RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Microsoft Fills in Missing Business Intelligence Blanks

A first-ever BPM product introduction, along with Excel and SharePoint BI enhancements have Microsoft’s partners and competitors on edge.

With its SQL Server 2005 launch less than a week away, Microsoft Corp. is starting to fill in some conspicuous BI blanks.

The software giant’s next-gen SQL Server ships with a bevy of back-end business intelligence (BI) enhancements, for example, but it wasn’t until last week Microsoft that fleshed out its client-side BI story.

To that end, Redmond announced its first-ever business performance management (BPM) and scorecarding product, the former “Maestro,” now called Business Scorecard Manager.

Microsoft also touted BI and BPM-friendly enhancements in its forthcoming Office 12 suite, along with a more integral role—as a sort of BI front-end interface—for its SharePoint portal and collaboration technologies.

To be sure, last week’s announcements helped to fill in some of the missing blanks. But in other respects, Microsoft’s BI strategy just got even murkier.

From BI Enabler to BI Competitor

Until recently, Microsoft had emphasized a partner-first approach to doing BI. In May, however, Maestro sent a shockwave through the BI marketplace. Microsoft had introduced BI client tools in the past, but Maestro took the software giant further afield from its platform-based BI strategy. And according to Microsoft officials, Maestro was just the beginning. “[It’s] only the first of a series of business intelligence products for users of Information Worker products,” a Microsoft spokesperson said at the time.

With last week’s Office 12 and SharePoint announcements, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sugar-coat Microsoft’s intentions in the BI arena. The company is no longer just a BI enabler—i.e., the proprietor of a SQL Server BI stack that provides the underpinnings (OLAP, data mining, ETL, and reporting capabilities) for a partner’s BI suite—but a BI competitor, too.

Microsoft officials effectively acknowledge as much.

“There are a host of vendors out there today providing BPM-related applications,” said Chris Caren, general manager of Microsoft’s Office business applications group, in an e-mail. “But traditional performance measurement tools are insufficient to gauge performance and guide organizations in today’s rapidly changing, complex economic landscape. There really isn’t anyone out there today who is providing as easy a way to drill down and analyze business metrics, and tie them together with unstructured data such as word documents, spreadsheets, and slide presentations. So in that respect, Microsoft Office Business Scorecard Manager 2005 is definitely unique.” And while partners such as ProClarity Corp. and Panorama Software Ltd. are the most obvious targets of Redmond’s BI barrage, establishment vendors such as Cognos Inc. and Information Builders Inc. (IBI) are concerned, too. Last week, and without solicitation, several tier-one players reached out to journalists to pointedly pooh-pooh Microsoft’s news. “Microsoft is simply making things more complicated, while what business intelligence users want is simplicity. With two BI niches [server and Office] that are divided and can't 'talk' to each other, this is by no means an intelligent business intelligence move on Microsoft's part,” said IBI CEO Gerry Cohen in a statement. “People don't want to add more desktop software requiring maintenance; this move is clearly in the wrong direction.”

BSM, Office 12, and What’s in Store

Business Scorecard Manager is a product of Microsoft’s Information Worker (i.e., Office) business group. It’s a Web-based tool that’s powered by Microsoft’s SharePoint portal, and it taps the rest of the SharePoint technology stack to support collaboration between and among users. At first glance, Business Scorecard Manager is about what you’d expect in a BPM product: it uses scorecarding and dashboarding to monitor trends and track business performance against pre-determined objectives. Not surprisingly, it taps Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 BI stack for reporting, analysis, and other features.

Business Scorecard Manager went live yesterday, but Office 12 is still a work in progress. Microsoft’s next-generation Office suite is being given a more BI-focused make-over, starting first and foremost with the venerable Excel spreadsheet client. Long a favorite of business analysts, financial officers, and other power users, Microsoft now positions Excel as a more general tool for accessing, analyzing, and sharing information. Caren says Office 12 Excel will make it easier for users to connect to disparate data sources and maintain persistent connections between Excel workbooks and back-end data sources. Excel 12 is being tweaked to support Microsoft’s substantially revamped SQL Server 2005 Analysis Services; will incorporate new data visualization capabilities; and supports enhanced pivot tables and pivot charts, Caren says.

Elsewhere in Office 12, SharePoint will be the centerpiece of Microsoft’s BI strategy. “[T]he next generation of SharePoint products and technologies become a comprehensive BI Portal, providing access to business information in one place and reducing e-mail file sharing,” Caren explains. “For example, there will be a new type of Web site called a ‘Report Center,’ and company managers who access and explore corporate financial data in their report center will have confidence that they’re getting a ‘single version of the truth.’”

The Office 12 SharePoint Portal will be a one-stop shop for Microsoft’s SQL Server- and Office-based BI technology stack, Caren says. “The portal allows business data in SQL Reporting Services reports, Excel spreadsheets, and business scorecards to be shared, controlled, and reused in new ways as well—for example in business dashboards that contain data from a variety of sources.”

Partners Still Key, Microsoft Protests

Microsoft has long claimed that the BI and BPM pies are plenty big enough for everyone, especially existing partners. “We estimate a ratio of 5:1 in terms of how many dollars partners will be able to make selling services on top of their solutions,” said a Microsoft spokesperson at the time of the Maestro announcement. Caren seems similarly optimistic. He says Microsoft has given its partners ample time to develop value-added or complementary solutions for SQL Server 2005, Business Scorecard Manager, and Office 12. “We begin discussions very early so that partners will have the opportunity to quickly expand their business into new areas with minimal investment.”

When asked to describe specific ways in which partners have added value to or complemented Microsoft’s most explicit BI overtures (namely, Business Scorecard Manager and the SharePoint BI portal) Caren demurs. “[W]e think there’s definitely a substantial market opportunity here for our partners as well as Microsoft. We think we can expand the market for everyone through the platform and tools we provide. Some of our Office platform partners participated in the beta program for BSM and will introduce integrated offerings.”

SQL Server 2005’s Extensive BI Overhaul

Vendors seem worried, but users generally enthusiastic about Microsoft’s growing BI ambitions—particularly in the case of the all-but-ready-for-prime-time SQL Server 2005 database, which is scheduled to launch next week.

Mark Job, a SQL Server developer with Microsoft solution provider Immedient Corp., says he could talk for hours about what’s to like, BI-wise, in SQL Server 2005—starting first and foremost with the revamped SQL Server Integration Services. “[It] creates a lot of new functionality, along with the ability to bring along old DTS packages by hosting the old runtime, giving developers more time to convert old packages,” he says. “The visual debugging environment, separation of data and control layers, and elevation to transforms of a lot of what had to be done in script before are all good for the developer, but the big customer opportunity here is scalability, which will open up [Integration Services] use to a lot more needs.”

Elsewhere, says Job, Microsoft’s OLAP and data mining technology is verging ever closer to best-of-breed. “Analysis Services has huge changes with attribute-based modeling and the [Universal Data Model],” he says. “ While it will be necessary to re-architect existing cubes to take full advantage of the new features, the additional capabilities that open up are well worth it.” Elsewhere, says Job, SQL Server 2005’s enhanced data mining component introduces “huge improvements in models and UIs. This will open up the potential benefits to a broader audience, and the exposure of all these tools for developers will make great opportunities to leverage DM in enterprise apps.”

One disappointing aspect of the next-gen SQL Server release is the Reporting Services 2.0 component, says Job. “Reporting Services … doesn't introduce as much net new functionality as the other areas, with the exception of the new Report Builder feature,” he comments. “I still am frustrated by the ‘flattened rowset’ approach to MDX queries as RS inputs, which neuters a lot of the power of MOLAP by making it fit the relational mold. I hope Microsoft addresses this in a Service Pack or dot release soon.”

About the Author


Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at evets@alwaysbedisrupting.com.

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