Microsoft Makes Its Case For Ubiquitous BI

If anybody can make business intelligence technology more pervasive, maybe Microsoft can.
Microsoft's been saying for a decade that it can take business intelligence technology from the hands of a few data analysts and put it in the hands of more executives and office workers, where it's needed. At its first business intelligence conference last week in Seattle, the vendor put its products where its mouth is.

Microsoft said it has acquired a product called OfficeWriter from SoftArtisans. OfficeWriter makes it possible to use Word and Excel to write and view reports based on data in its SQL Server database. Microsoft also introduced the next version of SQL Server, code-named Katmai, due next year. SQL Server is the foundation for Microsoft's BI platform, and Katmai will include new integration points with Excel, Excel Services, OfficeWriter, SharePoint, SQL Server Reporting Services, and the company's new PerformancePoint Server business performance management tool, which is due later this month. The vision is this: "all your data available anytime, everywhere," says Ted Kummert, VP of Microsoft's data and storage platforms.

Katmai will support several new data types, including unstructured data such as digital versions of paper-based files and imaging data, and a spatial data type to be used with location-based applications. Katmai also will let users set data policies more easily. For example, its declarative management framework can be used to make sure every data point in a column that contains credit card numbers is encrypted.

The new SQL Server has more going for it than BI capabilities. Data warehouse performance is improved, Microsoft says, and new features make it easier for developers to sift through and simplify data.

Microsoft's Jeff Raikes tells workers: We know where you live

Microsoft's Jeff Raikes tells workers: We know where you live
BI has the potential to break down barriers within companies, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, said in his keynote speech at the conference. "Decision making is too siloed," Raikes said. That may not be the case for long. Only a quarter of respondents to an InformationWeek Research survey in March say more than 25% of employees in their companies use BI tools. But the desire is there to go bigger: Close to two-thirds of the 500 business technology professionals surveyed predict that more than 25% of employees will use BI tools within the next two years. Two major obstacles to more widespread use of BI, according to the survey: integration and ease of use.

That's where Microsoft thinks it fits in. Its BI technology will reach "10 times the number of workers" competitors' technology can, Raikes said, because Microsoft can deliver it "exactly where the information workers work every day."

At the conference, Microsoft trotted out a slate of big-name users to underscore its vision of pervasive BI: EMI Music, Energizer, Hanesbrand, the Veterans Health Administration, and Wells Fargo. The U.S. division of construction company Skanska is in the process of making BI available to about 80% of the company's 4,000 employees, says IT director Allen Emerick. For example, foremen at construction sites have access to safety scorecards through SharePoint, and they'll use PerformancePoint to develop a "project dashboard" to forecast local labor needs and project revenue and measure how well individual projects match up against established business processes. "If we just provide an executive dashboard, we're not providing the people in the field with the right stuff," Emerick says. Skanska USA is saving more than 20% using Microsoft's BI products over its former BI vendor, Hyperion, he says.

Microsoft is partnering with systems integrators Accenture, Capgemini, and Tata Consultancy Services to support its BI push. Capgemini predicts it will do $50 million in services related to Microsoft BI products in the next year, and TCS estimates $100 million over two years.

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