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Microsoft highlights BI plans at Business Intelligence Conference 2010

The Microsoft Business Intelligence (BI) Conference kicked off with a look at the company’s plans to bring BI to business users.

NEW ORLEANS – Microsoft today detailed the progress of its ongoing plans to integrate business intelligence (BI) capabilities into Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint Server and Microsoft SQL Server at the Business Intelligence Conference 2010.

Speaking during the opening keynote address at the conference, Ted Kummert, senior vice president of Microsoft’s business platform division, said Microsoft plans to continue delivering BI functionality to organizations’ business users while enhancing the tools available to the IT professionals who support those users.

“Various industry analysts disagree on the [exact number], but it’s around 20% of users that are able to use BI today,” Kummert told the crowded auditorium of conference attendees. “But there are a lot of [BI] problems that end users can and should be able to solve for themselves.”

Kummert said the key to Microsoft's BI strategy is "managed self-service analytics," where business users are given the ability to use familiar applications to create and share queries and reports, while IT managers are given the tools to monitor and update things like data sources to help ensure the accuracy of those reports.

For example, a business user can use the newly integrated combination of Excel and PowerPivot to create queries and produce highly graphical reports. PowerPivot allows users to import data from various sources, process queries, perform scheduled data refreshes, and create dashboards, among other things. Once completed, those reports can then be uploaded into SharePoint Server, giving other interested parties within the organization the ability to view the information with a Web browser.

“We’re not creating standalone BI,” Kummert said. “We’re bringing BI into these environments.”

While Kummert didn’t make any major new announcements during the keynote, Microsoft yesterday announced some BI-related news at its TechEd conference, which is overlapping the Business Intelligence conference this year. Among the announcements, Microsoft announced the release of Bing Maps SDK, which allows users to visualize data in the form of map graphics, additions to its Azure cloud platform -- which include an updated version of Windows Azure SDK -- and updates to SQL Azure.

Microsoft efforts to simplify its BI offerings became clear in the beginning of 2009, when it announced that it would integrate the BI capabilities of PerformancePoint Server with SharePoint. In the time since, the company announced that the capabilities it acquired with FAST Search would also be integrated into SharePoint. Most recently, Microsoft announced the integration of PowerPivot with Microsoft Excel 2010.

While Microsoft is squarely focused on its recurring theme of “bringing BI to the masses,” at least one industry analyst is quick to point out that -- in this case -- the term “masses” doesn’t truly encompass everyone.

Seth Grimes, founder and analytics strategist with Alta Plana Corp., a Washington, D.C.-based business analytics research and consulting firm, said he thinks Microsoft’s current BI strategy is a good thing for organizations that are committed to the Microsoft platform. But he takes issue with Microsoft’s approach to marketing its BI capabilities.

“Integrating BI into [Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft SQL Server] is not going to bring BI to the masses,” Grimes said in a phone interview after the keynote address. “It’s going to bring BI to the enterprise Microsoft platform masses. Those aren’t the masses.”

Grimes added that he doesn’t believe Microsoft’s BI strategy will attract new customers to the Microsoft platform.

“Anyone who wants to have Excel already has it, so it’s not going to attract any more people to Excel,” he said. “And is it going to attract people to SharePoint and all the rest of that? I don’t think so, because people don’t make the decision to go with [Microsoft applications] because they’re looking to do BI. They look to do BI with Microsoft tools because they’re already using [Microsoft applications]. In other words, BI is not leading the sales. The sales of the enterprise platform are leading people to adopt Microsoft BI.”

Dedicated Microsoft users at the Business Intelligence Conference seemed enthused by Kummert’s keynote address, however.

Kyle Frost, the director of information technology with Orion Energy Systems, a Manitowoc, Wis.-based dealer of solar, wind and other power technologies, said the integration of PowerPivot with Microsoft Excel 2010 should save his team a good amount of time and effort.

Frost said his company will soon upgrade to Microsoft Office 2010. Once that task is completed, he plans to download the free PowerPivot extension for Excel.

“Right now, we lack the easy tools to come up with forecasting and [other things that help our] sales team make decisions,” Frost said. “A lot of our stuff is currently done in Excel spreadsheets, so adding PowerPivot on top of that will make for an easier transition [to Microsoft Office 2010].”

Microsoft’s Kummert spoke extensively during the keynote address about how the ongoing incorporation of BI capabilities into Microsoft Office, Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft SharePoint will empower end users to more easily create queries and reports themselves. As a result, he said, those end users will ultimately have fewer questions for IT professionals about how to do such things. But for Frost, having to answer fewer questions isn’t the main draw of Microsoft’s plan to bring BI to the masses.

“The quantity of questions is not an issue for me; it’s more about keeping things familiar,” Frost explained. “If you keep things on a familiar platform, there is less of a learning curve, and that is always a plus.”

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