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However, we frequently here about major mistakes blamed on Excel, such as the recent loss of 16,000 Covid test results in England. The problems with Excel, compared to modern low-code platforms, are numerous: it is not web-based; it lacks authentication, version control, workflow control, and intellectual property security; also, users’ data is too often saved as local spreadsheets, rather than to a central database. For these reasons, Excel remains one of the biggest impediments to digital transformation.
EASA eliminates these limitations, enabling businesses to deploy Excel spreadsheets as secure web applications – with authentication, audit trails of usage, version control, and secured intellectual property, and with users’ data saved securely to a database.
The EASA platform was originally developed as a low-code platform for scientists and engineers, enabling companies in the manufacturing sector to “democratize” virtually any software model. However, the rapid growth of the platform has been driven primarily by companies such as AIG and HPE using EASA to deploy mission-critical spreadsheets.
Sometimes described as “topware”, EASA enables citizen developers to create and publish custom, fit-for-purpose applications within a low-code environment, while leveraging almost any logic engine or calculation tool, including Excel, Python, and Matlab. “The EASA platform enables businesses to embrace rather than replace their spreadsheets. Users can continue to take advantage of the ease and flexibility of Excel while eliminating the chances of exposed IP, version confusion, and unauthorized alterations to the business logic,” says Sebastian Dewhurst, Director of Business Development at EASA.
In a recent interview with CIOApplications, Dewhurst highlights how the platform enables users to leverage their existing knowledge, using sophisticated logic models within the well-known framework of Excel, and then publish them as enterprise web apps.
Could you give a brief overview of EASA?
EASA originated as a development project within the Engineering Software group at AEA Technology, which today is a part of Ricardo PLC. At the time, AEA Technology developed and sold a range of sophisticated modeling software for engineering applications. We noticed that the people creating models were the only ones that were able to use them.
So, the original concept of EASA arose from the need to enable scientists and engineers to quickly deploy their models as easy-to-use web apps—with a fraction of the effort required for conventional application development and none of the coding. Today, we call this approach “low-code” or “no-code”. The project was successful, and EASA 1.0 was released in 2002, initially serving customers such as Hewlett Packard, Pfizer, and Procter & Gamble, among many others.
As we grew, we received a lot of positive feedback and suggestions from clients on how we could improve the platform. Several customers suggested streamlining the ability to build apps which leverage the logic embedded in spreadsheets, as Excel is used widely for creating engineering models. We had built EASA to be agnostic regarding the type of model under the hood – Matlab models, Python models, homegrown scripts and codes– so it was not hard to update EASA to enable users to take an Excel spreadsheet and deploy it as a web application. This widened our customer base across diverse industry verticals that thrive on Excel for modeling activities, for example pricing or risk modeling in the financial services industries. Many of our clients from the insurance sector like AIG and Zurich Financial leverage the product for exactly this purpose.
Today, the typical use-case is a company that has one or more critical processes underpinned by spreadsheets - and they want to digitize that process to bring it into the 21st century.
What are EASA’s key functionalities and features?
While there are many excellent low- and no-code products on the market, EASA is unique among them; it is the only low-code platform designed to enable citizen developers to build applications that leverages existing assets, such as spreadsheets and other models.
Now, if you’re using a spreadsheet only to collect and report on data, and Excel’s formula, logic, and VB capabilities are NOT being used, then there are many suitable tools. If you don’t need a slick GUI, then a very low-cost way of doing this is to use Google Sheets. If you want something more user-friendly, most low-code platforms will enable you to use your spreadsheet to define the headings of a data table; then, via a drag-and-drop GUI builder, you can quickly build and share a functional web app, and you no longer need Excel.
However, if your spreadsheet includes calculations and logic, then this approach won’t work. You are faced with a choice – a. painstakingly (and expensively) extract all the logic from every cell and every line of VB in your spreadsheet, and re-implement it in a low-code environment, or b. carry on living with “Excel chaos”.
This is where EASA can help. EASA keeps Excel as part of the web app, but not running on local users’ machines. Rather, an Excel service runs on one or more servers (for load balancing) to preserve all of the formulae and business logic—including VBA and macros. Thus, we enable the customer to leverage existing spreadsheets into new web apps that are more secure, more scalable and more easily deployed compared to sharing spreadsheets via a network drive or a portal such as SharePoint. EASA’s approach eliminates a host of familiar problems that arise when spreadsheets are shared and exchanged—formulas overwritten, out of date versions inadvertently remaining in circulation, and sensitive intellectual property at risk of exposure, and users’ data saved to thousands of flat files.
What is your approach to client onboarding?
We typically begin a client engagement with a proof of concept – we want to verify that EASA is a good fit for the customer’s intended use-case. EASA partners with AWS, which we use for performing demonstrations and proof of concepts. If the POC meets with approval, we then schedule web-based training sessions during which one of our technical services engineers helps the customer understand the platform and how they can use it to meet their specific needs. Usually, the training can be based upon actual customer spreadsheets.
What does the future look like for EASA?
We are working closely with one of our partners who have pioneered some unique machine learning technology for our mutual customers. The idea is to use EASA as a “delivery vehicle” for advanced analytical tools. We are also seeing customer requests for better interaction with Python, and better ability to integrate EASA technology via our APIs, for example with systems such as Salesforce.com.