to consume XML documents and output new documents (in this case, RTF based reports). Because of these limitations, the initial RTF templates used the following logic (white space added for clarity):

BI Publisher post 2 3

Using this method, each parameter is evaluated until a null value is found, and then the remaining parameters are evaluated for a null value. When the XLST consumes the XML, each required parameter that the user has not entered a value for results in an additional warning line message. From a developer point of view, each additional required parameter requires the creation of additional lines of code. While the example above only has four required parameters, reports with many required parameters become quite convoluted and difficult to maintain.

Ranzal again turned to the logic processing capabilities of Oracle SQL. Within the data model, we created a new data set to create a parameter status (named PARAM_STAT) to look at the bind values passed by the BI Publisher parameters. We came up with the following SQL template to generate a more succinct warning message within the column value PARAM_STAT (note that n denotes the number of required report parameters):

BI Publisher post 2 4

There is an argument for creating a SQL statement that concatenates all missing parameter names with a comma and then uses logic to correct the punctuation; however, we felt that from a reusability standpoint, it would be best to compartmentalize the statement using the WITH TABLE1 statement. Using the above SQL template, report developers merely have to update the following lines:

  • 4 – 7:  Data model parameter names (i.e. :PRMBU) and report parameter names (i.e. Business Unit)
  • 10:  Data model parameter names (i.e. :PRMBU)
  • 15 – 20:  Replace the PARAM_COUNT comparison values (n, n – 1, and n – 2)

Using the example above with the required parameters for year, period, business unit, and ledger, the following SQL statement was generated:

BI Publisher post 2 5

Using this parameter status value results in a much more succinct XLST template that needs only to evaluate whether PARAM_STAT has a value (white space added for clarity):

BI Publisher post 2 6

The client has hundreds of BI Publisher reports and plans to continue to develop additional reports as their Oracle Business Intelligence platform becomes the standard reporting tool. By using the SQL template along with the simplified RTF template, the real work becomes creating the table, pivot table, or chart within the RTF template.  Fortunately, the Ranzal team was able to create an Excel-based VBA macro that automates the generation of the majority of the client’s templates. We will discuss this tool in a later post.

These two examples demonstrate the Ranzal team’s commitment to taking a proactive stance to examining current processes and looking for opportunities for improvement.  As we worked through the technical details of this implementation, we carefully balanced the idea of a user-centered experience against the often competing need for a simplified methodology and process for report developers. To accomplish the latter, we went through several phases of technical refinement, demonstrated the process to developers, and provided thorough documentation. This ensures that when the time comes to turn the maintenance of these reports over to the client, there is a complete knowledge transfer as well.

This entry was posted in BI Reporting, Hyperion, OBIEE, Oracle Hyperion and tagged , , , by jlhodson. Bookmark the permalink.

About jlhodson

Jason L. Hodson is a Principal Architect with Edgewater Ranzal. He focuses on the Oracle Business Intelligence platform, with particular emphasis on the federation of EPM and relational data source, Business Intelligence Cloud Service (BICS), as well as data governance with Hyperion DRM. He has experience with clients in the insurance, public utilities, manufacturing distribution, and healthcare industries. A former U.S. Marine, Jason has an undergraduate degree in mathematics/physics from Ball State University, an MBA and MS-Information Systems from the University of Cincinnati, and a MS-Information and Knowledge Strategy from Columbia University. He currently resides in Denver, CO and enjoys hiking, snowshoeing, and the local craft beer industry.

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