Microsoft’s PerformancePoint Server Coming into Focus
With PerformancePoint, Microsoft has a plausible reason to crow.
Microsoft Corp.’s PerformancePoint Server 2007 offering might still be incubating, but it’s not as if the software giant ever shied away from trumpeting soon-and-inevitably-to-be-hatched-products in the past. And with last week’s release of a new PerformancePoint Community Technology Preview (CTP), Microsoft has at least a plausible reason to crow.
PerformancePoint, Redmond’s long-awaited performance management (PM) entry, could do for PM what SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) did for OLAP and reporting, respectively: take it mainstream. Last week, Microsoft officials outlined PerformancePoint licensing and pricing information, discussed the fate of the former ProClarity Corp.’s assets (a number of which have been incorporated into PerformancePoint), talked up the mainstreaming of PM in general, and seemed confident that Microsoft will deliver its inaugural PM suite on time—in the second half of 2007.
Microsoft announced PerformancePoint a couple of months after it acquired ProClarity in April of 2006. This helped raise expectations for Redmond’s inaugural PM suite, in part because ProClarity brought so much to the table, especially in terms of analytic, dashboard, and data visualization capabilities. Microsoft officials, for their part, concede that ProClarity’s assets comprise an important portion of PerformancePoint, but stress that Redmond developed a lot of the PerformancePoint technology in-house, too.
"The product has been under development for a number of years. Really, it’s an application to help you improve the business process of performance management," says Michael Smith, director of marketing for Microsoft’s Office Business Applications Group. "Analyzing that performance, that’s where the ProClarity acquisition came in. We’ve been building out the underlying platform that those features sit in or hang off of. So we’ve incorporated the server-side aspects of ProClarity into PerformancePoint."
One upshot of this, Smith says, is that Microsoft plans to push its Office applications as client front-ends for PerformancePoint. "We’re continuing to use Office as a front-end for the application. Most of the visualization you’ll see is using Excel for submitting budgets and plans, or SharePoint for rendering dashboards, or Excel for analytics. Most of the ProClarity stuff is really going to be in the back-end, on the server," Smith confirms.
Excel, in particular, has long comprised Microsoft’s de facto BI front-end. Finance officers, planners, analysts, power users, and even many business executives interact with Excel as their client of choice. Business users have been working with spreadsheets in one form or another for more than two decades. Certainly, newer, sexier tools have come along, but Excel—and better-than-spreadsheet-spreadsheet alternatives from Actuate Corp. and Applix Corp., to name just two—is still going strong.
In PerformancePoint, Smith says, Excel will again be the go-to client for most analysis and even data visualization.
"We’ll have basically an Excel add-in that we use, so you can really think of Performance Point as almost putting Excel on top of a database," he comments. "We’ll use the Excel grid for creating things like budget forms and templates, but when you save information, the server will actually take information out of the spreadsheet UI and write it back into the SQL Server database."
How will PerformancePoint fit into Microsoft’s rapidly expanding BI stack? Or, to put it another way, does Redmond see PerformancePoint as more of a discrete performance management offering? Or is it more an integral part of the SQL Server- and Office-powered BI portfolio? Call it the best of both worlds.
"Microsoft has been making significant investments in its business intelligence product stack. The base of that stack is really SQL Server, which for us is our business intelligence platform. We also have another set of capabilities in the Office and the end-user platform, in Excel 2007 and SharePoint," Smith indicates. "What we’re doing with PerformancePoint is taking those two platforms and building on them a set of applications that are geared toward solving a business problem. We use SQL Server in the back end, we use Office in the front end, and PerformancePoint has specific business logic around things like budgeting and planning performance and scorecarding."
In the back-end and elsewhere, PerformancePoint will tap ProClarity’s analytic and data visualization capabilities. "The real strength of bringing ProClarity into PerformancePoint is going to be the ability to set up a target or budget number, view some results, and just right click on top of that and go right into analytics at that point," he says. "We’ll have ProClarity-like [data] visualization in the thin [SharePoint-powered] environment; we’ll also allow people to maybe do it in Excel, if the Excel format or template is going to be a better way to render that data. There’ll also be an option to export directly to Reporting Services."
ProClarity isn’t going away, however. Microsoft plans to support it for a decade, Smith says, and Redmond will also resell the classic ProClarity products to customers who, for whatever reason, don’t wish to upgrade. "If you’re a ProClarity customer, and you’re current on maintenance, you’ll get a one:one upgrade to PerformancePoint at no additional charge," Smith says. "We will be supporting the ProClarity product for 10 years, as is consistent with Microsoft’s policies, and you can continue to buy the product as-is going forward, too."
As for PerformancePoint, Microsoft plans to license it using its traditional single server and single client access license (CAL) model. That’s the same model Microsoft uses with Office, for example, and it gives users access to PerformancePoint’s integrated PM, scorecarding, analytics, planning, budgeting, forecasting, consolidation and financial reporting features. At this point, Smith demurs, Microsoft isn’t ready to talk about a software-as-a-service (SaaS) SaaS or subscription-based variant of PerformancePoint.
"There’s been a lot of discussion publicly about SaaS and how it’s an important area for investment, [but] what we [at the Office group] do in this area with [PerformancePoint] is something aligned with what the rest of the company is doing, and my guess is that over the next 12 months you’re going to see more detail [about] that, and we’ll probably be able to tell you more then," he says.
Once PerformancePoint appears, Microsoft’s existing PM offering, Business Scorecard Manager (BSM) 2005, will cease to exist—as a discrete product, that is. "What we’ve announced is that both ProClarity analytics and BSM will basically get rolled into PerformancePoint, so you can basically think of PerformancePoint as BSM 2.0," Smith concludes.
The existing BSM product has a client interface—a "builder" as Smith calls it—that will get rolled into PerformancePoint, as well.
Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.