Strategy Companion, SwitftKnowledge Extend Microsoft BI

What's it take to be a Microsoft-centric business intelligence (BI) player? According to several such entrants, it's a matter of picking up where Microsoft Corp. is content to leave off.

In the case of Microsoft-centric ISVs such as Strategy Companion and SwiftKnowledge, it's a more subtle -- but no less ambitious -- matter of filling in gaps. Microsoft's BI offerings, these ISVs say, are functional and usable as far as they go, but ultimately appeal to only a subset of potential Microsoft BI consumers. These players aim to extend their reach.

Consider Strategy Companion, a veteran Microsoft-centric ISV that markets a Web-based front-end (dubbed "Analyzer") for SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS). Bob Abernethy, the company's senior vice president and general manager, believes SQL Server-based BI is "poised for huge growth." Microsoft boasted a strong BI stack even before it delivered SQL Server 2008 R2 last year, says Abernethy; thanks to the publicity surrounding both R2 and Redmond's PowerPivot column-store-on-a-desktop offering, shops are increasingly hip to what he calls the "untapped potential" of their SQL Server BI assets.

"I see an increasing wave of SQL Server shops that are becoming ready to jump into business intelligence and to use Analysis Services," he comments, citing reference customers such as L'Oreal USA and CitiGroup Inc. "What typically happens is that when [a customer] first buy[s] the product, ... they have a group of IT people [that] is building in conjunction with the business people the initial set of cubes," Abernethy continues. "That's the prerequisite to use Analyzer -- to have a cube. That's where users are dependent on IT, to get the cubes built. After that is done, it shouldn't be this back-and-forth thing."

With Analyzer, Strategy Companion is aiming for self-service analysis. "Our real focus here is these [business] users, who understand [the dimensionality of] the data," he explains. "A lot of IT folks don't know MDX still. Even if they do know MDX, the model still doesn't work for [business users] to call them up and say 'Hey, Mr. MDX Developer, write me a new report.' We put that [capability] in the hands of the business user."

Strategy Companion's approach is similar to that of rival SwiftKnowledge, which likewise markets a Web-based front-end to Microsoft's SQL Server BI stack. Strategy Companion is optimized for Internet Explorer; Swift Knowledge claims to deliver a uniform experience across any Web browser.

Swift Knowledge plans to expand by targeting specific verticals. First, says CEO David Macey, was banking.

"What [we've] managed to do with just HTML in a browser-agnostic situation is pretty impressive. [We] developed a true enterprise-class BI platform," he explains. "The problem with business intelligence is that unless you have a customer that has a data warehouse and actually knows what they're doing, it is a long struggle to get [to BI], so what we've done is to build a data warehouse specifically for banks. Today we can walk into a bank and have an enterprise BI platform up and running with over 100 dashboards and reports in one day, which is about six months faster than anyone else can do it."

The banking vertical has been ignored by most BI players, Macey argues, although he concedes that vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Information Builders Inc. (IBI), Oracle Corp., SAP AG, and SAS Institute Inc. do market banking-oriented BI and analytic solutions.

The salient point, he contends, is that banks need usable BI -- and that SwiftKnowledge's browser-based interface, which uses HTML to serve up a dynamic, interactive user experience, is just what they need.

"We're not trying to go after the enterprise BI market. Trying to compete with an SAP or an Oracle or an IBM [is] probably not the best idea. This [banking] is ... a data-intensive industry that's been ignored by BI," Macey says. "A lot of banks only [have the capability to] do reporting on the previous day's close, or [on] the previous month's close. What about the previous six months? What about the previous year? What about five years? You can't stress-test your assets unless you have a historical record of how you've performed."