Discoverer — Oracle’s underachiever

I returned last night from the midwest where I was working with some fine folks who recently started developing reports and their first dashboards using Oracle Discoverer and Oracle Portal. We spent most of a day investigating how well these tools will support their efforts to present information effectively. Until this week, I hadn’t seen Discoverer for several years, and I was hoping it had improved since its unimpressive beginning. What I discovered, however, didn’t bode well.

I recently ran across an article at, written in 2004, entitled “Users Applaud Idea of Oracle BI as Center of the Universe.” True-blue Oracle customers would love to pair Oracle’s great RDBMS with a solid end-to-end business intelligence (BI) solution. Unfortunately, Oracle BI tools don’t offer a real solution. The most important aspects of BI to business people — the ability to make sense of information and clearly communicate to others what they’ve found — are poorly supported by Discoverer and Portal. I heard a rumor that Oracle is shopping for BI tools to buy. I hope this is true. Discoverer has been around for years, but it still exhibits the developmental disabilities that often result from inbreeding. If Oracle wants to offer BI products that look like they belong to the same family as their fine RDBMS products, it’s time to bring in some fresh DNA.

Most BI products still do a poor job of supporting the analysis and presentation of information, but Discoverer is barely afloat at the shallow end of the pool. Even compared to Excel, Discoverer performs like a child, and not a very bright one. Its tables and graphs are primitive. Not only are they severely limited in functionality, they are also just plain ugly. For example, in this day of advanced computer graphics and high screen resolutions, there is no excuse for fuzzy, pixelated lines in a line graph. The quantitative axes of its graphs cannot even include tick marks, but only the numeric labels alone. And speaking of quantitative scales, it can’t format the numbers to display as percentages, so you’re stuck with numbers along the axis such as 0.1, 0.2, etc. rather than 10%, 20%, etc.. Data points can be included on lines in a line graph to mark the values, but neither their size nor their color can be changed.

To create a dashboard, you can take tables and graphs that you develop in Discoverer and publish them to a portal screen. Oracle Portal screens, like most dashboard and portal products, are divided into regions, and presentation objects such as tables and graphs can be placed into these regions. Unfortunately for the developer, however, there is no way to match the size of your tables or graphs to fit the space reserved for them in the portal. Once you go through the many steps necessary to insert the object into the portal, you must then examine how well it fits and go to another screen to set its size (width and height) in pixels. This takes some trial and error, because the width of the portal region isn’t measured in pixels, It’s measured as a percentage of the overall screen width. This means that you can eventually get it to look right, but only for a particular screen resolution. Change the resolution and your tables and graphs no longer fit.

You can imagine the problem that this creates when someone views the portal at a different resolution (that is, the table or graph will either be too large or too small to properly fit), but it’s even worse than this. No matter how good a job you do as a developer to size the object in the portal, when it is published to the portal and someone views it for the first time, the sizing that you worked so hard to get right isn’t preserved; it reverts back to the size it was when first created in Discoverer. Imagine what an impression you’ll make when the CEO looks at your new dashboard for the first time and it is completely unreadable — a screen full of tables and graphs that are only partially visible, too big to fit into the spaces reserved for them? The answer from Oracle technical support? The CEO can resize each object herself, going through the same laborious process that you did to get them to fit in the first place. Then, just for fun, she can change her screen resolution and go through the process again.

These problems are only a few that surfaced as I spent a few hours with my customer trying to get a dashboard to present a simple set of tables and graphs effectively. A thorough evaluation would no doubt result in a much longer list of problems.

I’m sure that BI developers who have worked with Discoverer and Portal for a while have figured out all sorts of tricks to overcome some of its limitations. Innovative individuals can often find a way to make things work — at least well enough to get by– but they shouldn’t have to. Why should the measure of IT talent be the ability to learn and tolerate overly difficult steps to do simple things and to develop tricks to work around software limitations? Come on software vendors, do your job. As for Oracle and its BI venture, perhaps its only hope is to purchase another vendor’s BI products that aren’t stuck back in elementary school.

Take care,


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