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The Winners and Losers of the Microsoft BI Bandwagon

Microsoft is rolling into the BI town on a big bandwagon with their forthcoming SQL Server 2016 release this summer. Who will be the winners and losers when the dust settles?

Microsoft has played an impressive hand with its recent unveiling of a bolstered business intelligence tool stack shipping with SQL Server 2016. The 2016 release will include a much-needed facelift of some tried-and-tired tools of BI yesteryear, plus the promise of better integration of their latest and greatest tools -- both those acquired and those developed in-house.

Promising a major refurbishment of SQL Server Reporting Services, we are supposed to see vast improvements to the old standard (hopefully including the end of the 8.5x11 default layout.) Additionally, we can hope to see some of the clumsiness and awkwardness reduced when laying out data elements within the Excel-bound Power Pivot and Power View.

The acquired dashboard and scorecard tool, DataZen -- one that I have personally implemented in a recent project -- should see better integration with its Microsoft step-cousins and feel less like a standalone tool. On top of that, the company is promising better connectors to non-SQL Server databases such as IBM's Pure Data System for Analytics (Netezza) and the like.

However, the best strategic move, in my opinion, is introducing an on-premises option for Power BI. First, Power BI is Microsoft's only offering on the same playing field as Tableau or Qlik Sense. Second, some organizations (still) do not have full faith or trust in the cloud, and the thought of their sensitive or personally identifiable information on off-premises servers "out there somewhere" frightens more than just a few old school CIOs, information security professionals, and business leaders. I have seen Power BI projects hit the brakes on the cloud issue alone.

This is all fine and good for Microsoft, but what does SQL Server 2016 mean to the greater BI landscape? Other BI titans such as Tableau say they are not worried in public, but after we saw their stock tank in February on weak earnings, you have to think privately they might be. Business intelligence snobs and serious data analysts and scientists will likely continue to be wary of Microsoft, which remains a few years behind the curve of cutting-edge innovation despite an improved toolset.

One has to wonder if history is not repeating itself. Two decades ago, I remember the Microsoft Office takeover of the desktop productivity market. How did they do it? Offer better tools? No. WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were solid tools a few years ahead of Word and Excel. Microsoft shoehorned itself into a big market footprint by coupling the business applications with their ubiquitous operating system, Windows.

They are doing it again with BI tools and SQL Server. SQL Server still has a pretty solid presence in many organizations. Like everyone else, IT shops both love and hate it at the same time. There are lots of .Net developers around, and Java is slightly harder to find. There are lots of applications hardwired to SQL Server databases.

IT organizations that have entrenched themselves with Microsoft are not likely to change easily.

On the BI side, there are lots of data analysts who write (sometimes less than optimal) Transact-SQL. Let's face it -- Excel is still a top tool of choice among data analysts, as much as we may hate to admit it. Moreover, the most recent trend tipping the scales in Microsoft's favor is the fact that business leaders and executives are growing tired of ceaseless BI sales pitches citing rogue BI tool pop-ups as enterprise adoption. Plus, formal tool selection processes are time-consuming for the business, overwhelming in the number of choices, tedious in hair-splitting over features, and lacking clarity in provable ROI.

It is almost as if in exasperation, the business says, "What? We can get 80 to 90 percent of what we want with Microsoft and it's bundled with the umpteen licenses we already have?" Discussion over.

The following and fallout of the Microsoft BI bandwagon will be interesting to watch. We can probably predict that the losers will be BI tool vendors (and their dedicated developer communities) that are unable to differentiate themselves as clearly better than "good enough." The winners will be those who continue to innovate at the cutting edges of storytelling, advanced analytics, and visualization.

However, the real winner is the business intelligence analyst who is as much an artist as she is a scientist. A BI tool is just a brush and a canvas. Those who paint the most effective, telling, clear, predictive, and timely pictures of their organization's data will come out on top -- the BI tool chips fall where they may.

About the Author

Jake Dolezal

Dr. Jake Dolezal is practice leader of Analytics in Action at McKnight Consulting Group Global Services, where he is responsible for helping clients build programs around data and analytics. You can contact the author at jdolezal@mcknightcg.com.

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