Choosing the right BI vendor

Brian Gogle

Brian Gogle

Originally posted on Brian Gogle’s blog.

The scene: Your organization is flying blind. Either you don’t have a technology strategy around business intelligence; the one you have isn’t working; or it’s become outdated or unsupported by other critical systems in your organization. You have all this information in databases, and you may even be spending a significant amount of resources in your organization on data warehousing, yet that data isn’t making it to your users—either because the information isn’t available or it’s not telling a compelling story to your users. Now after some careful planning, executive questioning, and CFO scowling, your organization has committed to spending money on a new BI platform. What do you do? Read more of this post

Eleven Game-Changing Advances in Microsoft BI

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Ten oughta do it, don’t you think? You think we need one more? You think we need one more don’t you? Ok, we’ll get one more.

I came home from the Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2012 fired up about all of the changes in the way Microsoft approaches BI, which to me are the most sweeping changes since the release of SQL 2005.

Like SQL 2005, I think that these up and coming technologies will change the way Microsoft delivers BI, in ways which may not be obvious yet but will emerge over the next three to five years. For example, when I recommended in 2007 that my company use Excel to deliver ad hoc reporting instead of a standard BI ad hoc solution like WebI, my CEO thought I was nuts. Even I didn’t understand at that time how integral Office would be to BI delivery, so much so that I’m questioning the future of SSRS (more on that in a minute).

I thought this would be a great time to identify emerging trends along with some bold (and not so bold) predictions about how these latest advancements will change Microsoft BI delivery. I asked my colleague Patrick Brady to join me in writing a list of some of these predictions, since he had recently been to PASS 2012 as a returning participant and a speaker. We compared notes to create a top-ten list of game-changing features and possible upcoming trends that we could write about. After paring down the list, we found we couldn’t do less than eleven without feeling like we were leaving something important out.

So with that, here are eleven game-changing advancements in Microsoft BI and some thoughts on what the future may hold.

Big Data

Big Data is a Big Mystery to a lot of CIOs, other than those in industries like e-commerce and social networking who have been at the forefront of understanding and advancing these concepts. However, the use of Big Data applications and related opportunities will expand and grow further in 2013 as more organizations finally begin to understand the scope of this new technology and realize the value of being able to capture and analyze large volumes of ever-changing unstructured and semi-structured data. As part of a strategic partnership announced in late 2011 with HortonWorks, Microsoft recognized early on the emerging market opportunities surrounding Big Data and have been busy creating HDInsight Server and Windows Azure HDInsight Service.

HDInsight is certified by Microsoft to run Hadoop on Windows Server and will suit organizations that want a dedicated on-premises big data implementation. Azure HDInsight Service provides Big Data as a Service (BDaaS) in the cloud to those organizations with occasional to frequent needs. Both products promise a simpler Big Data entry point for those organizations that have been sitting on the sidelines up to this point.

Social Analytics

Social Analytics can be defined as the process of analyzing customer sentiments through the mining of data available from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+ or private social networks such as Yammer. Its value can be demonstrated by showing how to use social analytical techniques to support marketing activities, assist with customer support and identify opportunities for future product development.

With Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer, coupled with the SQL Azure Lab named “Social Analytics,” the question must be asked: what is Microsoft planning in this space? This question further begs an answer when consideration is taken into account of Yammer’s recent partnership announcement with Kanjoya, a vendor specializing in sentiment analysis. All signs point to upcoming announcements in 2013 from Microsoft regarding specific product offerings related in Social Analytics.

PowerPivot Gallery

PowerPivot is not a new technology, as it was first introduced as part of SQL 2008 R2 (see below for more on in-memory analytics). Even PowerPivot Gallery is not new as it was introduced as part of SharePoint 2010. However, the PowerPivot Gallery benefits from multiple enhancements in SharePoint 2013 that greatly improve the ease and usability of the PowerPivot Gallery.

PowerPivot is now a built-in functionality of Excel Services. You no longer need to install separate instances of PowerPivot for SharePoint. Designating an SSAS tabular instance in the data model settings of Analysis Services, you can enable your PowerPivot Gallery. You now also have the ability to drag and drop PowerPivot files into the gallery, much like you can now use drag and drop for other documents in SharePoint. Also, using a Business Intelligence Semantic Model (BISM) is no longer the only possible source for a Power View report. You can build a Power View report off of existing PowerPivot documents in the gallery.

By properly training the information workers in your organization, the PowerPivot Gallery will enable your end users to create powerful in-memory visualizations without requiring report building from IT.

GeoFlow in Excel

Microsoft has mostly focused on utilities that support geospatial reporting, such as the company’s geography/geometry data types and the extensibility of Bing Maps. Other companies such as IDV Solutions—the creators of Visual Fusion­—have utilized Microsoft technologies to make geospatial reporting possible. But at the SharePoint Conference 2013, Microsoft proudly introduced GeoFlow, an Excel add-in that takes advantage of Bing Maps and the same xVelocity technology as PowerPivot to produce 3D, interactive, data-driven maps within Excel.

While GeoFlow is a bit limited at this point, you can’t beat the price (included free with Excel 2013 or higher) or its ease of use. It doesn’t have all of the power that Visual Fusion has with its XML scripts and Silverlight SDK capabilities, but the developers who introduced the project are very enthusiastic and we expect the capabilities will expand rapidly.

Our colleague Marek Koenig wrote a great descriptive piece on GeoFlow, which you can access here.

Excel Services Improvements

Excel Services has been around ever since Microsoft Office SharePoint Services 2007 (MOSS), but has been an underutilized part of the Office/BI revolution. The selling point sounds great: users can create their own reports and share them online, and you don’t need to have Excel installed. That was usually met with a look that said “who doesn’t have Excel?” And the amount of interaction you gave up usually made Outlook the sharing technology of choice for connected Excel documents.

Excel 2013 introduces Excel Interactive View and gives the user the ability to view multiple worksheets, interact with data, and build charts and graphs in an HTML client. Once the information workers understand these major increases in features and flexibility, you can anticipate Excel Services to take off the way many thought it would in 2007.

As interactive reporting features continue to be added to an already very easy-to-use platform, I could see SSRS being featured less prominently in Microsoft’s BI stack in the future.

Visio Services

Most people think of Visio as just a great tool to draw flow diagrams and org charts. And when Visio Services was created, most people thought of Visio Services as just a way to render flow diagrams and org charts online. Prior to 2013, you could only use data linking to connect to data graphics in Visio and Visio Services. However, in Visio 2013 and Visio Services 2013, you can now connect data to shape properties such as size and position, visibility, color, and geometry. You can even create or import custom shapes with custom properties that can also be connected to data.

For example, during Chris Hopkins’ presentation at SharePoint Conference 2012, he showed a retail example using a floor plan of a store, and circular racks which would be more or less fully based on inventory data residing in a database. To a retail buyer or merchandising coordinator, nothing spurs action like the image of an empty rack. You can also use hyperlinks in your shapes that allow you to drill to reports or other dashboards to get more detailed looks, now that you have the user’s attention.

You can also perform high-level customizations using Vwa Namespace in the JavaScript object model, or use the Visio Services class libraries to make custom data connections. You can find a listing of new Visio Services features for 2013 by clicking here.

Parallel Data Warehousing

In 2010 Microsoft shipped SQL Server 2008 R2 Parallel Data Warehouse (PDW), its first enterprise-class parallel data warehouse appliance. After a number of updates to the product, Microsoft will release its next generation PDW appliance in the first half of 2013. SQL Server 2012 Parallel Data Warehouse is widely expected to include a redesigned architecture with significant improvements, including greater performance and a reduced hardware footprint at a lower cost. Also, as a result of the growing need to integrate relational database data with big data sources such as Hadoop, this latest version of PDW will include one significant enhancement: PolyBase. PolyBase will enable analysts with the ability to query data from both relational databases and Hadoop using a single unified query statement. It promises to reduce much of the complexity associated with accessing Hadoop data and its integration with traditional relational-based data during analysis.

So with the continued need for faster analytics of ever-growing volumes of data and the rapidly growing emergence of Big Data, along with a lower-entry cost point than offered by its competitors, Microsoft’s SQL Server 2012 Parallel Data Warehouse is expected to become a more common cornerstone of BI department solution offerings across corporate enterprises during 2013, and beyond.

In-Memory Analytics

Continuing on the success of its development of in-memory data analytics such as that used in xVelocity, Hekaton (the Greek word for 100 times), is Microsoft’s new in-memory technology for online transaction processing (OLTP) databases. Similar in implementation to xVelocity technology, Hekaton employs compression techniques that promise to greatly increase the speed of data processing in transactional application databases. Note that Hekaton is a project code name and is expected to be released in the next version of SQL Server. Few details are available, but one notable item that we do know is that developers will have the option to select either tables or entire databases to host in-memory. We should be hearing more about Hekaton from Microsoft as the year progresses.

Mobile BI

With the emergence of smart phones and the advent of tablet computing, it only seems natural that business users should be able to access BI analytics while on the go using their mobile devices. To date, there have been some notable players who have proved successful in the Mobile BI market (RoamBI comes to mind), but it seems that up until recently, Microsoft has mostly ignored this important aspect of business intelligence. To a certain extent this changed with the release of SQL Server 2012 Service Pack 1 in November 2012. The service pack included a new feature enabling Reporting Services reports to work better interactively on iOS enabled devices. In addition, Microsoft recently provided a demonstration of its new and yet to be released Mobile BI solution named “Project Helix” at SharePoint Conference 2012.

Unfortunately there is currently very little information available on “Project Helix” other than what has been reported from tweets and blog posts resulting from the demonstration shown during SharePoint Conference 2012. Regardless, it would appear that Microsoft has turned a corner and definitely has plans for mobile BI. More will be revealed as 2013 progresses.

Cloud BI

Windows Azure SQL Reporting was made available during a spring 2012 preview, with its pricing model going into effect August 1, 2012. Still, talk of Azure Reporting was quiet both at both the SharePoint and PASS conferences compared to other technologies. Many people who have used Azure Reporting have found it difficult to set up and somewhat limited in its offering; for example, it does not provide a semantic layer comparable to Analysis Services. Some have also felt like the per-hour pricing model wasn’t for them.

For many companies, having a BI server on-premises will make sense for them, as native connectivity to SQL Azure has increased with the release of SQL Server 2012. While this may seem to defeat the purpose of hosting on the cloud, smaller organizations that mainly use their BI internally will find that the hardware costs of hosting Analysis Services and Reporting Services are not prohibitive if the larger OLTP and data warehouse layers are hosted in SQL Azure.

And since this is a post about predictions, we predict there is more to come in Microsoft cloud BI in the next few years, especially with Microsoft’s strategy of releasing many new features to Azure first.

SharePoint/Office Apps and the Apps Store

If you open Excel 2013, you will notice that “Blank workbook” is just one of the first options that hit your screen. You also have the option to open a host of other templates, such as “My financial portfolio” or my personal favorite, “Weight-loss tracker.”

Don’t adjust your set; these are actually Excel 2013 apps. Apps are new in the world of Windows 8 and Office 2013, and more or less replace the idea of add-ins. Architecturally, they involve HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript and use OAUTH, REST, and other web protocols to connect to the apps which are hosted either on premise or in the cloud. These services can also call up additional hosted or third-party data (including Microsoft-provided data sets) and integrate it into the apps delivery. These apps are made available on the Windows App Store (sound familiar?) with a model that allows the developer to take in a substantial share of whatever revenue they generate.

So what does this mean for BI? The idea of writing code to create “reporting tools” might have seemed as foolish before as using code to write a new spreadsheet application. However, this simple architectural model combined with the reporting improvements in Excel and the rest of Office will make it easier to write simpler, targeted, easily customizable reporting apps delivered in Office and SharePoint. Combining that with the distribution ease of the Windows App Store, we believe SharePoint and Office apps will play prominently in BI delivery in the coming years.

Slalom Consulting Solution Architect Patrick Brady 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.

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