Microsoft Access: Business Intelligence on a Shoestring

April 2, 2010

Learn how to deliver dynamic content by building a meaningful Business Intelligence Application, utilizing only what is available on the client's desktop, when a Data Warehouse BI Application, SQL Server and SSIS/SSRS aren't an option.

Introduction

Recently I was between major contracts and was contacted by an agency that I have worked for before. They had a department within a major retail bank that was having difficulties with a Microsoft Access database, which had been created to allow the department to track the results of customer satisfaction within the company. As I started life as an Access developer and had a couple of months to spare before my next major project was due to start. I agreed to look into their problems.

The database, although well written by an internal resource. was quite rudimentary in its functionality and was only used to store manual imports from excel and csv files on a monthly basis into various data tables. Following the import, the user would then have to follow a set of instructions to amend stored queries within the database to create meaningful results, which could then be exported back to excel for the team to format into graphs. Once exported the data was then used to manually create graphs and tables that would be added to a dashboard, which was used to present the data to the business. The problems, as described by the head of the department, were the fact that the database was slow and required two to three days of intensive work by a non-technical resource to input the data and then create the reports, which had produced inconsistent data due to the “human error” factor when amending the queries in the second step.

After viewing the database, I agreed to hold a meeting with the major stakeholders to discuss their actual requirements and provide guidance on what they may actually require. Following the meeting, it was obvious that the department required the following:

  • The ability to store more than the 2 GB limit of MS Access to allow trends to be forecast from stored data
  • Automated upload of delivered files
  • Automated production of the required reports including Dashboards and KPI’s
  • Automated delivery of the resultant dashboards to the company

At the meeting, I discussed my recommendations and suggested that this project would be an ideal scenario for a Data Warehouse BI Application utilizing SQL Server and SSIS/SSRS to deliver dynamic content to the department and interested parties using a Sharepoint server. The head of the department discussed my recommendations with IT and asked about the feasibility of a project to deliver the above; this however proved unsuccessful as the company was going through a merge and IT was already fully committed to upgrading the core delivery systems within the company. At this point, the head of department discussed with me if I thought there was any way I could assist. Following discussions with a colleague, who I had known from a previous role when I worked within the IT area, it was established that I could gain access to an instance of MS SQL server, which led me to believe that I could help. Following further discussions, I embarked on delivering a BI suite utilizing just those applications available on the standard desktop along with access to a SQL Server instance.

Discussion

The main focus of this project was to move the application from a rudimentary Microsoft Access Database to a fully-fledged application using whatever applications and tools that were available within the business area. Investigation of the desktop established that MS Office 2003 Professional was installed on the desktop of every user along with Adobe Distiller 6.0. This, along with the availability of an instance of SQL Server 2005, led to the decision to convert the existing MS Access database to a Microsoft Access Project connected to a SQL Server backend, which would then utilize VBA and COM to automate all those manual processes including creation and delivery of the Dashboard. Utilizing a clean MS Access Project, I connected to an instance of SQL Server 2005 on the companies’ development box and proceeded to convert the import routines from the old database into data loads and error checking routines, using vba and SQL Server stored procedures to check the data on load. Due to the requirement of no table creation imposed on the company SQL Server, it was necessary to build permanent load tables to load the data in from the ADP.

To enable grouped and summed data to be used with the output of the ADP, I adapted a dynamic pivot routine that I have used before within SQL Server 2005 – I have included an example below – this provides very similar functionality to the Cross Tab Query within MS Access.

-- =============================================
-- Author:        Peter Evans
-- Author:        Peter Evans
-- Create date: 12 Jan 2008,
-- Description:   This procedure provides a list of all 
-- percent to target scores by division and month
-- for Dashboard creation.  It is called from the Front end which is a Access 
-- 2002 Front end.  Procedure is called using VBA calls.
-- parameters passed in are a non comma sep list of months for 
-- year one and year two and both year dates as integer along
-- with channel identifier and concpet identifier
-- data is returned from the View DBoardConceptScore which has a 
-- derived field MonthId which provides a sort capability for the 
-- pivot table created and also an identifer of month in varchar format
-- =============================================
 
ALTER PROCEDURE [dbo].[T100output_DBoardConceptPercData] 
      -- Add the parameters for the stored procedure here
@intChanId smallint, @strRMth1 nvarchar(2000), @intYear1 smallint,
@strRMth2 nvarchar(2000), @intYear2 smallint, @intConcept smallint
 
AS
BEGIN
 
DECLARE @colsY2 NVARCHAR(MAX)
SELECT  @colsY2 = STUFF(( SELECT DISTINCT TOP 100 PERCENT
                                '],['+ Cast(t2.MonthId as Varchar(9))
                        FROM    CalendarView AS t2 INNER JOIN 
dbo.iter_intlist_to_tbl(@strRMth1) AS i ON t2.Month = i.number      WHERE Year = @intYear1
ORDER BY '],['+ Cast(t2.MonthId as varchar(9))
                        FOR XML PATH('')
                      ), 1, 2, '') + '],'
 
SELECT @colsY2 = @colsY2 + STUFF(( SELECT DISTINCT TOP 100 PERCENT
                                '],['+ Cast(t2.MonthId as Varchar(9))
                        FROM    CalendarView AS t2 INNER JOIN 
dbo.iter_intlist_to_tbl(@strRMth2) AS i ON t2.Month = i.number WHERE Year = @intYear2
ORDER BY '],['+ Cast(t2.MonthId as varchar(9))
                        FOR XML PATH('')
                      ), 1, 2, '') + ']'
 
DECLARE @cols2 NVARCHAR(MAX)
SELECT  @cols2 = STUFF(( SELECT DISTINCT TOP 100 PERCENT
'],pvt.['+ Cast(t2.Monthid as Varchar(9))
                        FROM    CalendarView AS t2 INNER JOIN 
dbo.iter_intlist_to_tbl(@strRMth1) AS i ON t2.Month = i.number
                        WHERE Year = @intYear1
ORDER BY '],pvt.['+ Cast(t2.MonthId as Varchar(9))
                        FOR XML PATH('') 
                      ), 1, 2, '') + '],'
 
 
SELECT @cols2 = @cols2 + STUFF(( SELECT DISTINCT TOP 100 PERCENT
'],pvt.['+ Cast(t2.Monthid as Varchar(9))
                        FROM    CalendarView AS t2 INNER JOIN 
dbo.iter_intlist_to_tbl(@strRMth2) AS i ON t2.Month = i.number
                        WHERE Year = @intYear2
ORDER BY '],pvt.['+ Cast(t2.MonthId as Varchar(9))
                        FOR XML PATH('') 
                      ), 1, 2, '') + ']'
 
 
DECLARE @query NVARCHAR(MAX)
SET @query = N'
SELECT pvt.Title,' + @cols2 +'
FROM  (SELECT  t2.Title, t2.MonthId, t2.Concept, t2.PercScore    
FROM DBoardConceptScores AS t2 
WHERE t2.Concept = ' + cast(@intConcept as varchar (2)) + ' 
AND t2.ChanFk =' + cast(@intChanId as varchar(1)) + ')p 
PIVOT (Sum([percscore]) FOR [Monthid] IN (' + @colsY2 + ')) AS pvt  
ORDER BY pvt.Title'
 
EXEC (@query)
 
END
 

Once the data had been imported and saved correctly, it was then down to the matter of delivering the reports. Allowing the users to select using a form from the ADP and then using a module within vba to call a stored procedure to create the data required for the reports removed the “human error” side of the equation. Once selected, the reports run in the background, creating an excel version of each report chosen, utilizing vba com calls to open excel on the clients machine, call an existing template and populate the data using ado recordsets based on stored procedures . These reports included monthly average data and results against targets, summary data based on yearly and quarterly stored and dynamically created data and the monthly dashboard, which gave an overview of the companies’ performance against not only targets but also their competition, but utilized automatically produced charts instead of figures.

automatically produced charts

automatically produced charts

After the excel reports had been verified by the team they then required the ability to create pdf versions of the documents to be automatically emailed to branches, divisions and regions. This was achieved using pdf distiller, which had been installed on the user’s machines as standard. The emailing of the reports was achieved by leveraging the COM component of MS Access to talk to an SMTP server to create the mail item and attach the required reports and then despatch. The SMTP server was utilized to avoid the recent updates to MS Outlook security, which would have required a special script to have been written for the users despatching the mail to prevent the annoying pop up of the security warning, which would have appeared for each report (at the lowest level this would be over 700). To achieve a ‘sent’ item in the departments mail box, a copy was sent to the department group mail box and a rule run on the incoming folder to transfer mails with a certain subject line into the sent folder of the mailbox. Along with the produced reports and graphs, the users were also given the ability to generate reports as Excel files to allow further investigatory work to be completed.

Conclusion

It is possible with a little creativity and a lot of hard work to provide a form of Business Intelligence to the broader community without utilizing a Data Warehouse or any of the normal tools associated with either MOLAP or ROLAP storage. Using a mix of standard desktop applications and available storage mediums, a pseudo warehouse has been created which is accessed with SQL stored procedures controlled from the desktop. It is appreciated that this application is narrowly focused on one area of business intelligence delivery but is hoped that the ability to export slices of the stored data tables into MS Excel will allow the department to deliver extended reports based upon the Dashboard and KPI’s created. This application has already been up and running within the company for nearly two years and has had a major impact on how the company deals with its customers.

Deliverables included:

  • Automated upload of excel and cvs delivered data – including data checks for consistency and completeness of the file being uploaded.
  • Conversion of MS Access queries and modules to MS SQL Server 2005 stored procedures and functions.
  • Automated population of stored summarized data tables.
  • Leverage of MS Access COM and MS Excel COM abilities to create automated dashboard production on a monthly basis utilizing 15 individual metrics.
  • Leverage of MS Access COM and MS Outlook COM abilities to create automated monthly distribution including dynamically updateable details to each group of emails.

» See All Articles by Columnist Peter Evans








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