Microsoft Touts PerformancePoint, Next-Gen SQLServer at Inaugural BI Fete

It’s official: Microsoft has arrived as a BI and PM power.

In the business intelligence (BI) world, a company’s inaugural BI summit can be either a harbinger of acquisition or an indicator of looming (if not de facto) BI superstardom.

Take the former Siebel Systems Inc., for example, which almost never got to host its second BI Summit: it was acquired 12 months after its first-ever BI conference by Oracle Corp.

Microsoft Corp. held its first-ever BI Conference last week in Seattle. It’s a safe bet—let’s call it an all-but-lead-pipe-cinch—that the software giant isn’t going to be acquired anytime soon. So, is Microsoft’s inaugural BI conference a harbinger of its impending business intelligence and performance management (PM) superstardom? Perhaps not.

There’s a case to be made that Redmond has already arrived as a BI and PM power. Microsoft’s first BI conference might have just sealed the deal.

“Our vision is to bring the powerful capabilities of BI to all the people who do information work, and in doing so, democratize access to critical business insight, enabling better business decision-making and stronger performance across your entire organization,” said Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft’s Business Division, in his keynote. “We are revolutionizing the economics of BI by making broad deployment possible through a low per-user price-point and by dramatically improving ease of use.”

One big story out of Microsoft’s fledgling BI event was PerformancePoint Server 2007; it might not be immanent, per se, but it’s certainly imminent: Microsoft plans to ship it by late summer of this year, officials say. That product is currently in its second Community Technology Preview (CTP) go-around, involving some 6,000 users, according to Microsoft officials.

PerformancePoint draws on both Microsoft’s own in-house technology as well as technology assets it acquired from the former ProClarity Corp. Designed to run on top of SQL Server 2005, PerformancePoint comprises Microsoft’s first branded PM offering. It’s also of a piece with Redmond’s ever-expanding BI and PM ambitions: over the last 12 months, officials have outlined a BI and PM vision which places Microsoft at the center of things—powering BI and PM client and server components in the form of SQL Server, PerformancePoint Server, Office 2007, and the SharePoint portal. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?ID=7997)

“We are very focused on integrating into familiar and easy-to-use tools, like the Microsoft Office system, and then using that on top of what you get in terms of trusted data from SQL Server, and now we go further, so that you can think about how to drive corporate decisions, and that’s the domain of PerformancePoint Server,” Raikes indicated. “We go beyond the traditional BI tools and the way in which the vendors provide them in that we think about how to deliver BI inside where your information workers work and collaborate, so a lot of our approach is right within the context of SharePoint.”

More to the point, Microsoft isn’t afraid to admit that it wants it all—the whole software kit-and-kaboodle—from the operating system to the development tools to the BI and PM applications themselves. This isn’t necessarily a new development. (http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?ID=7997), but Microsoft officials seemed to equivocate (or put the matter less starkly) in the past. At last week’s BI Conference, Redmond’s ambition was all but avaricious. “We can deliver the underlying platform, tools, and applications that can help your company leverage BI," Raikes said. “We are very focused on integrating into our tools [i.e., Office] and using that on top of whatever you get from SQL Server.”

There’s a clear sense in which Microsoft has good reason to crow, says James Kobielus, a principal analyst for data management with consultancy Current Analysis. After all, Kobielus points out, PerformancePoint seems to compare pretty favorably (on paper, at least) with competitive offerings from Business Objects SA, Cognos Inc., and Oracle Corp. (which owns the assets of the former Hyperion Solutions Corp.). PerformancePoint’s success is far from a fait accompli, of course. “Microsoft is only a few months away from its promised general availability date for Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, but has not yet put the full-featured product into CTP,” Kobielus points out.

Of course, given Microsoft’s notoriously slippery release schedules, PerformancePoint could still be a long way out. There’s more, too, to worry about, says Kobielus: “Microsoft is delivering … PerformancePoint … into a market with several well-entrenched vendors that have already achieved considerable market share in the enterprise and mid-market segments.”

Ditto for Microsoft’s next-gen SQL Server—code-named “Katmai”—which was also a hot topic at last week’s BI Conference. At this point, Microsoft expects to deliver Katmai sometime next year. Most Microsoft BI pros will remember that Redmond’s SQL Server 2005 database overshot its original release schedule by several years, however. All the same, says Current Analysis’ Kobielus, there’s a sense in which Microsoft might very well execute on its proposed SQL Server timeline. “Recognizing that SQL Server 2005 took too long to come to market, Microsoft has committed to shortening the major version enhancement cycle for coming versions of its flagship DBMS, BI and DI platform, and has presented a plausible roadmap in that regard,” Kobielus points out.

And whenever next-gen SQL Server does appear, it’ll likely be worth the wait. Raikes and other Microsoft officials touted Katmai’s self-tuning, self organizing, and self-management capabilities (broadly grouped under Microsoft’s “SQL Server Always On” banner), as well as its improved support for non-relational or unstructured data types—including multimedia, date and time, and spatial data types. SQL Server 2005 supports such data, but typically in the form of binary large objects (BLOB).

All in all, Kobielus seems impressed by Microsoft’s inaugural BI fete.

“The range of ISVs, SIs and other channel partners at the Microsoft BI Conference that are building enterprise BI/CPM applications on the Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 platform is very impressive,” Kobielus writes. And in PerformancePoint, he says, “Microsoft has a strong solution to contend with formidable foes—most notably, Oracle/Hyperion, SAP/OutlookSoft, and Business Objects/Cartesis—in this increasingly strategic segment. In feature parity, [PerformancePoint] stacks up well against the competition in the core CPM features, including … financial planning, budgeting, forecasting, analytics, scorecards, dashboards and reporting.

Kobielus also praises the strategy by which Microsoft expects to differentiate PerformancePoint from competitive solutions. “In discussing a … platform roadmap for Office PerformancePoint Server that goes beyond the initial CFO focus, Microsoft has differentiated itself from its closest competitors in this niche, none of which have as yet indicated any plans to leverage their CPM platforms into new non-financial analytics opportunities,” he concludes. “Microsoft said it would consider extending the product to add horizontal CPM models for such areas as HR/staffing, sales/marketing and supply chain management, and—through channel partners—for various vertical industries.”

About the Author

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