Users Give PerformancePoint a Big Thumbs-Up (Part 1 of 2)

Many BI pros are already working with PerformancePoint -- some in production -- while still others are anxious to put it through its paces in their environments

Six months ago, Microsoft Corp. unveiled PerformancePoint Server 2007, its first and perhaps ambitious enterprise performance management (PM) product.

PerformancePoint was eagerly anticipated; industry watchers, citing Microsoft's successes in the OLAP and enterprise reporting markets, speculated that PerformancePoint could do much the same thing for PM. Rivals, of course, downplayed PerformancePoint's potential impact, suggesting that, as a first-generation product, it would be both immature and (as a consequence of Microsoft's separate PerformancePoint branding strategy) considerably more expensive than the free Analysis Services and Reporting Services components that ship with SQL Server.

Six months later, the former prediction seems to have prevailed. Microsoft-centric integrators and IT pros are highly enthused about the PerformancePoint product: many are already working with it -- some in production environments -- while others are anxious to put it through its paces in their own environments.

"Combining PerformancePoint Server with Reporting Services and Excel provides a delivery mechanism that encompasses just about everyone in the organization. I find it to be an incredibly powerful tool," Craig Utley, a mentor with Solid Quality Mentors and a former program manager with the SQL Customer Advisory Team at Microsoft, told Enterprise Strategies. Like many PerformancePoint boosters, Utley is a big proponent of Microsoft's all-in-one BI stack.

"I find the current Microsoft BI stack to be the most comprehensive suite out there. Integration Services serves many needs beyond just BI, but for BI it's incredibly flexible. It contains a number of powerful transformations and the ability to write custom transformations in .NET makes it virtually unlimited," he comments.

"Analysis Services allows for the creation of very complex cubes, including ones with fact tables at different levels of granularity. Reporting Services is just one piece of the delivery solution, and I find Microsoft has a great answer to cover the needs of different types of users: Scorecards/dashboards are great for decision makers, reports are useful for the majority of users, and analysts can use either ProClarity or Excel for in-depth analysis."

Ted Miller, a DBA-turned-BI professional who asked that his company not be named, is also enthused about PerformancePoint. Miller's employer was an existing Business Scorecard Manager (BSM) 2005 user that didn't consider deploying PerformancePoint until recently, when Microsoft offered a licensing upgrade for existing BSM users. Given his organization's Microsoft-centric approach to BI, PerformancePoint is a no-brainer, Miller argues.

"BSM 2005 was in my organization when I arrived. People were happy with it and licenses had been purchased. I had read about the new features of [PerformancePoint Server], but it wasn't until Microsoft offered a 1-to-1 licensing upgrade that we decided to deploy," Miller says. "I am currently learning about the new Business Modeler which I am excited about. The Excel integration piece is exciting, but I have not found a use for it yet."

Coming from his developer-focused DBA background, Miller says he's been surprised by the usefulness and usability of Microsoft's all-in-one stack, although he believes that Redmond still needs to ferret out a few existing bugs.

"So far, I have been happy with Microsoft's BI offering. There seem to be some small features which would make life easier from a development standpoint that are missing, but overall I like it very much," he says. "We use Reporting Services, but I find it very buggy and unreliable. We have had to make complex reports into many simpler reports because of the failings of [ReportingServices]. We are currently not doing any data mining, but that will come very soon … [when we] will be analyzing clusters of data."

John Workman, senior manager of performance management with buying cycle optimization specialist RedPrairie, likewise describes himself as an "enthusiastic" user of PerformancePoint. In RedPrairie's case, Workman is helping to deploy the product as a customer-facing PM service.

"We provide software solutions that enable the consumer-driven supply chain, from retail shelf to manufacturing floor, end to end," he explains, adding that RedPrairie's software products include warehouse management, transportation management, task management, workforce management, and store-level inventory and merchandise management offerings.

The company's newest offering -- RedPrairie Performance Management -- is based on SQL Server 2005 and PerformancePoint Server 2007. It provides analytics for both supply chain and retail store operations and merchandising.

Many of RedPrairie's clients are already using some form of PM technology, Workman acknowledges. What does PerformancePoint have that competitive solutions don't?

A whole lot of Microsoft, he says. It boasts superior speed-of-development (thanks to its tight integration with Visual Studio), a short learning curve, excellent integration with third-party data sources (thanks to SQL Server Integration Services, or SSIS), best-in-class Office integration, and best-in-class integration with Microsoft's SharePoint Server.

Indeed, PerformancePoint's integration with SharePoint Server, in particular, strikes Solid Mentors' Utley, who has helped several clients deploy that product in production environments, as one of its strongest features.

"For many customers, they're already sold on SharePoint, so the integration there is a no-brainer," he comments. Some clients are migrating from existing BSM implementations to PerformancePoint, others are deploying a PM application for the first time. "Some use it to replace [a] Business Scorecard Manager or ProClarity implementation. Most are fairly new to delivering such data, so it is [used as] a complement to Excel. I see the primary benefits as a single tool that can deliver data in a variety of formats for different users, and the fact that it is server based."

As is frequently the case with Microsoft products (SSRS is a textbook case in point), initial PerformancePoint adopters are willing to overlook some of the product's first-version shortcomings. In most cases, they stress PerformancePoint Server's many attractive attributes -- such as those Workman points out -- and also note Microsoft's track record of ironing out the kinks over time.

"I cannot point to any real issues, other than the fact that it is a new product. There is a limited amount of documentation available. It's isn't always easy to find answers on the Web, and there are limited books in print," Workman acknowledges. "On the flip side, since it is such a new product with such great potential, Microsoft has put a lot of focus on getting this right, and have provided outstanding support when we have needed it. They have been very helpful with any questions we've had."

Next week we'll take a closer look at PerformancePoint Server 2007 and discuss how companies are deploying it, and what traction the product is getting in non-Microsoft-centric shops.