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Built through acquisition, Microsoft Business Solutions encompasses an array of BI and analytics products that many customers would like to see rationalized. What's available now, and how is Microsoft likely to sort them out?

13 Min Read

When you look at the portfolio of software assets that is Microsoft Business Solutions, (MBS) the overlapping functionality is immediately apparent. This is hardly a surprise when that portfolio, built through acquisition, includes not one or two but four mid-tier ERP systems. Nowhere is this overlapping functionality more evident than in business analytics.

Effective business analytics has to be a core competency for all MBS customers; however, the MBS business analytics landscape is becoming more, not less, complex. In this article, I will survey MBS for Analytics (MBSA) functionality at an overview level, with the aim of bringing some clarity to this confusing but important part of Microsoft's applications portfolio.

The Keystones

You can't begin to understand MBSA without first acknowledging two non-MBS assets that play a major role in their direction: Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Office. These two products drive significantly higher revenues than the whole MBS division combined. With each successive release, it's clear that SQL Server and Office are becoming more and more influential in how MBS will ultimately work as core components of a Microsoft business solution. Figure 1 shows MBSA's position in the SQL Server and Office "sandwich." Note that MBS competitors also use SQL Server for application data management and link to Office on the desktop, so they equally benefit from this architecture.

FIGURE 1 The MBS Business Analytics Stack.

Microsoft SQL Server is the foundation for MBSA. As Figure 2 shows, SQL Server is no longer just a relational DBMS. Over the years, Microsoft has been enhancing its core database engine with capabilities and services to extend its value. Beginning in the mid 1990s, Microsoft focused on making SQL Server a better foundation for corporate data warehouse and data mart applications, largely to compete with Oracle and IBM. Through acquisition and development, Microsoft has added three service components that significantly enhance SQL Server's analytic capabilities: Analysis Services, Notification Services, and Reporting Services. SQL Server's "Yukon" release, planned for rollout in 2005, will further extend and enhance these three services, especially for developers of business analytic solutions.

FIGURE 2 SQL Server's Business Analytic Services.

MBSA also depends on SQL Server's Data Transformation Services (DTS). Primarily, this technology manages the extraction and transformation of data from the transaction processing systems into Analysis Services cubes.

At Your Services

Analysis Services enables you to create and manage multidimensional datasets — that is, "cubes" — which then provision front-end OLAP tools. Notification Services add event recognition, response, and subscription functions to help deliver "real-time" analytics. And finally, Reporting Services let business users create, manage, and deliver reports similar to those provided by Crystal Reports (now part of Business Objects' product portfolio).

By making it easy to output data in the form of Analysis Services cubes, MBS lets users perform analysis at the desktop using MBSA offerings or third-party tools from vendors such as ProClarity. Microsoft employs Notification Services currently in its Great Plains Business Alerts and in the forthcoming event management functionality in Navision 4.0 (due in late 2004). MBSA, however, doesn't yet take advantage of Reporting Services, which Microsoft released earlier this year.

Microsoft Excel, frequently touted as the world's most popular business analysis tool, is the core Office contribution to MBSA. Excel serves as a destination for financial reports and other information coming from the main MBS assets (Axapta, CRM, FRx [based on FRx Software technology], Great Plains, Navision, and Solomon), enabling users to further analyze data using the toolset offered within Excel worksheets and workbooks. For example, with Excel's PivotTable and PivotChart technology, users can perform desktop slice-and-dice OLAP-style functions; these technologies also serve as the means to visualize and drill down on summary data. Business managers frequently deploy Excel's data formatting tools to take basic financial reports and turn them into presentation quality documents for executive review.

Recently, Microsoft introduced add-on Office Accelerators to help with, for example, Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance. It may not be long before we see other kinds of accelerators specifically oriented toward business analytics, such as "Budget Accelerator" or "Scorecard Accelerator."Microsoft Data Analyzer, a low-cost multidimensional data analysis and visualization tool, is one Office orphan. In case you didn't know, Data Analyzer can read and visualize SQL Server Analysis Services cubes, export data to PowerPoint and Excel, and route cube data for further analysis via Outlook. Microsoft, however, doesn't draw much attention to this particular piece of technology.

Outlook has an important role to play in the delivery of electronic reports and notification alerts to analytic stakeholder communities. And in this vein, SharePoint Portal Server will play a role in the future of MBSA.

As you can see, SQL Server and Office are clearly important players in the world of MBSA. You should take it as a given that many of the analytic capabilities that I will discuss in the next section assume that the latest versions of both SQL Server and Office are in place. As far as Microsoft is concerned, a "business solution" means SQL Server, Office, and one or more MBS apps.

Financial Functions

Every ERP system has some level of financial reporting, consolidation, and budgeting capabilities built in, and the MBS Axapta, Great Plains, Navision, and Solomon suites are no exception. But, generally speaking, these built-in capabilities have their limitations. That's why organizations often choose third-party report writers to replace or supplement built-in ERP capabilities.

Axapta comes with a reporting solution that employs wizards that direct non-IT users in building reports, outputting them in popular formats (including Adobe PDF and HTML), and accessing them (with role-based security) via the standard Axapta application navigation tree. Axapta 4.0 will reportedly bring support for XML, native Excel report output formats, and a key-based report "drill-around" capability that allows users to navigate all over the Axapta data from report to report. The 4.0 version will also enable users to trigger an action or load a transaction entry form from within a report.

In the past, Navision offered limited end-user financial report-writing capabilities; the original vendor and Microsoft have largely depended on the partner channel to create and maintain financial reports for their customers. This approach has proved challenging for some customers to accept, particularly in the U.S. market. A pre-MBS attempt by Navision to provide an Excel-based financial reporting solution (using add-in technology from Timeline in the United States) essentially failed in the marketplace.

While it lacks a sophisticated end-user-oriented financial report writer, Navision (like FRx) does support output of report data to the XML-based extensible business reporting language (XBRL) format as standard. This support is handy for system-to-system transfer of report data and is likely to gain in value as XBRL becomes more widely adopted as a reporting data interchange standard. Both Axapta and Navision customers are set to benefit from a surge of improvements to the analytic capabilities of these products, as I will discuss momentarily.

Great Plains and Solomon have always depended on add-on reporting solutions such as Crystal Reports and FRx (now known in the Microsoft world as MBSA FRx) for business and financial analytics. Midtier ERP competitors of MBS, such as Epicor and Best Software, take a similar strategy. As they have with Crystal Reports, Great Plains and Solomon have included the FRx financial reporting and consolidation tools in their packages for some years.

MBSA Forecaster — a Web-based budgeting and planning tool — can import data manually (via file upload) from all MBS ERP systems. It offers tight integration with the Great Plains general ledger in particular. Customers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia are also able to use FRx with Axapta 3.0. FRx just added a new Report Manager module to help create report books for electronic distribution of month-end report packs and can now output report data as Analysis Services cubes for further analysis. Some organizations, however, may have difficulty with FRx's inability to reach and report on non-general ledger data and support the complex financial consolidation processes that are typical of larger multinationals.

Complex financial processes are better handled by MBSA Enterprise Reporting, the "Hyperion-like" offering acquired by Great Plains in the pre-MBS years. Microsoft, however, has been tardy in enhancing its MBSA FRx, Forecaster, and Enterprise Reporting products. Perhaps this delay is due to the fact that Microsoft has begun to build its next-generation financial reporting and consolidation applications — although these apps will undoubtedly take some time to deliver and stabilize. In the meantime, "current-gen" solutions will be with us for some years ahead.

OLAP and Visualization

Although you can extract data from all MBS ERP applications into Excel for analysis and charting, new offerings in both Axapta and Navision are upping the ante in terms of OLAP and ERP data visualization.

Axapta Business Analysis, in Axapta 3.0, offers a built-in capability to define and maintain multidimensional Analysis Services cubes based on Axapta data, as well as the ability to view and manipulate these cubes either from within Axapta's native forms or Excel. Some 15 out-of-the-box cubes are provided to jump-start analytic activity. Using features coming in SQL Server's Yukon release, Axapta version 4.0 will improve cube definition and support easier construction of multicompany cubes. The 4.0 release will also bring better performing integration with FRx (by using a Common Object Model [COM] interface rather than staging tables).

Navision Business Analytics, available now and the object of further development by Microsoft in the Navision 4.0 release, similarly works with Analysis Services cubes created from five key application domains: sales, finance, CRM, SCM, and projects (jobs). Microsoft includes DTS packages to extract data from the Navision database into predefined SQL Server-based analysis cubes. A cube viewer, provided by partner Targit, then enables analysis and visualization. The Targit viewer offers a sophisticated wizard to build views that can display multiple object types, including pivot tables, images (such as maps), and charts. Each object type supports drill-down capabilities and the ability to hot-link objects, so that you can reflect a change occurring in one object in every object linked to that object.

Navision Business Analytics is available now in Denmark, Germany, and Austria; Microsoft plans its general availability with Navision 4.0 in the second half of 2004. Third-party Navision-specific analytic solutions have always been hard to find. If you're looking for a current alternative, Analysoft's AnalyServer — an analytic warehouse for Navision — is one of the few out-of-the-box solutions available.

It's hard to perform sophisticated analytics if the data captured at the transaction level isn't rich enough to support them. Fortunately, MBS has finally caught up with competitors by offering extra data dimensions at the transaction level. To its credit, Axapta has always featured a user-defined multidimensional account and transaction structure: But only recently have Great Plains and Navision offered similar user-defined transaction dimensions. Both Great Plains and Navision now include the ability to create unlimited transaction dimensions to classify transactions. Both products now offer drill down-enabled dimensional hierarchies, which assist with reporting transaction summaries at multiple organizational levels. These dimensions offer a level of transaction analysis far beyond the limited account segment dimensions both products have offered in the past.

Plethora of Portals

Portals are rapidly becoming the preferred means of distributing analytic information across corporate intranets. Portals are critical to assembling reports, tables, and charts into role-based views that are accessible over the Internet.

MBS delivers a number of portal offerings. Axapta has its Enterprise Portal, Navision has a User Portal and a Commerce Portal, and Great Plains and Solomon act as data providers to the MBS Business Portal. Even FRx is expected to offer its own portal offering, codenamed "Denali," which will combine FRx reports and Forecaster plans and budget views with other external documents and reports, such as Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

The MBS Business Portal is based on SharePoint technology. Today, the Business Portal can display various data sets drawn from the Great Plains and Solomon systems, as well as analytic data from a variety of non-MBS systems, as long as they can generate information in the Web Part "portlet" format required by SharePoint. From an analytics perspective, the most important third-party integration solutions are those offered by SAS and Business Objects (including Crystal).

MBS has largely ignored the interest (and hype) in performance management. However, both Axapta and the MBS Business Portal offer the ability to quickly create, manage, and view key performance indicators (KPIs) and combine these KPIs into corporate scorecards (Balanced or not) and management dashboards.

Looking Ahead

Analytics are what Microsoft now calls a "surround" application, which means that analytics function as a layer that crosses all the ERP/CRM application assets. In MBS terms, this layer is rather a mess at the moment as Axapta, CRM, FRx, Great Plains, Navision, and other internal Microsoft product initiatives continue to pursue their own agendas and develop their own vision of business analytics.

Let's gaze at the crystal ball and speculate about what we're likely to see in the next three to five years:

  • Microsoft will replace MBSA FRx, Forecaster, and Enterprise Reporting with a single financial reporting, consolidation, and budgeting application.

  • SQL Server Reporting Services will supplant Crystal Reports as the core nonfinancial reporting engine.

  • A portal based on SharePoint will become the common portal user interface for integrating and assembling analytic data from across all MBS applications.

  • Enhanced pivot services in Excel will become the common data analysis and visualization front end.

  • SQL Server will continue to manage all analytic data in relational and multidimensional models and drive all event management and alerting capabilities.

Microsoft knows that the long-term future of business analytics doesn't lie in the "surround" application approach; instead, analytics will need to become embedded into every business process. In my opinion, the future of analytics won't be in Gartner's "real-time analytics" vision — as useful and important as that view is in certain contexts, such as financial services dealing rooms. I believe that the dominant trend will be toward what many people are calling "operational," "in-process," or "in-context" analytics.

This form of analytics is so different from what is generally available today that it will require a fundamental rethinking of most business process automation designs — especially in ERP systems. Therefore, you shouldn't expect to see the operational style of analytics fully integrated into MBS applications before the end of this decade — probably around the time that the next-generation MBS applications initiative (currently codenamed "Green") first makes its appearance.

In the meantime, I hope that prospects, customers, and partners will try to persuade MBS management to spend a little more time rationalizing current business analytics offerings before the situation becomes even more complicated. Let's face it: Something's gotta give.


Analysoft: http://www.analysoft.com

Business Objects: http://www.businessobjects.com

Microsoft Business Solutions (including Axapta, FRx, Great Plains, and Solomon products): http://www.microsoft.com/BusinessSolutions/default.mspx

ProClarity: http://www.proclarity.com

SAS: http://www.sas.com

Targit: http://www.targit.dk

Stewart Mckie is an independent consultant and technology writer specializing in analytic, enterprise resource management, and Web services applications. You can reach him via his Web site at http://www.cfoinfo.com.

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