Whenever you're trying to design a BI solution, one of the first tasks is discovering where the underlying data for your solution resides. If you're lucky, the majority of the data will be held within existing source systems and applications, where it's stored in a well-structured database that you can interrogate to extract the data you need. If you're unlucky, this data will be held in a mishmash of formats and sources, in everything from desktop databases (such as Access) to spreadsheets, flat files, Word documents, and more.
The prevalence of Microsoft Office on users' desktops has lead to data being stored locally within existing documents, giving rise to new technology terms such as "spreadmart" (the equivalent of a data mart, except built with spreadsheets). When it comes time to bring the data from these data sources together, it's almost impossible to track down and incorporate all these bits of information. Although some BI vendors have started to help you consolidate and report from these "desktop" data sources, a much better way to collect and consolidate information is available.
Enter Microsoft InfoPath, the latest member of the Office family and new to the Office 2003 release. InfoPath (formerly known as "XDocs") is designed to help users and administrators gather and consolidate information that may have previously been held in electronic documents or paper forms. Using InfoPath, you can create electronic forms that can collect data and submit it to a variety of back-end data sources and systems, which you can then use for the basis of your BI solution.
InfoPath is targeted primarily at Office "power users" who may have used spreadsheets, documents, and other forms to gather information. Instead of manually collecting and consolidating this information, they can now create electronic forms to do a large part of the work for them. The other target audience is application developers who have previously used custom Web forms or applications to gather data they can now quickly develop forms to capture this information in a fraction of the time it would have taken to create and maintain a custom application.
When you install InfoPath, a number of sample forms are included (including expense reports, timesheets, and more.) so you can immediately start using the product. When designing your own forms, you can either create them from scratch or use one of the sample forms as a template. When you design a form, you'll be able to specify where you want to put the data that is entered at the most basic level you can create forms that simply save the form results to an XML document, which can then by used in other systems or applications.
A consolidation feature lets you consolidate data from multiple forms into one XML file, and an export feature lets you export form data to Excel. So power users who have basic requirements for data collection and consolidation may be able to use InfoPath almost as a stand-alone application without tying the tool into any back-end databases or applications.
But the real strength of InfoPath is its tight integration with Microsoft SQL Server and the ability to push data back into both SQL Server and Access databases. This will let you create a form that can be submitted to a database table held on either of these platforms. If you don't use either of these database formats in your organization, don't fret. You can also use InfoPath to submit form data directly back to an XML Web service, letting you push data back into a variety of database formats and applications. And there's also a software development kit (SDK) for InfoPath that includes samples of different Web services that demonstrate how this works.