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1/26/2009
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Microsoft Boosts BI, Backs Away from Performance Management

Dashboarding, scorecarding and analytics are bundled into SharePoint while PerformancePoint and its planning engine reach the end of the line.

Last Friday, Microsoft made a surprise announcement that presents good news and bad news for customers and partners who are developing on the PerformancePoint Server product. The good news is that the dashboarding, scorecarding and analytic capabilities of PerformancePoint are now being made available as free services to customers with an enterprise license of SharePoint Server. The bad news is that PerformancePoint and its planning functionality will no longer be offered as a separate product, though there will be a final "Service Pack3" upgrade to the planning functionality released this summer. Translation? Microsoft's BI team is backing away from deep financial and operational performance management, ceding those opportunities to the Microsoft Dynamics unit and stranding some customers and partners in the process.

Microsoft says it is bundling high-demand PerformancePoint functionality like dashboarding, scorecarding and advanced analytics with SharePoint to better fulfill its longstanding goal of spreading business intelligence to the broadest possible base of users.

"By putting this functionality into SharePoint, it makes it available to exponentially more users," said Kristina Kerr, Lead Product Manager, Microsoft Business Intelligence, in an interview with Intelligent Enterprise. "As for the financial budgeting and planning piece, we found that it involves very different buying behaviors, different people and different deployment scenarios, so we're very deliberately splitting those two areas."

A final upgrade of PerformancePoint may buy planning-focused customers and partners some time, but nobody wants to make long-range plans around a product without a roadmap. Thus, one of two paths forward Microsoft points to exploits what Kerr describes as "broad planning capabilities" it can offer with the combination of SQL Server, SharePoint Server and Excel.

"For example, we have an Excel add-in that exposes the analytic capabilities of SQL Server Analysis Services," Kerr explained. "Analysis Services offers a function called Forecast, which is really predictive analytics based on historical trends. [That's the kind of functionality] that's suitable for scenarios that aren't specific to the office of finance but that call for broad planning and forecasting capabilities."

A second path forward for partners and customers interested in planning is to work with the Microsoft Dynamics ERP and applications unit, which will continue to develop its Forecaster and FRX products for forecasting, budgeting and financial reporting.

Unfortunately, the Dynamics path isn't viable for Orange Peel Corp., one of many Microsoft partners to offer applications on top of PerformancePoint. "Going back to Dynamics would completely defeat our ability to compete in performance management," said Per Solli, an account manager at Orange Peel. "Forecaster and FRX are legacy products that were supposed to be phased out with PerformancePoint Planning. In my mind, that's a big step backward, because those products haven't been kept up to date."

Practitioners may have more flexibility than software partners in that they can continue to work with PerformancePoint while experimenting with functionality in SQL Server, SharePoint Server and Office. At least that's the hope at Maricopa County, Ariz., a vast enterprise with some 14,000 employees and more than 400 PerformancePoint power users.

"Microsoft has indicated to me that elements of planning will be found in the next-generation Excel Services and SQL Server," said Stephen Wetzel, the county's CIO. "We have at least a year to sort this out, but I think much of this makes sense. For example, I like the tighter integration with SharePoint and its workflow. My people are excited about the strengths of Excel Services, so I'm pretty optimistic."

Microsoft has reportedly issued more than 100 million seat licenses for SharePoint, so there's little doubt the change will boost the company's ability to deliver BI to more users. At the same time, the company is clearly backing away from competing in the performance management arena. But perhaps that's a sober plan to avoid what was sure to be a costly, up-hill battle.

"The Microsoft sales channel is talking to the CIO and the CTO, but those executives don't necessarily have an interest in deploying performance management," observed Orange Peel's Solli, adding that IBM Cognos, SAP Business Objects and Oracle (Hyperion) are well entrenched in selling into the finance organization. "I think Microsoft is going back to doing what they realize that they are best at, which is creating tools and tool sets on which partners and customers can build BI solutions."

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