Users Declare: Thumbs Up (Mostly) For Microsoft’s BI Stack

Microsoft’s push into business intelligence (BI) client tools is primed for success, say users, largely because SQL Server 2005 gets just about everything right.

Make no mistake about it: Users are excited about Microsoft Corp.’s aggressive business intelligence (BI) push.

BI pros—or BI pros in Microsoft-centric technology shops, anyway—think Microsoft’s Office-based BI strategy could do for business intelligence front-end tools what SQL Server and its all-in-one BI stack have done for the business intelligence back-end. More to the point, many say, Microsoft’s push into BI client tools is primed for success largely because SQL Server 2005 gets everything—or just about everything—right.

SQL Server 2005 was a culminating release for Microsoft. And after eight months of putting the new database through its paces, many shops have deployed (or are very close to deploying) it in production environments. Two important drivers are improved scalability and availability, BI pros say, but another is SQL Server 2005’s formidable BI stack.

“In the enterprise in general, organizations are just starting to see the value in Microsoft’s BI solution,” says Mark Hill, an independent BI consultant and a former BI architect with Reuters. “I am seeing a lot of people moving from Oracle and other systems to the [Microsoft] stack. The reasons for doing this seem to be driven by the perceived maturity in [SQL Server] 2005 for enterprise solutions. Prior to this it was difficult to implement systems based on [SQL Server] 2000 that were highly scalable.”

That’s a perspective echoed by Chris Brandsma, a senior programmer and analyst with services and application development specialist Tree Top Technology. “Most of the organizations that I work with are very dependent on the Microsoft BI stack, but few are using all of their products. There is still a lot of Oracle in the RDBMS system, with Microsoft Analysis Services as the main engine for the reporting,” he comments.

At his current assignment, Brandsma says, a SQL Server 2005 roll-out may be just around the corner. “We are using SQL Server 2000 and we are looking to migrate to SQL Server 2005.” One impetus for doing so, Brandsma says, is his client’s dependence on Microsoft Analysis Services (AS). Unfortunately, AS and SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services don’t get along very well with one another, says Brandsma: “We do not use [Reporting Services] with Analysis Services because it has too many limitations with OLAP data. It is almost impossible to get an Analysis Services report to look correct in Reporting Services.”

Microsoft’s new SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services promises to address this issue, at least in part, by delivering improved support for multidimensional reporting, along with a new Report Builder authoring tool, too. Brandsma likes what he sees here and elsewhere in the substantially retooled SQL 2005, including Microsoft’s almost completely redesigned SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS, nee, Data Transformation Services, or DTS).

But he cautions, too, that Microsoft didn’t quite hit the ball out of the park with SSIS. “We are heavy users of DTS and [of] other UNIX-based tools. I am excited about the new features in [SQL Server Integration Services], but I am also sad to see many of the same limitations in [the former] DTS are still there in MSIS, [such as] no easy way to call a [Integration Services] package from SQL Server stored procedure, no built in [support for] RSS.”

Brandsma’s largely positive take is seconded by Hall. He lauds the revamped Analysis Services—“Microsoft OLAP is the king of OLAP products as far as I am concerned,” he says—and also commends SSIS, which he says is so different from DTS as to not merit a comparison. Reporting Services, on the other hand, still needs some work—particularly with respect to its multidimensional reporting capabilities. “Reporting services still has issues in terms of easy report generations, especially multi-dimensional; it also suffers from not having an interface that is any good for end users to develop their own reports.”

In Praise of ProClarity, Revisited

Joey Pruett, a veteran of ProClarity and a former BI specialist with Boise-area not-for-profit Healthwise, has a keen perspective on Microsoft’s BI powerplay. Both of his previous employers were heavily dependent on Microsoft’s SQL Server BI stack and (in the case of Healthwise, at least) a related ecosystem of SQL Server-oriented BI front-end tools, Pruett says.

“ProClarity and Healthwise were both absolutely dependent on SQL Server 2000 and are looking toward the future with SQL Server 2005. It was the primary RDBMS at both companies, and Healthwise did their best to fully utilize AS, Business Scorecard Accelerator, and SharePoint,” he comments.

SQL Server’s BI feature set has long been bet-your-business bankable and became, if anything, even more so with the release of SQL Server 2005, Pruett says. What’s historically been missing, he argues, has been a SQL Server-like polish on the front-end.

That’s why Pruett—who expects to start work as a BI Analyst at another Boise-based tech giant, Micron Technology Inc., this month --says he’s ecstatic about Microsoft’s purchase of ProClarity. “I'm doing extra high, double back flips of excitement over the [Microsoft] ProClarity acquisition. I think it's great for everybody—except [Microsoft’s] competitors. Yes, get it into office, get analytics to everybody, and broaden the out-of-the-box KPI and calculation offerings.”

Not that Microsoft has a completely irredeemable track record in the BI front-end tools segment. There’s Excel, for starters, which is probably the most ubiquitous BI tool in use today. But Pruett also highlights Microsoft’s Business Scorecard Accelerator, a free-for-use forerunner to BSM which marked, arguably, Microsoft’s first foray into end user analytics.

When he was at Healthwise, he would have preferred to use BSM or ProClarity Desktop Professional, Pruett says, but had to make due with BSA because of budgetary concerns. He found it to be a workable, if somewhat kludgey, solution. “[BSA] was used at Healthwise because it was free and interfaced with SharePoint. Business Scorecard Manager was too expensive for Healthwise and I would have recommended ProClarity's dashboarding and KPI offerings had we made a purchase. BSA was surprisingly functional and flexible for our uses but was much too hard to edit and maintain compared to the ProClarity solutions.”

In many respects, Microsoft-centered BI pros say, Excel, too, makes for a kludgey BI tool—at least when it comes to full-bore analysis. “[A] few [clients] do use the Excel Pivot tables, but by and large, we use a mixture of third-party tools for our front-end analysis,” says Brandsma. “People still like doing data analysis in Excel, but typically that is an export function because most of the current Excel add-ins for Analysis Services are too rigid in their data layouts.”

That’s why Brandsma, too, says he’s excited about what ProClarity brings to the table. “ProClarity… has also stagnated in the past few years. I'm hoping Microsoft can pump some fresh blood into the product and bring it back the leadership role it had. This could easily be a win-win for consumers and BI professionals like myself by creating a more standard client platform to use, and giving customers more reassurance in picking, or staying with ProClarity, in the future,” he comments, noting that Microsoft’s PerformancePoint product is as much homegrown as it is based on ProClarity’s middleware assets.

This raises questions about areas of overlap between Microsoft’s Office-based BI tools approach and ProClarity’s own front-end studio, ProClarity Desktop Professional. “Since PerformancePoint is now out in the open as a Web-based product using many of the features in the ProClarity Analysis Services, it will be more interesting to see what Microsoft does with ProClarity's desktop product and how/if that will interact with Office,” concludes Brandsma.

He isn’t the only one asking this question, by the way. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?ID=8046)

Former BI-architect-cum-consultant Hill, for his part, says Microsoft’s aggressive movement into the BI tools segment is a no-brainer transition for the software giant: It was only a matter of time before Microsoft shifted its attention away from its mostly complete (and, with SQL Server 2005, largely polished) back-end BI stack to its comparatively raw—and mostly gappy—BI front-end offerings.

“[I]t shows what I have suspected for a long time, in that [Microsot] has been missing a trick in not incorporating BI into the Office [feature] set. I expect to see BPM stuff in Office, I suspect we will see a push on real-time BI from the Office team, and I also think we will see Excel become a first class BI client,” he comments, stressing that Excel 2007 isn’t there yet.

BSM was an important release in this respect, Hall says. He sees its uptake and success as a harbinger of what’s to come, too. “We make extensive use of BSM. Integration is the key word here. BSM is not the best at what it does, but it does integrate well with SharePoint and also [with] Microsoft Analysis Services,” he comments. “Again, it’s the strength of the toolset overall that is the compelling factor.” And the all-in-one convenience of Microsoft’s combined toolset could prove to be irresistible to many adopters, Hall predicts. “Have you seen the seat licenses of Cognos, even Proclarity , and all the other BI vendors? To be honest, these guys have had it good and now [that] Microsoft has entered their server market and now their desktop market, of course they will complain.”