MicroStrategy 8 Gets Thumbs Up from Analysts, Users

BI suite boasts improved support for heterogeneous data sources, new data mining capabilities, and integration with SAP BW

If it seems like years since MicroStrategy Inc. last delivered a major new release of its business intelligence suite, you're right. It was nearly three years ago.

Last month the MacLean, Virginia-based company announced MicroStrategy 8, its first major business intelligence platform release. MicroStrategy bills version 8 as a significantly revamped offering that includes integrated reporting, analysis, and data-mining capabilities in addition to the company’s bread-and-butter ROLAP technology.

All told, version 8 includes more than 2,000 enhancements, says Mark LaRow, vice-president of products with MicroStrategy. Most of these have been implemented beneath the covers, LaRow admits, but some—such as a redesigned Web interface, fully interactive reports and scorecards, OLAP support inside of tables embedded in report documents, and WYSIWYG report design—should instantly register with experienced users.

MicroStrategy, like many of its competitors, emphasizes the ease-of-use enhancements in its revamped offering. “We think that we’ve cracked the code on how to make reporting and analysis integrated technically, but understandably integrated, for average business users,” LaRow comments. Just because users can do ad hoc query and analysis from within the same interface doesn’t mean that either technology has been “integrated,” he notes. “What we’ve done in version 8 is gone the next logical step, which is to integrate reporting and analysis within the same document. If somebody runs a report, each of them can be analyzed independently. But the documents and reports become containers in situ of the entire report.”

In recent years, MicroStrategy has tried to expand beyond its traditional expertise in ROLAP. Sixteen months ago, for example, it announced its Report Services offering, which ships as part of the MicroStrategy 8 release. LaRow says response to Report Services has been encouraging, such that—in some cases—Report Services has helped MicroStrategy steal share away from its competitors.

“Report Services has been far and away, hands down, the most successful new product release in MicroStrategy’s history,” he confirms, citing MicroStrategy’s strong Q4 2004 earnings (which were up 39 percent year-over-year). “Before Report Services, we really didn’t have a good foothold into the relatively unadorned enterprise-reporting space, but now we do. That’s the lion’s share of the market, you know, because people need reports.”

Like Report Services, version 8 takes MicroStrategy further afield from its traditional ROLAP niche, with new features such as data mining and predictive analytics. In MicroStrategy 8, data-mining functionality is delivered by means of a new service, called MicroStrategy Data Mining Services, that’s part of MicroStrategy Intelligence Server, the business intelligence engine that powers the company’s service-oriented architecture.

“It’s an enhancement of our analytic engine to be able to calculate several data mining algorithms,” LaRow says, citing canned support for multi-variant progression, along with neural network, tree, and clustering algorithms.

At the same time, he says, MicroStrategy 8 shouldn’t be used as a replacement for an existing data-mining tool. Instead, it uses the Predictive Model Mark-up Language (PMML) to import data-mining models from other tools.

“MicroStrategy 8 doesn’t discover the predictive model. That’s still the job of the dedicated data-mining product from SAS or SPSS or IBM or Teradata,” he continues. “Instead, we take the models these other tools discover and import them as a standard MicroStrategy metric.”

For example, LaRow says, suppose a SAS data-mining tool discovers a propensity among males aged 35 and older to purchase audio-video gear—say, 52” flat screen televisions—before big sporting events such as the Super Bowl. Users can import the SAS model as a “highly specific metric” into the MicroStrategy 8 environment, where it can be further analyzed thanks to the product’s new data-mining algorithms.

Elsewhere, MicroStrategy 8 boasts direct MDX access via SAP’s OLAP business application program interfaces to the SAP Business Information Warehouse (SAP BW), a much-anticipated feature that LaRow says is indicative of the increasing prevalence of SAP BW in MicroStrategy accounts.

“This one has really risen with the increased popularity of SAP BW. Not even Microsoft Analysis Services has spawned this much demand,” he says. “There’s significant overlap [between MicroStrategy and SAP], because people want to do SAP BW and enterprise data warehousing all at the same time with the same interface. Not just reporting, but reporting and analysis.”

Analysts are very positive on the MicroStrategy 8 release. Cindi Howson, a principal with Analytic Solutions Know-How (ASK), has used business intelligence tools from MicroStrategy, Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., and others.

“I'm very impressed with MicroStrategy 8. It solves a number of customer issues that have been barriers to wider deployments in the past,” she says, citing its improved (“sexy and intuitive”) user interface, access to operational data stores such as SAP BW, and the ability to join multiple data sets from multiple data sources in the context of a single, pixel-perfect report.

“I know some analysts have criticized them for being so tightly focused on core BI—not expanding into analytic apps or CPM like their competitors—yet I think clearly this focus is paying off with one of the most integrated product sets that now fulfills a broad spectrum of user needs,” Howson concludes.

Likewise, Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc., also believes there’s a lot to like in MicroStrategy 8. Like Howson, he cites the improved UI, integration with SAP BW, and support for reporting from heterogeneous data sources as compelling product strong suits. More to the point, says Schiff, the version 8 release could be one of MicroStrategy’s most important ever product deliverables.

“When combined with its strong 2004 financials, MicroStrategy’s momentum is certainly building and the success of MicroStrategy 8 will ultimately determine if it will speed up or slow down,” he concludes.

Users are also excited about the new release. Consider, Asif Rahman, a support specialist with a financial services company who stresses that while he’s pleased overall with the capabilities in the current product, there are a few pain points he’d like to see addressed. “We are on MicroStrategy 7.2.2, and moving onto 7.5.3—then maybe 8.1,” he explains. “The ASP scripts on the Web are slowing down screen movement performance, statistics are buggy, [and there aren’t] enough clustering controls.”

These are minor annoyances he says. But there’s at least one significant issue he expects MicroStrategy 8 will address. “I would say the absence of free form SQL [has] affected my organization,” he concedes. “So, yes [the new features] are very important. Free form SQL, the data-mining component, asymmetric cluster controls—they really did a great job,” he notes.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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