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10/9/2008
10:14 AM
Mark Smith
Mark Smith
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Is Microsoft Thinking Bigger or Catching Up?

At its second annual BI conference, Microsoft offered a glimpse into what the future holds for its products... Microsoft believes it is leading the democratization of business intelligence around the world through its release of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and future development projects that were officially unveiled. But is Microsoft thinking bigger or just catching up?

At its second annual BI conference, Microsoft offered a glimpse into what the future holds for its products. Stephen Elop, a Microsoft senior executive relatively new to business intelligence who is president of the Microsoft Business Division, introduced the theme of the conference, "Think Bigger about BI." Judging from the presentation and conversations I had, Microsoft believes it is leading the democratization of business intelligence around the world through its release of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and future development projects that were officially unveiled. But is Microsoft thinking bigger or just catching up?

Microsoft SQL Server 2008, previously known as project Katmai, offers a number of new capabilities to support data warehousing and analytics for BI that expand its value as an enterprise data platform and its support of nonrelational data sources, as well as what Microsoft calls "pervasive insight" but is really the reporting and analysis of data that can be published. Microsoft has added new data adapters for Oracle, SAP BW and Teradata systems to enable users to gain better access to data and mechanisms for data compression and governors for resources and queries. A new Report Builder helps simplify developing, deploying and maintaining reports and delivering data into Microsoft Word and Excel.The bottom line: Microsoft SQL Server 2008 is definitely worth examining for data warehousing and enabling BI. But is it ready to meet your organization's business user needs? Answering this will require more examination of early production deployments and a comparison to other approaches. My analysis is that it is still being tested and not yet ready for the full thumbs up.

But focusing on what is possible with Microsoft products today was not the focus of the conference. Rather, it was what is coming in two to three years. What's that? Well, there's a development project called Kilimanjaro that will be a new release of Microsoft SQL Server, though Microsoft was quick to point it will not be a major release (to protect other developments underway, I expect). Kilimanjaro focuses on advancing self-service reporting, self-service analysis and sharing, collaboration and management. It also includes another development project call Gemini, a dedicated BI product that uses a Microsoft Excel-based interface to perform a range of analytic tasks for business analysts, or for that matter anyone in business or IT who wants to examine data. This new product was demonstrated both in the keynote and in sessions but it will not be available until 2010, so basing your current plans on it would really be risky. And, of course, the majority of the capabilities of the product are available in other vendors existing BI products today.

The recent acquisition of data warehousing technology provider Datallegro expands Microsoft's ability to scale out and support data warehousing, and its technology is now part of a development project called Madison that will be introduced to the market in 2010. As well, a recent acquisition that is an entrant into the data quality market, Zoomix, will be part of a new product called SQL Server Data Quality Services that is to roll out in 2010 or 2011. These announcements are so far out it again is not really good to base this year or maybe next year's technology decisions.

The future thus was a major theme, though unevenly so; Microsoft was very secretive, for example, on the future of Microsoft PerformancePoint beyond the service pack release to support Microsoft SQL Server 2008. It has been rumored that PerformancePoint will become a fully integrated component of Microsoft Office servers, a report that is already impacting how organizations evaluate Microsoft for BI and performance management. Such a move could impact Microsoft's presence in the BI market - if every business user and organization has to update to the latest version of Microsoft Office, this could get in the way of realizing the full value of Microsoft BI across the enterprise. Maybe Microsoft is rethinking their packaging and strategy?

Does any of this discussion of Microsoft products in 2010 or 2011 impact you today? Not really. But it is something to be aware of if you want to consider the company as a supplier of BI to your business and IT efforts. After all, Microsoft is slowly moving to support the business needs of BI and simplify the use and administration of the technology, something that still is overwhelming even for large enterprises, let alone most small- and medium-sized businesses.

Microsoft seems to have difficulty addressing across its product divisions the issue of what is possible today with Microsoft PerformancePoint and BI. More than a year ago, I highlighted the lack of any demonstration of what is possible with its technologies in "Can PerformancePoint Perform for You?" Supporting BI mobility across Microsoft Windows Mobile or other devices like RIM's BlackBerry and the Apple iPhone; demonstrating how to integrate collaboration with the current release of Microsoft Office and Groove; integrating BI across business processes with BizTalk - all are possible today. But Microsoft has moved past today and instead is focused on the future. And this is despite the fact that what Elop himself called "Excel Hell" is a serious issue today that constitutes a risk to business. Microsoft did not lay out, and has not yet identified, a clear path that organizations can travel to help them govern spreadsheets more effectively and ultimately migrate to a true enterprise solution. Just a big bang and buy new products will not change organizations dependence on the stand-alone technology. I pointed out these areas of enterprise opportunity to Microsoft at its 2007 event and at this year's conference, but no progress was made in more than a year to substantively address these needs.

What you can do with Microsoft technologies is pretty impressive. But the company is so product-focused rather than solution- and customer-focused that it is moving right past its full potential in the business marketplace. It is still advancing slowly into Finance and Operations, though it does have some early customers that are becoming references, largely as a result of Microsoft's attempts to promote partners that can help in specific business areas, complement its products and accelerate deployments. In many of the new development projects in which it is involved, Microsoft is catching up to other key providers like IBM, Oracle and SAP. In part, Microsoft is looking to gain market share through dramatically reducing the cost of the technology by bundling with SQL Server or Microsoft Office, but a word of caution is appropriate here: These have their own hidden costs to consider.

Let's hope Microsoft can come to understand better the demands of business and IT, which will allow it to engage into the market more effectively. The company has more to offer than it presented at the Microsoft BI conference this week and this is not good for Microsoft or you evaluating it for further needs in your organization. Let me know your thoughts.At its second annual BI conference, Microsoft offered a glimpse into what the future holds for its products... Microsoft believes it is leading the democratization of business intelligence around the world through its release of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 and future development projects that were officially unveiled. But is Microsoft thinking bigger or just catching up?

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