Microsoft's BI Roadshow: Products, Projects, and Promises

Microsoft hit the road last month to talk up PerforrmancePoint, Gemini, and other aspects of Microsoft BI -- and to promise a solution to Microsoft's missing metadata management strategy.

On the heels of a much-publicized shake-up of its business intelligence (BI) and performance management (PM) portfolio earlier this year, Microsoft Corp. last month took to the road to meet with journalists, bloggers, and other opinion makers.

The purpose, officials said, was chiefly to talk about Microsoft BI -- what the company has up its sleeves with Project Gemini (its column-store-on-a-desktop, end-user analytic workbench), Project Madison (its massively parallel processing -- MPP -- version of SQL Server 2008), and other aspects of Microsoft's BI universe. The company also took the opportunity to revisit the case for deconstructing the erstwhile PerformancePoint Server. Moreover, representatives solicited feedback about both the PerformancePoint reshuffling and Microsoft's BI strategy in general.

Intriguingly, officials said that Redmond is currently working on a solution to its missing metadata strategy. Although representatives steadfastly declined to commit to a timetable, they promised that help is, indeed, on the way.

PerformancePoint Recap

Three months ago, Microsoft disclosed its plan to effectively kill PerformancePoint Server by folding that product's constitutive components into the SharePoint Server and Microsoft Dynamics product lines. At the time, some in the industry interpreted Redmond's move as a withdrawal or retrenchment -- as evidence, in effect, of Microsoft's effectively exiting the budgeting and planning market (see http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=9289).

Two months later, Redmondites were still pushing back against this impression.

"We've had to have some tough conversations with customers that have certainly invested a lot from the planning perspective," confirms Guy Weismantel, director of marketing with Microsoft Business Intelligence.

At the same time, Weismantel contends, most customers seemed to take the announcement in stride, chiefly (he maintains) because the bulk of adopters are using PerformancePoint for its dashboarding and scorecarding capabilities; shops that tap PerformancePoint for its planning features are in a distinct minority, Weismantel asserts.

"At least three-quarters of our customers were using it primarily for the dashboarding and scorecarding functionality. That's not to diminish some very notable, large, Fortune 10 customers that were using it for planning." For the vast majority of customers, Weismantel contends, Microsoft's decision to apportion PerformancePoint between SharePoint and Dynamics should prove to be negligible disruption.

"Given that it was a version 1.0 product, it had been on the market for over a year, even in [these] large [i.e., Fortune 10] organizations, it was mostly a departmental deployment," he says.

Unlike dashboarding or scorecarding adopters (who will receive SharePoint licenses), planning customers won't receive free Dynamics licenses, Weismantel acknowledges. "No, they're not getting licenses for Dynamics. That's a separate licensing model. But the overwhelming majority of customers will get like-to-like licenses for SharePoint."

Most PerformancePoint customers are "excited" about this, according to Weismantel. "The response for the most part has been tremendous. Customers tell us, 'Great, I can take advantage of SharePoint -- are you saying I can accelerate this and get BI out to more people?'

"Likewise, [there's] the downstream effect of existing SharePoint customers saying 'Now I have dashboarding, scorecarding, and even some planning capabilities that I didn't have before,'" he continues. "This isn't to minimize the fact that for the planning customers, there was initial pain and confusion. But [for these customers] there's one more Service Pack release, [on] October 15th [2009] -- that will be the final release of the planning standalone application."

PerformancePoint user John Workman, a senior manager for performance management with buying cycle optimization specialist RedPrairie, largely corroborates Weismantel’s account. RedPrairie was both an early and an aggressive PerformancePoint adopter; two years ago it decided to develop its new revenue-generating application, RedPrairie Performance Management, on top of a then-green PerformancePoint Server 2007.

Workman sees Microsoft’s move as an unalloyed good for RedPrairie. He says the SharePoint licensing model is both cheaper and more flexible, although he concedes that customers that adopted PerformancePoint chiefly for its planning features probably don’t have a similarly salutary take.

“I understand why users of the PerformancePoint Planning application are concerned about this change, but as a monitoring and analytics user, I could not be more pleased,” he told Enterprise Strategies. “Prior to this move, we were deploying PerformancePoint into Windows SharePoint Services, mainly to keep the cost down. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server [MOSS] has a lower price point than PerformancePoint Server. By moving PerformancePoint into MOSS, we are able to provide more features and functionality for a lower cost. This lower cost is seen in both the server and client access ... licenses. In some cases, our clients already have MOSS licenses, which translates to no additional Microsoft license cost to use PerformancePoint.”

The cheaper SharePoint licensing model has been a boon to RedPrairie in other respects, Workman continues. “This change also allows us to broaden our focus. The cost of CAL licenses prior to this change was a bit prohibitive to give to every member of a large organization. We focused our RedPrairie Performance Management [RPM] product on key analysts and middle to upper management. In cases where everyone in the organization has a CAL license for MOSS, we can now look at expanding RPM to include the entire organization.”

That being said, Workman concedes that Microsoft’s announcement did trigger some initial confusion. “We have had to work through various scenarios where clients already have SharePoint and/or PerformancePoint and determine how the new license agreement applies to them,” he says. “In all cases, it has worked out to the advantage of our clients. This change has brought significant savings.”

On the planning side, experts say, things are much more complicated. First, says a TDWI instructor who spoke on condition of anonymity, planning customers effectively got burned. “They spent resource time to develop [applications], train people. and so on,” this professional says, adding that at least one PerformancePoint planning user at TDWI recent Spring World conference in Chicago expressed frustration with Microsoft’s move.

“From a licensing point of view, it is good and generous that such users gain SharePoint licenses. They get more with SharePoint than just dashboards and scorecards of course,” this professional adds. “Keep in mind that the dashboard and scorecard modules, though, are only in the enterprise edition, so for smaller customers who bought the standard edition, it’s not really relevant.”

Although Microsoft (and some users) make a strong case on the licensing front, this professional points to other, not-so-obvious costs. “[T]he stronger analysis capabilities are still in ProClarity [i.e., the analysis module of PerformancePoint], which has not yet been fully integrated, so for full functionality, customers have to deploy multiple servers. Licensing is only one part of cost of ownership.”

Gemini on Track

Weismantel seems especially sanguine about Microsoft's upcoming Project Gemini deliverable, which is slated to ship next year.

For one thing, he points out, the industry seems to be trending -- breaking, even -- in Gemini's direction: BI pure-plays QlikTech Inc. and Lyzasoft Inc., along with open source software (OSS) vendor JasperSoft, now field back-to-the-desktop BI offerings (see http://www.tdwi.org/Publications/display.aspx?Id=9373). All such offerings share a single goal, according to Weismantel: to better service Excel honchos by enabling ("empowering," seems to be the word-de-rigeueur in this regard) them to service themselves.

"We are clearly going to reach new users with this. There's absolutely no doubt. We're not saying that the Excel novice who just turns on the computer is going to all of a sudden understand how to use a Pivot Table; there's no claim to that," he avers. "We're targeting the information worker who is responsible for projects and tasks and figuring out information on their own, who's familiar with Excel -- [they're] the ones who are really going to benefit from that."

There's another wrinkle here: enabled users translate into happy users -- which translates into a happier IT department. "The corollary to that is that we've heard a lot of feedback from the IT suite. Speaking at the CIO Summit that we had at the Microsoft campus a few weeks ago, [CIOs] are kind of supercharged up about [this self-service ideal] with all of the projects that they have backlogged right now," he explains. "The most mundane request that IT gets is [for] different views of information. When the user gets a report, it's pretty static, and they say 'I'd really like to see it this way -- can you add this column or this data table?' [Gemini] is designed to let [users] do this kind of stuff for themselves."

Gemini and similar back-to-the-desktop tools aren't targeting a new class of user, Weismantel indicates; instead, they aim to better service an existing subset of users: folks who aren't business analysts but who are frequent Excel users. "You go down the line on this continuum, from the analyst … to this person who just wants to ask questions of the data. [This is] … someone who wants to find trends within their customers or to pinpoint which products they should be focusing on. They're taking millions of rows and putting it into Excel [and identifying] it's these five customers and these five stores that we need to go after. So that's a sales person or a regional manager that's going to be able to go after that information," he says.

At the same time, Microsoft outlines a new use case for self-service -- employees at remote or satellite locations that are poorly served by corporate IT: "There's also been a lot of interest from satellite campuses and other people who work remotely who say, 'I'm not connected to IT; I don't even know a face [in IT].'"

Weismantel also tries to differentiate between Gemini -- which he says offers a manageable take on back-to-the-desktop BI -- and competitive offerings from Lyza and QlikView, which (he maintains) give short shrift to the issues of data management and data centralization. Gemini analyses can both be brought back into SQL Server -- such that they can be incorporated into an over-arching data management practice -- published via SharePoint, and catalogued using Microsoft's FAST enterprise search technology, he points out (see http://www.tdwi.org/News/display.aspx?id=9386).

"We certainly want that tie back in [to SQL Server and SharePoint]. That's crucial from our perspective because we don't want to just have [Gemini] be an end-user tool with slice and dice. The goal is, once we have something, [i.e.] the analysis, let's bring this back in, so we want there to be a mechanism to import that back into the corporate data so it can be searched on," Weismantel indicates. "The other part of this is search, so we're putting Enterprise Search on top of that. Then allowing the user to say, 'Here's a Gemini document, here's an analysis, here's a third-party report, here's the universe of information.'"

Hints about Metadata, but No Specifics

Microsoft has a trifurcated BI strategy, with its efforts divided between the Office, SharePoint, and SQL Server development teams. Unfortunately, the metadata that's generated by any one of these products isn't portable to (i.e., directly consumable by) its BI kith, such that users have to tap homegrown or third-party tools to reconcile or manage metadata in Microsoft BI environments (see http://esj.com/articles/2009/01/28/microsofts-performancepoint-shakeup.aspx).

Weismantel says Microsoft is working on a solution to this problem -- although (in spite of repeated prodding) he declines to go into specifics.

"It's definitely on the radar screen. I can't get into too many details, as we're not even in the disclosure window around some of the things we're doing in master data management and other services. But there's a strong realization across Microsoft in that we want customers to know that it's something we're concerned about and that it's not bifurcated," he comments.

What exactly does Microsoft have in mind? Perhaps a unified metadata management component that lives in SQL Server and which is exposed (as a service) by SharePoint and Office? Weismantel declines to comment, promising that Redmond will have more to say in the second half of this year. He did disclose that Microsoft's still-percolating metadata management effort will encompass both its MDM and search assets.

"We're utilizing both [technologies]. We'll have more to say on this in the near future and get into the second half of the year," he promises.