Test Drive of byRequest from Hillary Software
Shawn M. Gordon
President S.M.Gordon & Associates
What it can do?
Quite simply byRequest is a method for delivering reports electronically. There have been a number of these types of products over the years, some better than others. When I first saw byRequest I assumed two things, one is that it was just another electronic report distribution package, and second, that with their famed Sheetmate software, they were probably able to generate native file formats for a number of things like MS Word and Excel. Well I was wrong about the first, and right about the second.
Hillary has taken a different tact than competing software however, but I’ll get to those details in a bit. Essentially byRequest will allow you to select and route spool files based on various types of parameters for selection (all based on objects available from LISTSPF). These reports can be sent through email, fax, to a disk drive for later browsing (like a web browser interface) or to the screen. Your format can be as text, HTML, Word, Excel and PDF.
There are other nifty features like electronic bursting and collection of data, as well as columnizing a report to go to Excel. All of which I will get to shortly.
How does it work?
Unlike every other product that I’ve seen in this genre, byRequest doesn’t have any host based software, that is to say, nothing runs on the HP. This allows them to be multi-platform with more ease than if they had to write servers for every system they work with. Either by making use of Reflection as an OLE server for sending commands to and from the HP, or by using a combination of FTP/Telnet, byRequest will logon and issue various LISTSPF commands to parse and qualify file names that have to be transferred down and processed.
The download takes place via FTP or the WRQ file transfer protocol, depending on what system you use. The nice part is that byRequest seems to figure out what to use all on it’s own, you just need to supply the ip address and logon information.
ByRequest is written in VB and as such is totally resident on the Windows platform. I would be more inclined to use it as a server and have it running somewhere on your NT server processing spool requests and routing the reports as opposed to putting it on users desktops. ByRequest has a built in viewer, but there really isn’t any reason to use it in a production environment.
Take a look at figure 1, and you will see the main interface to byRequest. On the left pane is sources of data, you can make these spool files, or flat files, and a variety of platforms are supported. You will want to configure your own spooler or a variety of spoolers that conforms to the selection criteria that you are interested in. This gives you a way of breaking down what you are looking at into logical groupings. Within that spooler, byRequest will automatically create folders of for each account that spool files are in. Since the spooler I set up was for MANAGER.SYS, I was seeing everything on my system.
In the center pane you will see a grid with spool files that match the criteria for the selected spooler and folder. You can select any of these reports and drag them to one of the icons below to view it in one of the selected formats. The program will download the file, parse it, format it for the destination viewer, and then launch the program. If you look at Figures 2, 3 and 4, you will see the same report in Excel, Word and Internet Explorer.
What I found fascinating about the Excel export is what a decent job byRequest did in trying to format the data correctly breaking it into columns. If you drop the report onto the little stack of greenbar that says “ByR” then you will be presented with the spool template setup screen seen in Figure 5.
When you’re setting up the template parameters for a spool file, there are just all sorts of really cool things you can define. If you look at figure 5, you will see where I have the report set up to define columns if this is something that you are going to send to Excel for example. You saw in figure 2 what the default was for letting byRequest figure out how to set columns, and honestly it did a pretty darn good job, especially considering that the report has 2 lines of data per page.
This template set up section also allows you to apply Word or Excel macros to the document after processing, which allows for even greater options. One of my favorite sections in here is setting up the automated bursting parameters. Say you have a report that has logical breaks in it like Office Code or Salesman or something, but it’s all part of one report and you have the operators break it up and hand it out.
So selecting, formatting and viewing are one piece of the puzzle, the other piece is getting the reports where they can do some good. My personal favorite is to email them to someone as an attachment. You could also send it as a fax, or you could select HTML and output it to a directory on your web server so people could browse the file from anywhere. There are options you can set up so that the name of the file will hopefully be meaningful and people will know what to look at.
Installation and Documentation
The software only installs on your PC, so the standard Windows installation process was followed, which went flawlessly. The documentation is electronic and very complete. I only browsed through the doc to make sure it was there and covered the product, I really didn’t have any need to use the doc while I worked with the software. The online help in byRequest is pretty darn cool. If you look at Figure 1 or 5, you will see a pane on the right, and this can be toggled to have context sensitive help at any time being displayed. I really enjoyed this feature of the product.
Hillary likes to spend about 20 minutes with you on the phone walking you through the product, and I found this to be a very helpful thing. It shows some of the design philosophy and user interface items quickly, and introduces you to a number of features that you may not stumble across by randomly working with the product.
ByRequest is very drag-n-drop oriented, you drag reports from the grid to a viewer, you drag a transport onto a report. This is very convenient and very intuitive.
The program crashed on me several times, and appeared to be either leaking memory while it was running, or when it crashed it filled up my memory. I found something still running after it crashed, and I had to kill it with another tool, and then force the memory clear with yet another tool so I could avoid rebooting. It just seemed like the user interface was still a bit delicate. I was just doing things like trying to scroll side to side, or click on a column to see if it would sort the data based on the column.
I had fun taking reports and dropping them into different viewers and emailing them back to myself. I was really pleased with how well all the conversion and transportation worked on the reports, and this is the part that is going to be most important to people. You probably aren’t going to have people using the standard UI other than to set up the environment and do some testing. The UI is very nice, it’s just a bit delicate in my experience.
One of my concerns is that under a very large number of configurations you could end up with a performance problem because of all the redirected LISTSPF commands. They aren’t using anything like the AIF for interrupt driven processing to reduce the overhead. You will want to evaluate this for yourself.
Of course I’ll start with the nitpicks. I didn’t care for the fact that byRequest defaults to using MS Outlook and Reflection. There was no way directly to make it “know” about Eudora or Netscape mail, both of which are very popular, and are what I use. There are some polish issues left as well, a simple example is that the icon in the task bar has a nice name and icon, but if you use alt+tab to go between applications, the icon is the default slanted page that is generated from Visual Basic. Also when you have a list of data the needs to scroll, and you drag the slider to the right, the data doesn’t actually scroll, but jumps after you let go of the slider.
With that said, byRequest is a totally awesome product. It’s the wealth of distribution options that make it so cool, that and the native file format stuff. It is really very simple to create a template that exports some financial report into an Excel spreadsheet for example. You don’t have to change the program, or write a new program, or retype the data. How often have you been confronted with this type of issue?
Electronic bursting is also a personal favorite. Now you can have the software break apart and distribute your report for you. Hillary really did a fantastic job of thinking about the issues of paper delivery and solving virtually all of them. I was seriously impressed with this product and will be personally recommending it to clients. If you have the need, I would look at this for sure.
byRequest version 2.1.9
Hillary Software, Inc.
309 Morris Ave.
Spring Lake, NJ 07762
ByRequest is delivered on a single CD. If you are going to have more than one copy, the CD can be used on multiple machines. All of the documentation is electronic and also contained on the same CD.
The pricing is HP e3000 based, and not user based, so it depends on what size of server you are going to connect to. The price ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 depending on CPU size. Support is 15% of the purchase price per year and includes phone in, electronic support and new releases of the software. All prices are in US dollars.