A BI Recipe for Success with Surface RT

SurfaceThe Surface with Windows RT devices have been roaming the streets for several weeks now. More than a few companies are trying to get ahead of how this type of device is going to be incorporated into their IT landscape, and Business Intelligence departments are often at the front of the line. We have put together a little recipe to enable interesting and useful Business Intelligence delivered via the Surface RT.

Mobile devices are primarily consumption devices. Windows 8 changes the equation, but it does not change the fact that when people are on the go—without large monitors, traditional keyboards, and mice—they are going to skew more toward consumption than creation.

Clearly mobile devices are becoming more and more prevalent. There is a fantastic tie-in here to business intelligence. The information provided through BI does not add any value if it is not consumed. Gartner predicts by 2013 a third of all BI functionality will be consumed on mobile devices. I am not sure what point in 2013 they expect to pass that threshold, but happy new year!

I am excited for the reinforcements in mobility that Windows 8 naturally brings to the Microsoft BI stack. However, as a fan of PowerPivot I was a tad sobered to see this blog post by Analysis Services guru Kasper de Jonge. PowerPivot is not available on Windows RT. And for that matter neither is Silverlight and, therefore, Power View. Kasper does remind us that Excel on Windows RT will still create pivot tables and can connect to a Business Intelligence Sematic Model (BISM) service. That is useful for some lightweight analysis within the Excel App with an online data source.

However, if you are connected, which you would need to be anyway to take advantage of a BISM multidimensional cube or tabular model data source, why not take it a step further and let the cloud do as much work for your consumers as possible? That is what we have done with the following recipe.

A few simple, out-of-box ingredients:

  • One fresh Surface with Windows RT (for the consumer)

The Surface offers fantastic new hardware. Discussion and reviews are bountiful, so we will not go into too much detail here.

  • A handful of SharePoint Online 2013 Enterprise with Excel Services (for the provider)

This is the secret ingredient. Using SharePoint Online makes this a fully fledged cloud-based solution which plays nicely with those mobile devices, and their users, that refuse to sit still. Users  even have the option to expose a pivot table field list and adjust the report on the fly.

Excel Services in SharePoint 2013 include some exciting new features, like Quick Explore, which empowers drill-down and enables real ad hoc data interrogation for power and regular users. To keep the data up to date, we’ve seen success leveraging a script to refresh workbooks hosted with SharePoint Online.

  • A dash of Excel 2013, or in a pinch Excel 2010 with PowerPivot (for the report author)

Authoring reports in Excel, with its strength in data source compatibility, allows all of the data modeling and authoring to be done in the world’s most popular analysis tool. Report authors need not be developers and the cost of creating new reports drops to new lows. Through the use of finger-friendly slicers, charts, and pivot tables you can easily provide users with an experience that feels nothing like looking at a spreadsheet.

Surface BI SharePoint Online Demo Small

This is a Surface RT screenshot, straight from Internet Explorer. From portal to report: long press for the pivot table field list and quick explore drill-down right in the graph or table.

We have found that mixing these ingredients creates a dish that delivers some hearty BI morsels.

To be fair, a browser-based delivery mechanism is not unique to the Surface RT. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Providing users with the scrumptious data and visuals they crave through the browser is about as cross platform and cross form-factor as you can get. This is—mostly—a good thing. The only reason to qualify here is that you’ll need to consider the variety of mobile and desktop devices (as well as their screen sizes and aspect ratios) that your users will leverage to access reports. If you are able to target a specific device, or use creativity to steer users to a specific version of a report based on a specific device, then make your reports shine for that device. However, we recommend balancing your time between crafting perfectly placed pixels and creating a generic report that offers rich insights on a variety of devices.

What makes the Surface RT useful as a BI delivery tool, particularly in this recipe, is really Excel Services on SharePoint 2013. The half-second press and hold gives you touch access to Quick Explore drill-downs along with the power to edit the pivot via the “Show Field List” option. With SharePoint Online supporting Excel Services, you can easily create a 100% cloud-based BI solution. Like all recipes there are modifications which you can make to better suit your needs. For example, if you need to support larger data sets (more than a few million rows) or are looking to leverage some of the more advanced features in SharePoint 2013, then running the on-premises version of SharePoint server will allow you to scale that processing capability and feature set as needed. The screenshots below are based on a data connection to Salesforce CRM (but could be Microsoft Dynamics or almost anything).

Bon appétit!

Slalom Intelligence

Side-by-side comparison of the Surface RT and iPad.

Slalom Consulting PowerPivot Architect Barbara Raney was a co-contributor to this post. These authors are members of Slalom’s Information Management Thought Leadership Committee. For more information, email the team at NationalIMThoughtLeadershipCommittee@slalom.com.

About J.R. McDonnel
J.R. McDonnel is a Business Intelligence consultant with an engineering and development background based in Seattle who focuses on visual analytics, self-serve analytical tools, and BI mobility.

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