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February 24, 2011

Power to the Pivot-ers

Stephen Swoyer, Contributing Editor

Topic: Experts in BI

Microsoft Corp. released Excel 2010 to great acclaim last year, touting a bevy of new analytic-oriented enhancements -- chief among them PowerPivot, the formal name of its Project Gemini columnar-data-store-on-a-desktop facility.

PowerPivot is available as a free add-on for Excel 2010. By itself, it comprises one of the best reasons to upgrade to the Office Professional Plus 2010 suite -- and to Microsoft's SharePoint 2010 and SQL Server 2008 R2 releases, for that matter. If you want to make effective use of PowerPivot, you'll need all three, and that's the rub for many analytics practitioners.

Why didn't Microsoft introduce a version of PowerPivot that supports older versions of Office, and what about older versions of SharePoint or SQL Server? Those are moot questions chiefly because that's never been Redmond's modus operandi.

Even in the early 2000s, when Microsoft was still trying to carve out a business intelligence (BI) presence, the company typically yoked the delivery of new BI or analytic offerings to the latest versions of its products. You'll remember that Redmond famously developed several free add- ons for its then-flagship SQL Server 2000 database, including Business Intelligence Accelerator and the Office Business Scorecard Accelerator. The former supported both Excel 2002 (which shipped with Office XP) and Excel 2003 -- which was slated to ship with Microsoft's then-incubating Office 2003. The more sophisticated Office Business Scorecard Accelerator, however, was an Office 2003-only proposition. (Had Redmond managed to ship Office 2003 a little earlier, its seminal BI Accelerator might too have been an Excel 2003-only offering.)

Although Redmond did offer its ambitious SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) as a free add-on for its (then- aging) SQL Server 2000 database, it did so in part because SQL Server 2005 faced delay after delay. SSRS was an appetizer of sorts for SQL Server 2000 shops.

BI users aren't without options. At least one vendor has introduced a version of PowerPivot that supports older versions of Office, SharePoint, and SQL Server. Vizubi is the wunderkind product of Italian software development house Syntes LLC. Unlike PowerPivot, Vizubi supports both Office 2003 and Office 2007. Even better: it doesn't require either SharePoint 2010 or SQL Server 2008 R2.

Although Vizubi is currently a 32-bit-only proposition -- which effectively limits it to working in (much) less than 4 GB of addressable memory (PowerPivot is available for 64-bit systems) -- it boasts several additional selling points PowerPivot doesn't have, including import support for third-party data sources, such as QlikView from QlikTech Inc.

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On the other hand, Vizubi's back-end story is rather more simplistic than is PowerPivot's: it uses its own repository, which may make it less impressive for those working with orthodox data management (DM).

That being said, Vizubi's approach is consistent with an established (and growing) trend in the enterprise BI space -- that of workgroup BI. Although it isn't exactly fair to say that tools such as QlikView and LyzaSoft altogether reject the importance of a centralized, data warehouse-driven BI infrastructure, both tools (along with other workgroup BI-oriented entries) can be said to de-emphasize the importance of centralized BI.

That's one of the reasons a Vizubi-to-PowerPivot comparison has the flavor of apples-to-oranges. From a traditional DM perspective, PowerPivot's SharePoint and SQL Server dependencies make it a more credible enterprise BI offering: in the PowerPivot model, the idiosyncratic or unique analyses of professional analysts are more easily (a) brought back into the context of the data warehouse and (b) published (via PowerPivot for SharePoint) such that they can be made available to other, notionally non-rock star users.

Vizubi, like other Workgroup BI-oriented offerings, isn't a completely self-contained system -- it can import data from and export data to third-party data sources (e.g., via generic connectors such as ODBC or JDBC) -- but it explicitly prescribes an Excel-centric user experience. Unlike several of its Workgroup BI-oriented offerings -- Lyza from LyzaSoft and QlikView from QlikTech come to mind –- Vizubi likewise doesn't easily promote analytic insight in a collaborative (QlikView) or social-collaborative (Lyza) context.

Ground Zero for insight in the Vizubi model is always and inescapably the Excel client; it doesn't (currently) have nearly so compelling a story as does PowerPivot, as well as -- to a lesser extent -- QlikView or Lyza, when it comes to sharing those insights with information consumers across an organization. Nor does Vizubi aim to be a full- featured BI front-end for Microsoft's SQL Server-based BI stack. (Not, at least, in the same way that tools such as Strategy Companion or SwiftKnowledge purport to.)

That's okay, however, because PowerPivot doesn't try to do this, either.

It might be understood as the difference between a hoped-for information economy (Microsoft's approach with PowerPivot, which is mostly careful not to step on the toes of partners such as DataSelf, SwiftKnowledge, or Strategy Companion) and a hugely productive information factory (the Vizubi philosophy), with vendors such as QlikView and Lyza exploring non-traditional manufacturing and delivery mdoels. BI and DM practitioners have long looked for a collaborative or communal Information Nirvana in which BI technologies are pervasive and BI-driven insights are a commonplace.

We're still waiting and hoping.

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer based in Nashville, TN. You can contact the author at stephen.swoyer@spi nkle.net.
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