Enhancing the User Experience

MicroStrategy 8 adds user appeal to an IT favorite.

While viewing a formatted report, users can insert new metrics, re-sort data, and change the display from grid to graph. However, users can't filter the data while viewing a formatted document. This capability continues to be available only with grid/graph style reports, in which the layout is more basic. Also, certain actions are available only when the formatted report is built in a particular way, using the underlying grid/graph objects. While I can understand the technical reasons for a difference in interactivity, I suspect report consumers will find it unnecessarily confusing.

WYSIWYG formatting is also new in version 8. In the previous release, the only way to format reports was via a design view that didn't contain the data. Now users can preview the data and layout while applying formatting. Although the WYSIWYG formatting is a big improvement, some formatting actions could be more intuitive. For example, if I want to remove the dollar sign from the Revenue column, I must select "Revenue" from the toolbar rather than from the tabular contents in which I want to apply the formatting, which is how users are accustomed to applying style changes in any other Windows-based programs.

Broader Data Access

In an ideal world, all data used for analysis is fully modeled and stored in a data warehouse. In the real world, it's not. Data resides in multiple systems and business requirements change at a moment's notice. In the past, MicroStrategy reports could access data from only a single dimensional database. Competitors' products weren't so constrained. MicroStrategy 8 introduces support for accessing SAP BW as well as the new Free Form SQL Editor, which lets report authors combine data from the data warehouse (accessed through the business view) with data coming from an operational system, departmental data mart or supplier.

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MicroStrategy 8 Report Services allows for interactive presentation-quality reports.

The risk with unconstrained queries and one-off requests, though, is that they too often become critical reports with unclear ownership and high maintenance costs. In this respect, I appreciate that MicroStrategy enforces some discipline around its Free Form SQL. Any columns in a Free Form SQL data source must be mapped as new attributes such as "product" or new metrics such as "forecast." Alternatively, if "product" already exists in the business view, query authors can map the product descriptions from the data mart, for example, to the product descriptions already defined in the MicroStrategy business view. This mapping allows the Free Form SQL report to leverage existing security and prompts. Also, you can reuse this Free Form SQL query and combine it within any other reports that contain product descriptions.

Broader data access is indeed a breakthrough for the product line, but there's still room for improvement. First, the Free Form SQL Editor requires you to write code; there's no graphical query builder like you'd find in most development tools. Second, the way to combine multiple data sets is poorly documented and far from obvious. Multiple data sets can be combined only within Report Services (or presentation-quality documents) and not within a grid, so combined data sets inherit some limitations.

Still, the BI industry is rife with conflicting claims of "first to." I can attest that, of major BI vendors, MicroStrategy is the first and so far only vendor to allow report authors to combine free form SQL and modeled data sources as one table, from a browser.

Data Mining Services

MicroStrategy uses a number of techniques such as multipass SQL and analytic functions built into its Intelligent Server to answer complex business questions. To extend this capability further, MicroStrategy 8 introduces Data Mining Services with four types of statistical models: regression, neural networks, cluster models and decision trees.

Across the industry, there have been many failed attempts to commoditize data mining. What MicroStrategy seems to have recognized is that while many people want to leverage statistical models, few people can build them. Thus with Data Mining Services, MicroStrategy leaves the model creation in the hands of experts. Statisticians use statistical packages (such as SPSS, SAS Enterprise Miner or IBM Intelligent Miner) to create a data mining model and then export it as PMML (Predictive Modeling Markup Language, a relatively new standard defined by the Data Mining Group). MicroStrategy then imports the PMML so that new metrics can use the model. So, for example, "Churn Predictor" metrics can assign scores to customers to indicate how likely they are to switch to new service providers. Churn Predictors can then be added to any MicroStrategy report.

MicroStrategy provides some clever features to help power users understand model logic. For example, a display can show you that age, education and marital status influence churn in this particular model. As models are fine tuned in the statistical package, you can reimport them into MicroStrategy: All the end-user reports that use those metrics immediately reflect the new models. MicroStrategy has innovatively incorporated data mining into its BI suite.

On a Roll

Version 8 addresses a number of past limitations and includes some major innovations. Product capability, however, isn't the only type of challenge MicroStrategy has faced. In the past, concerns about financial viability made customers and partners alike hesitant to invest in MicroStrategy. The company has been profitable the past three years, however, and had the highest net income ($168.3 million) in 2004 of any pure-play BI vendor. The company's now solid financials and version 8 improvements will only strengthen its position in the marketplace.

• MicroStrategy 8 is available from MicroStrategy,

Cindi Howson is the president of ASK, a BI consultancy. She teaches the Data Warehousing Institute's "Evaluating BI Toolsets" and is the author of the recently launched Web site for independent BI research. Reach her at [email protected].