Microsoft's (un)secret weapon for winning the BI battle

Ubiquitous Excel to be tied more closely to SQL Server and back-end BI tools

SQL Server may be one of the most popular databases today, but Microsoft Corp. nevertheless remains a laggard in the business intelligence market. It ranked just fifth among BI vendors last year, according to research firm IDC.

But as Microsoft gets serious about BI, it has an ace that turns out to have been hiding in plain sight all along.

The software maker's ubiquitous spreadsheet Excel is already the most popular front-end program used by business analysts and others who want to analyze and display the results of their BI queries, according to Forrester Research Inc. analyst James Kobielus.

Microsoft had done some work to tie Excel closely to SQL Server and its other back-end BI tools, such as PerformancePoint Server or SharePoint Server.

With its just-announced Project Gemini, that will greatly accelerate. Microsoft aims to "bring an Excel-based user analytics mashup tool into the core of Microsoft's BI and data warehousing product portfolio," wrote Kobielus in an e-mail. What is now only in "the hands of OLAP data modelers" and other highly trained staff will -- as Community Technology Previews roll out to public beta testers late next year -- become available to any company employee as an "in-memory, drag-and-drop, pivot-table-enabled" dashboard, Kobielus wrote.

Excel isn't the only client application Microsoft plans to leverage. Users will be able to access BI query results from Microsoft's Dynamics 2009 ERP application, according to Tom Casey, Microsoft's general manager for SQL Server business intelligence. Internet Explorer will also be used to deliver Microsoft's vision of "pervasive BI," said Kobielus.

"Yes, other BI vendors (e.g., IBM Cognos, QlikTech, TIBCO/Spotfire, SAP Business Objects) have in-memory BI/OLAP tools, but none of them offers the synthesis of Excel integration, ad hoc self-service analytics authoring, collaborative publishing and sharing, and managed IT governance that Microsoft will provide under Project Gemini," Kobielus said. "This is a game-changer for the BI and OLAP space, and will usher in the post-OLAP age of supremely versatile, deeply dimensional, user-developed analytics."

Microsoft is starting to bang that drum.

"Other companies talk about features that are like Excel; we talk about Excel," said Stephen Elop, president of Microsoft Business Division, which oversees Office and Excel. Elop was the keynote speaker yesterday at Microsoft's BI conference in Seattle.

Leveraging Excel to make BI so easy that it is virtually "self-service" isn't the only thing Microsoft is doing to make waves in the data warehousing market.

Through integration of technology from its recent acquisition of DATAllegro Inc., Microsoft is building a BI-focused version of SQL Server 2008 called Project Madison. According to Kobielus, the DATAllegro-powered version of SQL Server 2008, when it is released in the first half of 2010, should be able to scale out to "hundreds of compute/storage nodes" and store as much as one petabyte of data or more.

Microsoft showed off a preliminary version of Madison yesterday that included a 150TB database running 24 separate instances of SQL Server 2008.

Microsoft has plenty of catching up to do, said Kobielus. He added that while current versions of SQL Server 2008 can "only scale into the dozens of terabytes," others such as Teradata, Oracle, IBM, Sybase as well as data warehousing appliance vendors such as Netezza and Greenplum "have already scaled to the hundreds of terabytes or petabytes."

Independent database analyst Curt Monash said that although DATAllegro's scale-out technology is strong, the company had few actual customers compared to competitors before Microsoft bought it in August.

"Teradata is still the champion of scale-out," he wrote in an e-mail. "Strong contenders include Greenplum, Netezza, HP, Aster Data, Microsoft and Oracle."

Microsoft also claims that the worsening economy could prove a boon, as companies look for cheaper, easier-to-roll-out products over traditionally high-priced BI tools.

Monash said that data warehousing "start-ups like Aster Data have ease-of-administration baked in ways the big DBMS vendors can only dream about. But the big guys have tools Aster won't match for years. It remains to be seen which factor is more important."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon