Microsoft looks to unlock door to wider BI use

Its new plan: Scale up SQL Server to support larger data warehouses, and use Excel to spread business intelligence to more users.

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

But Microsoft last week detailed a multipronged strategy aimed at scaling up the size of the data warehouses that SQL Server can support into the hundreds of terabytes while also — in the vendor's words — democratizing BI within companies through the use of Excel and other Office applications.

In particular, Excel may turn out to be Microsoft's BI ace in the hole.

The ubiquitous spreadsheet is already the most popular front-end program among business analysts and other workers looking to display and analyze the results of BI queries, said James Kobielus, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

Now, via a self-service analysis project code-named Gemini, Microsoft plans to develop "an Excel-based user analytics mashup tool" designed to make it easier for end users to build their own BI applications, Kobielus said in an e-mail. He called Gemini a "game-changer" for the BI market.

Some IT managers whose companies use SQL Server were also impressed by what they heard about Gemini, which Microsoft plans to ship as part of a BI-oriented release of SQL Server 2008 that is code-named Kilimanjaro.

Lacking Resources

David Smith, CIO at ServiceU Corp., an event management and ticketing services provider in Memphis, said his IT staff has "a limited number of man-hours" that it can devote to BI projects for end users. And he doesn't think ServiceU is alone in that regard.

"Microsoft has correctly determined that the limiting factor for most businesses to implement significant BI projects is the scarcity of IT resources," Smith said. In some cases, that means workers are shut out from using BI tools, he added. But to Smith, Gemini appears to offer a way of making analytic capabilities available on a much broader scale.

Mayur Raichura, vice president of information services at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Chantilly, Va., also thinks that Microsoft's plan will enable more users to analyze data without IT's help.

And Excel's ability to handle millions of rows of data in memory should make it possible for Long & Foster to examine large amounts of data from the company's transaction systems and its Web site search logs, according to Raichura. If so, that will "position us to deliver a better financial analysis in a real-time mode," he said.

At its second annual BI conference, held in Seattle, Microsoft said that a Community Technology Preview (CTP) version of Kilimanjaro and Gemini will become available within a year. Commercial shipments are scheduled to follow in the first half of 2010.

Kilimanjaro is also being designed to support large data warehouses and BI deployments. To help with that, Microsoft detailed another project, code-named Madison, under which it will integrate SQL Server 2008 with technology developed by Datallegro Inc., a data warehousing appliance vendor that Microsoft acquired last month.

Microsoft has plenty of catching up to do with other vendors at the high end of the BI market, Kobielus said. SQL Server typically scales only "into the dozens of terabytes" now, he noted.

The Madison technology will be able to handle workloads involving hundreds of terabytes of data and thousands of users, Microsoft said. The company demonstrated a 150TB database running 24 instances of SQL Server 2008 at the conference. A CTP version is due within 12 months. And Microsoft said it's working with server and storage vendors, including Dell, EMC and Hewlett-Packard, to give users "an appliance-like buying experience."

But even with the addition of Datallegro, Microsoft is well behind rivals such as Teradata Corp. in high-end market share. Curt Monash, an independent database analyst, said that although Datallegro's technology was strong, the appliance vendor had few customers before Microsoft bought it.

Heather Havenstein contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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