Users Laud Microsoft’s Business Intelligence Push

It might spell doom and gloom for vendors, but many BI pros think Microsoft’s BI push is good news for Microsoft-centric BI shops

Earlier this month, Microsoft Corp. outlined a game-changing performance management (PM) strategy that catapults it squarely into competition with the big business intelligence (BI) pure-play vendors. That’s bad news for the BI pure-plays, to be sure, but isn’t it potentially good news for Microsoft-centric BI shops?

Many BI pros say so. Microsoft’s combined value proposition has always been user friendliness and low (or comparatively low) pricing. In this respect, the promise of an Office-branded PM offering—and the likelihood that the former ProClarity Corp.’s BI features (such as analytic, data visualization, and dashboarding capabilities, for starters) will be disseminated throughout the Office suite—excites many Microsoft-centric BI users. They’re already on board with what Microsoft is doing in SQL Server, they say, so the idea of using Office as a BI front-end is, more or less, icing on the cake. Nevertheless, BI pros have concerns, too, starting first and foremost with the packaging of Office itself.

Consider the case of Jerome Poudou, a consultant and technology evangelist with Merkurium, a Canadian BI consultancy. Merkurium markets a Microsoft-centric BI solution for educators that’s based on SharePoint dashboards, SQL Server 2005 and Analysis Services 2005, Reporting Services, and Office 2003. It also recently developed a scorecarding application based on Microsoft’s Business Scorecard Manager (BSM) 2005 product, too. “We are a Microsoft partner and we use nearly all the Microsoft tools. Personally, I have participated in [many of] the beta programs from Microsoft for the last eight years,” he comments.

Merkurium’s is one case in which Microsoft’s SQL Server-centric approach to BI is made to order, Poudou says. “The BI servers from Microsoft cover perfectly our needs. [SQL Server] 2005 … greatly improves our Education solution. Internally and in our [commercial] solution we only use Reporting Services, and we'll use ReportBuilder to allow our users to create their own reports. But with the potential of the [Analysis Services] 2005 cubes, the need for reports has decreased. Currently we don't use the data mining feature, only the OLAP part, but we plan to use this feature in the near future [perhaps in the next] 6 months.”

Poudou also expressed excitement about what ProClarity brings to the table. For starters, he says, it should give Microsoft a Web-based OLAP tool—a feature that’s conspicuously absent from the Analysis Services feature set as it stands today. As for ProClarity’s data visualization, dashboarding, and broader analytic capabilities, he anticipates a possible BI infusion across Microsoft’s Office stack. “I’m just waiting to see how Microsoft will incorporate [ProClarity’s assets] into the rest of the Microsoft [Office] family. But we are still not sure if we'll propose this tool [Performance Point] in our default product package.”

He does air some concerns, of course. First, there’s the possibility of overlap between ProClarity’s native dashboarding capabilities and what Microsoft now offers (and promises to deliver in future versions of) SharePoint. Poudou says he doesn’t believe this will be an enormous problem—if anything, Microsoft could enhance (or further flesh out) its native SharePoint dashboarding capabilities with what ProClarity brings to the table. More vexing, however—especially to Microsoft Certified partners such as Merkurium—is the question of packaging.

“My concern is how Microsoft will package the products. Because our solution is more server-based—[with] data warehouse, OLAP cubes, and reports—we are dependent on which client tools our clients install on their desktops. [So] we have to consider the Microsoft BI strategy in our solution due to our dependency.”

Dino Hsu, a BI professional with the Taiwanese subsidiary of a prominent cosmetics company based in the U.S., is perhaps an atypical SQL Server adopter. His organization didn’t grow its BI practice on the back of SQL Server 2000, for starters, and he came to SQL Server 2005 only after his company (which is primarily an Oracle shop) started exploring the possibility of tapping its improved data mining capabilities. “I got to know SQL Server 2005 only at the beginning of 2006, [because] we are considering [doing] data mining with it. Its OLAP, reporting and integration are impressive—and cost-effective—but unfortunately although [my company’s] global … OLAP [standard] is not clearly defined yet, SQL server 2005 is not one of the candidates,” he explains.

Hsu, too, commented on the conspicuous absence of Microsoft-branded BI front-end tools. “I noticed its lack of BI front-end tools and I have downloaded Office 2007 beta 2 for testing. At present, the local BI front-end market for SQL server is dominated by SQL Analyzer 2005 [from Strategy Companion], which is cheaper than ProClarity, but is still an [expense],” he comments.

In this respect, Hsu suggests, Microsoft’s movement into the BI front-end tools space is almost certainly a good thing—for users, anyway. “I don't think or don't know whether [this will make] Office … more expensive, but I think Microsoft will bring BI and analytics to the broader public, and enlarge but not necessarily dominate the market,” he says.

That’s a point echoed by Poudou, who says the all-in-one attractiveness of Microsoft’s BI stack could prove irresistible to adopters like Merkurium—provided Redmond fleshes out its Office-based BI toolset with a slick Web-based interface, too. “It’s interesting to have only one suite of client tools. For an analyst, it’s a very useful solution. But for other users, a good Web-based application is required. An IT team doesn’t want to deploy Office on every desktop. I hope that Microsoft will focus more on this side,” he comments. Again, Poudou stresses, it all comes down to packaging: “Not all the users will need the complete BI tools, so how Microsoft will package this?”

But Whither ProClarity?

Andrej Hudoklin, a BI unit manager with a Microsoft-centric provider of BI solutions based in Eastern Europe, expressed mixed feelings about Microsoft’s BI front-end push—at least to the extent that it intersects with (and determines) the fate of ProClarity’s product set. No question, he acknowledges, the infusion of ProClarity’s technology assets will be a boon to Microsoft’s burgeoning BI stack. Hudoklin knows whereof he speaks: he’s not only thoroughly familiar with the workings of Microsoft’s SQL Server-based BI stack, but is well-versed in the use of ProClarity’s BI front-end tools, as well.

“When we talk about BI, myself and the company I work for [are both] very Microsoft-oriented. From the beginning we started with Microsoft OLAP services and immediately also with ProClarity. We partnered with ProClarity almost form the beginning. In all of these years we’ve become one of the biggest BI providers in the country [Slovenia] with several projects throughout Central and Eastern Europe,” he explains.

Hudoklin’s company adopted ProClarity almost out of necessity, he concedes: Microsoft has never offered exemplary BI front-end tools, after all, in spite of several halting steps in that direction.

“The thing is that we all know that Office never had any good tools for OLAP. There were Pivot tables and that is it. Along with that Microsoft developed an OLAP add-in for MapPoint, [which is] the best thing so far, but the problem was that this is just one way of visualizing data,” he comments. “And now we are at Microsoft Office 2007, where Excel is a whole new product—but still not a tool for analysis. Microsoft is continuously pushing Excel as an advanced analytical tool, but it is not. Excel is very good to use, but when you’ve already made a report/analysis in another tool and then you export it to Excel for further calculations….”

Hudoklin’s ellipsis is rhetorical. In situations like that, he says, Microsoft-centric BI adopters almost invariably turned to Microsoft-based BI ISVs—companies such as ProClarity or Panorama Software. And that’s the rub for Hudoklin: if ProClarity worked—and worked well—why change it? “This is why ProClarity is in my opinion the best tool for Microsoft OLAP. They offered us very integrated tools with Microsoft OLAP and Office as well, [and] Excel was still an important tool [for the] whole cycle of analyzing data. Why don't they stay with that [approach]?” he asks. “The biggest worry I have is what will eventually happen with ProClarity Desktop Professional? Will it disappear? Probably.”

Or—to put it another way—why is Microsoft pushing Excel as its go-to tool for analysis instead of just repackaging ProClarity’s Desktop Professional? This does a disservice to existing ProClarity users, Hudoklin says, and also asks Excel to perform in a role for which it wasn’t really designed in the first place.

“[W]hat will happen to Desktop Professional? ProClarity is about to release version 6.2 and in the fall of this year [plans to release] another new version. But we have to be clear that these two [releases] will be only slightly improved versions of ProClarity 6.1. After that will we not see any more new development?” he asks.

In spite of his misgivings about the fate of ProClarity Desktop Professional, Hudoklin lauds Microsoft’s decision to fold ProClarity’s middleware pieces into its forthcoming PerformancePoint Server product. This helps buttress ProClarity’s Analytic Server, Dashboard Server, Business Logic Server and Publishing Server with much-needed planning and forecasting capabilities.

“So far [it looks as if] PerformancePoint Server will be a very good substitute for the … ProClarity server environments, with additional planning and budgeting functionality that ProClarity didn't have,” Hudoklin concludes. “This was one of the biggest weaknesses of ProClarity, that it didn't have any planning, budgeting, forecasting tool….So, this will be a step forward.”