Microsoft Readies Business Intelligence Charge

Microsoft unveils new and reworked business intelligence tools that provide capabilities ranging from self-service report building for non-techs to mining information from data flows outside of a database.
Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday unveiled new and reworked business-intelligence tools that provide capabilities ranging from self-service report building for non-techs to mining information from data flows outside of a database.

The announcements, made at the Redmond, Wash.-based, software maker's 2004 Professional Association for SQL Server Community Summit in Orlando, Fla., touched several products, including SQL Server 2005, Exchange Server, Microsoft CRM and Visual Studio.

Products unveiled during the opening keynote address of Bill Baker, general manager for SQL Server BI at Microsoft, included Report Packs, pre-built templates for commonly used reports; Report Builder, a self-service tool for building reports without the help of techs; and SQL Server Integration Services, a tool for integrating non-persistent data sources, such as data flows from web services or RSS news feeds.

Report Packs are meant to ease report development by providing templates that can be modified to meet a customer's unique needs, the company said. Packs were released Wednesday for Exchange Server and Microsoft CRM 1.2, which is the company's business software for managing customer data and related sales and service information. The packs were available without charge through Microsoft's web site.

Examples of the kind of templates included in the packs for Exchange include ones that could build reports on who sends the largest email messages, the current size of user folders or email messages that include specific keywords. For Microsoft CRM, a report template could be used to list current customers in the pipeline along with details about those customers.

"(Report Packs) could be an interesting addition for the upper-end of the Microsoft CRM market," Chris Alliegro, an analyst for researcher Directions on Microsoft, said. "This adds a more flexible and powerful reporting environment, in general, than Crystal Reports (from Business Objects S.A.), which is what (Microsoft CRM) uses today."

Report Packs are more geared to the largest Microsoft CRM customers, because the tools require the companies to have access to developers, either in-house or through partners, Alliegro said. He defined the market as companies with up to 1,000 employees.

The next release of Microsoft CRM will ship with the company's business-intelligence platform, called SQL Server Reporting Services, the company said. The next version of Visual Studio, Microsoft's suite of development tools, will include embeddable reporting controls that make it easier for developers to build applications with BI capabilities.

The new Report Builder, based on technology acquired through Microsoft's purchase of ActiveViews Inc. in April, is expected to be included in the upcoming SQL Server 2005 Beta 3. The tools would enable businesspeople to build reports, or modify old ones, as needed within a simple drag-and-drop environment, hiding the complexity of the underlying database schema. Many reporting tools require the help of information technology staff.

"There are some (Microsoft) partners that could find demand for their services and capabilities withering somewhat with the use of ActiveViews technology," Alliegro said.

SQL Server Integration Services is an overhaul of Microsoft's Data Transformation Services, the company's data extraction, transformation and loading engine. The new product would enable users to mine data flows coming from web services or an RSS feed, which is a format based on extensible markup language (XML) for news and content syndication, and reporting on that data.

Integration Services is targeting the future, since web services, an umbrella term for emerging standards for connecting business applications over the Internet, is a technology that is still in the early stages of adoption in most corporations.

"To the extent that web services become more and more widely deployed, (Integration Services) becomes a pretty interesting feature," Alliegro said.

Customers appearing with Baker included Barnes & Noble Inc., which plans to deploy the SQL Server Reporting Services. The bookseller claims operating costs for Microsoft's BI software is 20 percent lower than competitors.