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Business intelligence software touts Excel integration

Business intelligence software vendors are touting tighter integration with Microsoft Excel. Is investing in these new features worthwhile?

Business intelligence (BI) software vendors seem to be following the old adage, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

The "'em" in this case is Microsoft Excel, the spreadsheet program that some experts have called the king of BI, thanks to its analytical features, familiar interface and ubiquitous presence on desktops. BI software vendors have long been challenged by Excel's stranglehold and have typically responded by trying to get users off the familiar interface and onto their tools, according to John Hagerty, vice president of research with Boston-based AMR Research. But users still like Excel because they interact with Office daily, and they're comfortable with the interface. Increasingly, BI vendors are conceding that point with tighter integrations.

"They've accepted the reality that the Microsoft Office products are the front end for most people's day-to-day interactions," Hagerty said. "Instead of having the users come to the BI system, they're bringing the BI system to the user."

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For years, vendors had responded with basic Excel integration functionality. This often meant the ability to save BI reports in an Excel format, Hagerty explained. While this was helpful for some, it didn't do much to solve the integrity issues introduced by spreadsheets. The result of saving a BI report as an Excel sheet was often a spreadsheet with a point-in-time snapshot of BI data, disconnected from source systems, which could then be manipulated and emailed, causing the potential for data discrepancies, Hagerty said.

Recently, BI vendors have announced tighter integration with Excel and other Microsoft Office products. This year brought a spate of announcements from, among others, Ottawa-based Cognos, which unveiled Go! Office; Paris-based Business Objects, which introduced Live Office; and New York-based Information Builders, which recently introduced Quick Data for WebFocus at its user conference, piquing the interest of attendees. While there are nuances to the various products, most of them have similar functionality -- enabling users to access cubes, refresh data and do analysis from within the Excel interface without having to go into the BI system at all. It appears that BI vendors are now embracing Excel, Hagerty said, instead of trying to woo users away from it.

Is Excel integration a new standard feature for business intelligence software?

Of course, there is another vendor in the mix. At Microsoft's first BI conference, company representatives showed off the native BI capabilities of many Office 2007 products. The "economic model" is a major differentiator, as is a "tight fidelity" between Excel and SQL Server data sources, Alex Payne, group product manager, Microsoft Office Business Applications, said during an interview at the event.

"We have a different approach when we say [BI features] are just part of Excel," Payne said. "It's not a separate add-on that you pay for -- we're providing BI natively inside Excel."

In fact, Microsoft's new messaging around pervasive BI and use of Office as a BI interface may put even more pressure on the market, Hagerty said. Organizations may be more compelled to leverage Office for BI -- accelerating the trend and demanding that other BI vendors keep pace. He predicts that Excel integration will soon become a standard feature for BI platforms.

That said, Excel features alone probably won't cause a company to pick one BI system over another or change platforms, Hagerty said. The real value for many companies lies in extending their existing BI platform to more users and making use of definitions, metadata and security that have already been created. It's unlikely that companies would want to recreate all of that in Excel or a new platform if it's already been created in another system.

Business intelligence software users laud Excel integration

Cognos' new Excel functionality got the attention of Bloorview Kids Rehab, a pediatric teaching hospital in Toronto, which uses the Cognos 8 platform. IT and finance previewed the new Go! Office features, according to Hakim Lakhani, director of decision support and planning with the hospital.

The finance people were interested in how the new features could help them create and distribute monthly budget reports, Lakhani said. Currently, they run a report, save it in Excel, and often have to combine data from different analysis cubes. These reports are then emailed to management and employees for variance analysis.

The Go! Office feature could significantly streamline the process, Lakhani said. To justify the purchase to management, he'd also highlight how the feature combines information from multiple cubes into one report more quickly and efficiently. Since management likes getting this type of composite information quickly, he said, this will be a big part of his business case.

There's a lot of value in having multiple interfaces to access their Cognos platform, Lakhani concluded. He and other analytical power users will probably continue to use the Cognos interfaces, while finance can use their favorite tool, and everyone will be working from the same data.

"I think most of our financial users will access the cubes through this Excel interface rather than going through Analysis Studio. I like Cognos tools myself, but I showed the Excel interface to a financial analyst and they were very impressed," Lakhani said. "They like the other tools -- but they are married to Excel."

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