Q&A: Building a Top-Notch BI Platform on SQL Server

Panorama Software says it won’t become just another notch in Microsoft’s mergers-and-acquisitions bedpost

Panorama Software Ltd., a Toronto-based software vendor with an impressive technology pedigree (it developed the OLAP technology that Microsoft first incorporated into its SQL Server 7.0 database) trumpets its own Microsoft-only credentials. In fact, instead of diversifying away from SQL Server, Panorama remains determinedly Microsoft-centric.

Such a strategy has been the kiss of death for several long-forgotten companies, given Microsoft’s rapacious appetite for new markets and revenues. Still, Lee Ho, vice-president of worldwide marketing with Panorama, says his company likes where it is. SQL Server is a great foundation on which to build a top-notch BI platform, he says, and there’s some history to suggest that Panorama won’t become just another notch in Microsoft’s mergers-and-acquisitions bedpost.

I know that ProClarity, another long-time, Microsoft-only play, has tried to branch out with its latest offerings, but I understand that Panorama is still hewing pretty closely to its Microsoft roots. Is that Microsoft-only focus going to be your strategy for the foreseeable future, too?

We are a 100 percent pure-play Microsoft partner. We don’t support any other back ends, and we offer a full desktop client as well as very high performance server. We [integrate] with Excel as well, [and integrate] with SharePoint [Microsoft’s enterprise portal offering]. We don’t anticipate that [focus] changing. In fact, [this year] we will be making a couple of announcements where there were incumbents like Business Objects and Cognos running in the back end, where Microsoft and Panorama came in and displaced them.

When I think of Microsoft and business intelligence, forgive me, but I often think of the low-to-midrange sector of the market. Not the high-end. Is that the case with Panorama’s own target markets as well?

We actually mostly sell into the upper midmarket to large enterprise [markets]—companies like [payroll processing specialist] ADP.

Are you selling into the line-of-business in these mid-market and large enterprise accounts, or are you actually having some success on a company-wide basis—even as a corporate standard for business intelligence?

It’s really both. We sell into the line of business. We’re selling into sales, marketing, finance, and HR. ADP is an Oracle shop that really liked the value that [Microsoft’s OLAP] Analysis Services brought, so even in non-traditional Microsoft environments, we’ve had some success. But, yes, we’re primarily selling to the line-of-business, so what we’re finding today is that a lot of companies are actually standardizing on one business intelligence platform for the whole company. In the past, a lot of companies who have bought multiple vendors, multiple solutions, but now a lot of them are standardizing on a single platform. They’re attracted to the value that we provide.

Your value as a Microsoft-only solution?

Yes. The value that we provide is that we run on top of the Microsoft platform, so you get that lower TCO, and the solution is integrated. But customers don’t have to choose between the better performance of a Cognos or a Business Objects to get lower TCO and integration. We’re better, faster, and cheaper. It’s a better integrated technology, we’re faster to deploy, and it is considerably cheaper, when you’re looking at all of the functionality you get with [SQL Server].

You’ve talked a lot about Business Objects and Cognos, but—either because you both target the same markets, or because you’re both more or less synonymous with Microsoft’s BI play—ProClarity is really your biggest competitor, right?

ProClarity is our closest competitor in terms of BI solutions that are on top of the Microsoft stack.

So how do you differentiate yourself from them?

Our greatest differentiation, and really that differentiation comes from companies that have chosen us over ProClarity—which, by the way, is a great solution, as a company that’s competing in a highly dense market, you couldn’t choose a better competitor than ProClarity—where we’re seeing wins is in large scale deployments. We have implementations today where there’s anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 users. We’ll be announcing in 2005 a deployment where there’s going to be more than 40,000 seats deployed.

So you’re really targeting a different market segment than them, then?

The companies that turn to us are the companies that want to deploy out to a large number of users. They want to deploy over the Web, they want something that’s easy to use, as well as those integrated capabilities—the dashboards, the [key performance indicators].

So the same companies that are also contested by Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion, SAS, and others?

Yes. As I mentioned, we will soon be announcing some cases where we have actually displaced Business Objects and Cognos.

But Business Objects and Cognos run on a range of different database environments, not just SQL Server. If you’re targeting these customers, doesn’t your SQL Server-only requirement often become a drawback of sorts?

We actually never run into that issue or that problem. The universe that we go after, and the universe that we service the most, these are companies that have already chosen to go with the SQL Server platform, because they already are a SQL [Server-]only shop, or because they’re standardizing on it.

Some folks might say that there’s not much of a future in partnering so exclusively with Microsoft … that the software giant has something of a reputation for—pardon the imagery—devouring its partners. What’s your take on that?

“What about Microsoft? Are they friend or foe?” That’s a question we get all the time.

The way that we look at it, in fact, is that we’ve been a partner of Microsoft for a while now. When they acquired our server technology back in 1996, a client existed, and they could have taken over that by releasing [a client] of their own. But they didn’t. Where Microsoft has focused its BI attentions is to provide a platform … on which to build business intelligence solutions, and [that’s] where ISVs like Panorama [can work].

So what you’re getting with Microsoft is great breadth of platform. But in order to make that platform useful for the end user [and] the business user, you have to have applications with depth. As Microsoft adds more functionality to their platform, someone could say that they’re competing against you, but you need to remember that the needs of the end user continue to grow. And users will always need application depth to go along with the breadth of their platform.

Some might say that SQL Server 2005 delivers quite a bit of breadth, what with its substantially revamped ETL, analysis, data mining, and reporting components. Is there any point where you look at what Microsoft’s doing with SQL Server as a competitive threat of sorts?

I don’t think so, because there’s always an opportunity to add value to what they’re doing. For every announcement and every release that [Microsoft] has had around business intelligence, Panorama always looks at those as opportunities to add enhanced functionality. So every time Microsoft comes out with a release, we’re usually an early adopter if not the first companies to come out with a solution that sits on top of it. When they announced Reporting Services, we were one of the first companies to come out with a solution that sits on top of it. We also directly integrated analytics directly into Reporting Services. And we’ve always found a way to enhance those.

Microsoft has SQL Server 2005 prepped for release later on this year. What do you have on tap, product release-wise, for 2005?

We’re currently on our [Panorama] 4.0 release, which we announced last year, which was again our integrated analytics reporting and dashboards. We will have another release (4.5) coming at the end of this quarter, and our version 5, which is also slated to come out this year, will coincide with SQL Server 2005. It’s 100 percent .NET, both on the server and the client-side. We’re taking advantage of a lot of different features with Yukon, like the [Universal Data Model] because of the data model it provides, the universal access it provides to multiple resources, and to kind of bring all of that together.

About the Author

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

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