Focus on the Forest

Application backlog in the CFO's office? WhiteLight/Engineer cuts it down to size

by Dan Ruby

If NEXTSTEP is all about applying objects to enterprise solutions, then WhiteLight/Engineer may be the ultimate NEXTSTEP application. While other financial-analysis tools are designed to focus on details at the local level, WhiteLight rolls up all of the individual pieces into a network of relationships that model the entire enterprise.

WhiteLight/Engineer is a spreadsheet, a database, a knowledge engine, an object-oriented development environment, and a set of APIs all in one application wrapper. The results can be tremendous for many organizations, but an overly complex interface detracts from an otherwise- impressive program. In addition, the program requires a large investment in building models, probably making it more useful to groups within organizations, as opposed to individual analysts.

WhiteLight's great benefit is its versatility in rapid development of custom financial applications. Typical uses might be an operational process like a year-end consolidation, a forecast like a five-year strategic plan, or an ad hoc analysis of a possible merger or acquisition. Building WhiteLight models helps the financial analyst understand relationships that are too complex or dynamic for other tools.

WhiteLight is more akin to mainframe modeling environments and fourth-generation languages than it is to personal computer-based spreadsheets. In a traditional spreadsheet, the data and the model are mixed into one grid. The user spends a lot of unproductive time finding and verifying data, futzing with formulas, and customizing reports. In WhiteLight, the model and the data are separate. A report or graph is just a view into the model. The same information can be displayed in an unlimited number of ways without creating redundancies.

Types of users

Unlike a spreadsheet, which can be applied productively by an individual user, WhiteLight is designed as an enterprise-modeling tool. According to WhiteLight Systems, it can be applied as a "top-down, bottom-up, or middle-out" solution.

Once adopted by an organization, it is useful at many different levels. Systems architects and developers design and build the model. Financial analysts and business managers maintain and extend it. Company executives use it for informa- tion retrieval and decision support.

WhiteLight/Engineer is available in a developer version for $9995 or a user version for $995. While this represents a heavy outlay for buyers, the cost is insignificant compared with the benefits that come from a better understanding of your business and improved decision making.

I reviewed the product from the standpoint of a departmental manager using a model that was designed and developed by a professional financial analyst. I worked in depth with two models the WhiteLight Foods demonstration model that the company ships with the software and a prototype model for NeXTWORLD that was built by a WhiteLight analyst. This process gave me a sense of the depth and sophistication that is possible in a finished application, as well as the process for developing a new model.

The results were impressive. The Foods example models a multinational conglomerate and provides dozens of specific applications and reports, including an income statement, balance sheet, ratio analysis, financing plan, currency adjustments, and much more.

The first iteration of the NeXTWORLD system built in half a day using our existing spreadsheet model is a solid foundation, though it is very far from being a production system. Several more iterations by the model developer would be needed before we could actually put it into use.

Contexts and elements

A WhiteLight model is made up of numerous contexts, or ways of looking at the enterprise, and elements within the contexts. For example, the Foods model uses six contexts financial, enterprise, product, time, currency, and plan containing a total of 264 elements.

Each element of the model is an object. It might be a financial value like Gross Margin, a time value like Third Quarter, an organizational value like Europe, or any other unit that helps to describe the business. Elements are defined in terms of other elements using a comprehensive set of mathematical functions, formulas, and constants.

To begin building a model, you work in a element browser to define the contexts and elements. Once named, an element editor allows you to write the formulas that relate elements to each other. An element navigator provides a graphical view of the relationships, so you can quickly point and click your way through the network of relationships. There is also an element finder that quickly locates each instance of an element or a group of elements.

Once the elements are defined, you begin to populate the model with data by creating grids and graphs. These will look familiar to spreadsheet users. Grids are built by dragging and dropping element names into a multidimensional grid. Since you can always expand or contract elements and their components, the grids can be displayed in as much or as little detail as you want. You simply click 1994, for example, to display a quarterly view. Click again to see each month.

Depending on the complexity of your grid, the model can contain an astronomical number of data values. These are populated either by user input or a lookup to a database, or are computed from other values. (It is easy to create data-entry grids that highlight the cells to be entered.) In many cases, a particular value will not be of interest. For example, the six-dimensional Foods model contains 570 million possible values, but only 6500 are actually used.

In addition to grids, WhiteLight also generates graphical views of data. The program includes a selection of bar-, pie-, and line-graph types. WhiteLight's API also allows users to link models to more specialized charting programs or their own custom apps.

Interface excess

Unfortunately, WhiteLight does so much that it doesn't know when to stop. Its interface is such a profusion of pop-up lists, wells, buttons, and sliders that the mind positively boggles. Using it, you immediately find that you have more than a dozen inspectors, finders, explorers, navigators, and browsers open, each one festooned with confusing interface controls.

Several of the dozen or more tools are cleverly designed, and all of them are needed, but there is not enough hierarchy in the organization of the tools. The user needs more of a helping hand in determining which tools and views are the most important.

WhiteLight acknowledges that the interface needs work, though Version 2.0, due this spring with important enhancements in other areas, does not substantially change the interface design. A later 2.1 release is scheduled to include interface improvements.

Any product as complex as WhiteLight is going to need substantial training tools and support services. One of the product's strengths is its excellent documentation, tutorials, and examples. WhiteLight Systems also offers extensive options for user training and development support.

Two other strengths are its performance and robustness. It ran effortlessly and without bugs on both my slab and an Epson GX.

In sum, WhiteLight/Engineer is an outstanding, though imperfect, product. There's no doubt that this is the kind of product that will bring new users corporate financial officers to NEXTSTEP. Many existing NEXTSTEP sites both large corporations and small start-ups will also find it tremendously valuable.

Unless it has been adopted as a standard in their company, however, nonfinancial specialists will probably find that WhiteLight is more tool than they need for ad hoc business modeling. Still, even if Mesa is all you'll ever want for looking at the trees, you should still take a look at WhiteLight/Engineer to see what's possible when you use NEXTSTEP to look at the financial forest.

Dan Ruby is NeXTWORLD's editor in chief.

WhiteLight/Engineer 1.1

4 Cubes

This sophisticated modeling environment has the power to create highly complex enterprisewide financial applications, but its interface does little to manage the complexity. It is highly recommended for serious modeling applications, but may be more than is needed for mainstream analysis and reporting requirements.

$9995 developer version; $995 user version

WhiteLight Systems, 350 Cambridge Ave. # 200, Palo Alto, CA 94306.