I recently came across an impressive Excel 2013 Add-In that I recall first seeing a few years ago for an older version of Excel while in Data Mining class at UCSD. This new Excel 2013 Add-In happens to be an early adopter in migrating from old world Excel Add-In and VBA frameworks to the modern Microsoft Windows Azure and Apps for Office framework. The solution is called Frontline Systems Solver.  This Solver is advanced – it not exactly the same thing as the basic Excel Solver that I mention at the end of this article. This advanced analytics Excel Solver offering can leverage Excel data, Excel Power Pivot data, and data stored in relational databases. It works with stand-alone Excel and also has an Excel Web App on Office 365 or SharePoint 2013. It is a very hot, must check it out type solution for analytics lovers on Office 2013 or Office 365 needing a lot more than basic Excel Solver intelligence. This much better Solver App is located within the Data Visualization + BI category App listing in the Office Store. It is priced from free to  $995 for a basic offering to $5,495 for the Analytic Solver Platform.

Some of the advanced analytics features in this advanced Solver app that caught my eye included:

Time Series Forecasting with classical regression, exponential smoothing, and ARIMA models.

Data Mining for Predictions with XLMiner include regression trees, k-nearest neighbors, neural networks, naive bayes, principal components, k-means clustering, hierarchial clustering, and neural nets.

Conventional Optimization, Stochastic Optimization, and Prescriptive Analytics with Premium Solver Pro to better allocate scarce resources or evaluate decision options in uncertain scenarios.  They also have linear, nonlinear, quadratic, and mixed integer programming.  To ease development of some of the complex models, a wizard can be used.

Risk Analysis with Monte Carlo Simulation and Decision Trees with Risk Solver.

There is also an SDK for application developers to integrate these features into their applications.  This embedded analytics is the type of thing that we will see in the near future for sure!  The Solver Server has APIs for standard web service calls, SOAP and WSDL protocols.

The technical engineering geek in me wanted to better understand and dig into “how” this works with Azure and the new Apps for Office framework since it is an early adopter and the technical solution design pattern may hold true for other Cloud Excel apps.  The Solver models are computed by Frontline’s Solver Server that is operating as a “cloud service” on Windows Azure. The Excel Web App transfers a copy of your Excel workbook with the data over the Internet from the SharePoint or Office 365 server to their Windows Azure hosted Solver Server. The numbers are crunched in the cloud and then returned. Since  SharePoint and Office 365 protect Excel workbooks and other data, permission is required for the data and file exchange. A pop-up window is shown in the web browser, saying that Solver wishes to read your workbook, with a button “Trust It.”  Only when you click this button SharePoint allows the document to be read, by issuing a limited-lifetime, secure OAuth 2.0 access token to the Solver App. File and data transfer is encrypted using the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol.  They have a long notice about their privacy policy and I have to imagine there will be companies that will freak out and not allow this kind of data transfer at all. What was even more interesting is that Excel workbook is held in temporary disk storage on an isolated virtual machine (VM) on Windows Azure and deleted immediately after use. Solver Server cloud service gets “recycled” more than once per day meaning that is literally wipes out the entire Windows Azure VM instance and creates a new one. Now  Frontline claims that this works and is super fast with large data sets – hmmmmm. How can that be? I am no fool – I imagine that super fast speed “depends” on file and data sizes being transferred, VM performance, network bandwidth, etc. I confess that I did not load test it to see for myself yet.    I did reach out to them via their email and was dying to talk to their product manager but they completely ignored me. (Update: I was informed that my email to them was lost – they are responsive now.) I also wonder about true cost when Azure is in the picture. I may get more aggressive and simply call them versus the passive email requests. This is such a cool solution offering and I want to really understand the considerations that go along with it.

For someone wanting to take analytics to the next level and needing much more than the current out-of-the-box Excel What-If analysis options: 1) Scenarios, 2) Data Tables, and 3) Goal Seek 4) Excel’s Basic Solver, an add-in to Excel that allows for more variables or 5) the dated SQL Server Data Mining Add-Ins for Excel that are NOT live data supported in SharePoint 2013 or Excel 2013 – Frontline Systems Solver may just be your analytics dream come true and worth a test drive.