MicroStrategy's 9.3 release, which was detailed at the company's European conference in Amsterdam earlier this month, brings significant improvements to the company's Visual Insight visual data discovery module, which was introduced last summer year. Visual data discovery is a hot segment, with products available from fast-growing vendors Tableau Software and QlikView as well as new options from BI platform vendors (IBM Cognos Insight, Microsoft Power View, SAS Visual Analytics Explorer, SAP Visual Intelligence).
The first release of Visual Insight brought easy-to-create visualizations via a Web interface. Users could share visualizations via the iPad or Facebook. Lacking, though, was the ability to enrich the data with calculations or to assemble the visualizations into a business-authored dashboard.
[ Want more on BI and Big Data? Read Big Data Analytics Challenges Old-School Business Intelligence. ]
MicroStrategy 9.3, due this quarter, significantly improves on Visual Insight, letting business users display multiple data sources in a dashboard-style report. More than 300 new functions are included, but emphasizing ease-of-use, the most important functions, such as rank and time series analysis, are readily accessible via quick menus. The 9.3 upgrade also offers several new chart types as well as a visual recommendation engine that suggests the charting approach for specific types of data. (Take the 2012 Successful BI survey to rate the importance of visual data discovery to your organization.)
The improved visual data discovery capabilities got me most excited, but 9.3 also brings enhancements focused on big data, search, advanced analytics with support for open source R models, and administration. With MicroStrategy's ROLAP engine and tightly integrated in-memory cubes, data scalability has long-been a differentiator for the vendor; in 9.3, MicroStrategy adds support for Hadoop and Hive, the latter being Apache's data warehousing environment for Hadoop.
MicroStrategy discussed Hadoop and Hive conceptually, but I remain skeptical of the performance of the Hive query approach and have yet to talk to any beta customers. Hadoop is a batch processing system, and as such, queries against Hadoop are inherently slower, measured in minutes or more, a stark difference from BI queries against relational and OLAP data sources that last seconds at most. A more practical approach is loading Hadoop data into an in-memory cube with the new Hadoop connector.
Enterprise-grade administrative tools have also been long-standing strength for MicroStrategy. In the 9.3 release the vendor introduces System Manager, an optional interface that enables administrative tasks to be grouped and established as workflows. The workflows can be based on third-party events, such as starting an Amazon Instance. MicroStrategy cited case studies of companies that could save thousands of man hours per year in manual administration.
System Manager is expected to be sold separately (a difference from Visual Insight, which is included in the Report Services license). It's reasonable that MicroStrategy charges extra for new capabilities that go above and beyond what's generally available in other BI platforms, but introducing too many a la carte options risks further confusing customers that already have trouble deciphering BI pricing and packaging options (see BI Scorecard's pricing and packaging matrix.)
MicroStrategy released Wisdom Professional, an evolution of its BI-for-Facebook product first released last year. Wisdom Professional lets marketers and CRM users explore Facebook demographic and interest data from 12 million users who have opted in. It's an interesting product that has generated mainstream media coverage.
I'm enthused that MicroStrategy is innovating in social analytics, but I confess I'm a Facebook-for-business skeptic. (Don't send me a friend request unless I've known you for at least 20 years. Try me on LinkedIn or Twitter instead.) Facebook is undoubtedly an important force shaping social behavior, consumers, and BI tools, but how to best use it for business, whether for advertising or segmentation, remains to be seen.
When I talk to the younger generation, whose lives are rooted in Facebook, they tell me they lie on their pages about age, relationships, and interests. They advise each other never to "Like" a page, lest you get spammed later, and they are oh-so-astute as to which marketers make the liking worth the invasion. They may not be too concerned about privacy, but what's personal versus professional is a line they don't like marketers crossing. Knowing the customer and "stalking on Facebook" is a fine line savvy business users should consider.
Cloud computing has gained acceptance in CRM, human capital management, and payroll, but there has been slower adoption in the BI world. Speaking at MicroStrategy's event, Gartner analyst Andreas Bitterer predicted that Cloud BI will account for just 3% of total BI revenues by 2013. MicroStrategy made its first foray into cloud-based BI last year, offering both Cloud Personal, a free service based primarily on Visual Insight, and Cloud Enterprise (since rebranded MicroStrategy Cloud Platform), a BI platform as a service (PaaS).
MicroStrategy also announced Cloud Express in Amsterdam. It's a beta service that combines visual data discovery, dashboards, mobile BI, reporting, reports, and enterprise security, without the need to model a data warehouse. Fabrice Martin, VP of Cloud Express, did a demo in which every attendee received a customized report of their country's World Cup performance.
With Cloud Express, data can be imported from flat files, spreadsheets, Salesforce.com, other cloud services, or SQL data sources. The vendor is clearly trying to ride the cloud wave with enterprise customers while also appealing to smaller companies and departments looking for fast deployment, an area in which competitors QlikTech and Tableau Software have been encroaching.
MicroStrategy Mobile remains a huge emphasis for the company. CEO Michael Saylor released a new book, The Mobile Wave, and the vendor has refined its use cases for mobile, emphasizing executives, retail, and sales force. The vendor released a new ability to interactively draw on and annotate a dashboard on an iPad or iPhone while it is mirrored on Apple TV. That's a nice collaborative feature for board rooms and executive offices.