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Microsoft business intelligence beefs up with performance management

Microsoft announced a performance management application for its business intelligence platform. A 2007 release date gives business intelligence stakeholders time to strategize.

Microsoft has embarked on a project to bring together its highly successful Office suite with its business intelligence (BI) tools and performance management -- but the company has set an ambitious timeline, analysts say.

The software giant yesterday unveiled its plans for Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, a performance management application integrated with its BI platform and Office. PerformancePoint will include business scorecarding, planning and analytics functionality, gleaned from the company's acquisition of ProClarity earlier this year. Users will be able to access the new features from Office 2007 applications, while the data and business rules will live on a centrally managed server. A beta program for PerformancePoint is slated for this fall, according to Microsoft, and general availability is "targeted for mid-year 2007."

The content of the message is compelling, but the timeline is aggressive, according to Keith Gile, research director at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. The announcement shows Microsoft's internal dedication to building applications on top of its SQL-based BI platform, Gile said.

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"It shows Microsoft's commitment to this whole arena of performance management and applications -- they're no longer partnering with companies like ProClarity and Panorama, they're competing with them," Gile said. "They've been competing with them on a BI level, and now they want to compete with them on a performance management level. It's a good model, but it also puts pressure on them to develop and deliver it."

Microsoft has a checkered history when it comes to delivering on promised timelines. Vista, its new operating system, has been delayed several times already.

The move is indicative of BI and performance management convergence, a trend analyst firm Gartner touted at its annual BI conference. Performance management generally includes planning, budgeting and forecasting functions and has typically been used by finance organizations. Proponents say using performance management beyond the finance group helps more operational business people stay aligned with corporate goals, while integrated BI gives them the data they need to do that effectively.

Lewis Levin, corporate vice president of Microsoft Office Business Applications, said in a statement, "Performance management is a natural market for Microsoft to address because we've done the BI platform work in SQL Server, we provide the end-user tools through Office [with Excel and SharePoint], but there's also a kind of organizational or business focus to BI that's increasingly important."

Microsoft is not new to performance management -- its Business Scorecard Manager has been on the market since fall 2005. Microsoft says it will continue to sell the scorecard and dashboard application and that it will be an important component of PerformancePoint. The ProClarity analytics package is now available from Microsoft as a standalone product, and as with Business Scorecard Manager, an upgrade path to the enhanced PerformancePoint version will be provided to customers that purchase support.

The PerformancePoint platform will be closely integrated with Microsoft Office 2007: namely, Excel, Outlook and SharePoint. The industry has both lauded and lamented Excel as a user-friendly BI application for the average employee -- a potential boon for Microsoft.

Combe Inc., a maker of consumer personal care products based in White Plains, N.Y., said PerformancePoint's integrated Excel interface was a key feature. Tim Case, Combe's chief information officer and senior vice president of information management, said that the company tested the product while evaluating BI tools.

"What differentiates this from others we've looked at is a comfortable user interface with Excel, [that it's] a logical extension of current investment in [Microsoft] BI tools, and that it's ultimately less expensive to deploy and support," Case said during Microsoft's online presentation.

According to Gile, however, it remains to be seen how Microsoft's performance management ambitions will play out in the enterprise. Microsoft will probably have a good angle for mid-market companies with homogeneous, Windows-based environments, especially if pure-play BI is too expensive for them.

"That's going to be something that Microsoft has to respond to," Gile said. "How are they going to deal with heterogeneous, mixed-platform environments? External sources are an important part of enterprise-class BI."

When asked whether companies evaluating performance management applications should wait to see what Microsoft has to offer, Gile said that it depends on their needs. For companies developing a long-term BI and performance management strategy, it's most likely good news. But companies that need performance management tools now probably shouldn't hold their breath.

"Pure-play vendors have been doing performance management for more than a decade," Gile said. "It's going to be hard to nail that in version 1 and say, 'We're comparable.' "

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