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In a Big Year for BI, Microsoft Ups The Price/Performance Ante

Yukon's imminent release (set for November 7) feels unreal even though Microsoft released several preview versions of the server for free download in the past year.

I was still in my twenties when Microsoft started talking up Yukon, now known as SQL Server 2005. It was, Microsoft said, going to allow huge OLAP cubes on PC architectures and perform other minor BI miracles. Now that I'm solidly in my mid-thirties and have seen many major new versions of BI platforms come and go from the headlines, Yukon's imminent release (set for November 7) feels unreal even though Microsoft released several preview versions of the server for free download in the past year. Parts of it are still coming together: Microsoft recently announced, for example, that the promised data mirroring won't be ready for the first general release; it's now expected in 2006.

More than five years of development means a lot of changes to the product. Bill Baker, Microsoft General Manager for SQL Server Business Intelligence, boils the details down to three main themes: One, Yukon streamlines the connections between integration, analysis and reporting (I-A-R). Two, it contains "built-in" intelligence, such as support in the Analysis Services (AS) component for slowly changing dimensions and currency conversion. Third, the completely new architecture lets users build much larger cubes more quickly.

Some of Yukon's capabilities are top-notch. For example, because the platform integrates its analysis and data staging capabilities, it lets you use data mining algorithms on your data during the ETL process in order to clean it as it loads. Also filed under the I-A-R category of improvements is the BI Developer Studio, a unique development environment that lets you design cubes, dimensions, data mining models, ETL processes and so on — all in a single window. Advocating that implementers drive BI deeper into more applications, Microsoft also now offers APIs for BI Web services so enterprise developers can more easily extend BI directly to business application user.

Another important new feature is Report Builder, an extension of Reporting Services that lets end users design their own reports.

Tech Briefings

The launch tour for SQL Server 2005, Visual Studio 2005 and BizTalk 2006 kicks off in San Francisco on November 7. It's a free, all-day event that will repeat in 15 cities through January 11. The event focuses on technical education and case studies. For more information, go to www.microsoft.com/events/2005launchevents/default.mspx.

The new architecture required some features to be redesigned from the ground up. The Analysis Services drill-through feature was among those overhauled. As a result, security is much improved. In the past, end users could sometimes see restricted cells. Also, Analysis Services now plays more nicely with downstream applications by integrating drill-through details before handing them off. To make all this possible, the architecture of AS 2005 requires all detail to reside inside the cube (which affects how you design the schema); the relational source will no longer be queried.

The bad news is that drill-throughs created in AS 2000 won't work with AS 2005, one of the unavoidable conversion headaches you'll encounter. The new design will also result in some complex schemas and larger cubes, which may degrade performance. Microsoft has alleviated some of the pain of the 3GB cube size limitation in the 32-bit version of Analysis Services by giving it caches for both data and dimension members. Microsoft's Project REAL program manager Dave Wickert wrote a few months ago that on the project's 32-bit system, they have "a customer dimension of 6 million plus [rows] and a product dimension with 7 million plus [rows], and are easily building it ... with lots of other databases on the same system." (For more information, see www.microsoft.com/sql/bi/ProjectREAL.)

— Jeanette Burriesci