Microsoft expanding BI horizons

Israel-based business intelligence (BI) solutions provider Panorama Software recently set up shop in Toronto, with the goal of helping expand Microsoft’s BI presence in Canada.

Rony Ross, executive chairperson and founder of Panorama, which has been in the Web-based BI business since 1994, said she was looking for a spot to set up North American operations, and chose Toronto after someone specifically recommended the city because “the technology infrastructure is very solid, the cost of business operation is less expensive, and [Toronto] is easy to get in and out of,” with daily direct flights to and from Israel.

Panorama develops its solutions on top of Microsoft’s BI platform – and it’s the only company in Canada that does so, according to Ross. “There are not that many other (BI) players out there that are exclusively Microsoft players,” she said.

Ross said Panorama’s Novaview e-BI suite, an online analytical processing (OLAP) tool which enables users to analyze different dimensions of multidimensional data, is designed to make the most of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft’s data warehouse platform: SQL Server 2000 and Analysis Services. Combining Microsoft Analysis Services and Novaview makes for an ideal platform for business reporting, analysis and customer relationship management applications, she said.

The solution consists of an integrated family of modules – among them thin clients, full desktop client and Web server – that Ross said address the Web-based requirements of enterprise BI. Novaview offers “tight integration, not only with SQL, but also with Excel,” and “integrates with the general Microsoft environment,” she added.

Ross called OLAP a “fairly big market opportunity,” and said Panorama is “happy to make Microsoft get a big win in this market…We believe that Microsoft is becoming the industry standard for multi-dimensional databases.”

Darren Massel, Microsoft Canada Co.’s product manager for SQL servers, said this partnership is part of an overall Microsoft strategy to “promote BI for the masses, pushing out the capabilities to users in form factors they want to use.” Microsoft works with a number of front-end BI independent software vendors, and partnering with Panorama means there will be “more opportunity for customers to choose the best solution to fit their business needs.”

Microsoft hopes to expand its flexibility through the technologies offered by its partners, said Massel, adding that “any success they (Panorama) have in the market is a success for Microsoft BI in the market.”

The OLAP niche

Microsoft now owns the largest share of the OLAP market worldwide, according to the latest information in The OLAP Report, a study by independent industry analyst Nigel Pendse and Richard Creeth, a partner with Wilton, Conn.-based BI consulting firm Creeth, Richman & Associates. However, Pendse told ComputerWorld Canada that “Microsoft is much weaker in the other non-OLAP parts of the BI market, so it may not be the leader of the whole BI market.”

In the study, Pendse noted that Microsoft has no major OLAP product releases expected until well into 2004; with a three-year-old product offering still available now, “[Microsoft] is lucky not to be losing ground to more recently updated competitors,” such as Cognos, Business Objects, Hyperion and MicroStrategy.

However, Microsoft benefits from having several complementary partner products to fill in some of its own gaps. “The partners keep enhancing their own products, so the overall offering on the Microsoft Analysis Services platform does get better all the time, even if Microsoft itself only takes occasional – but very big – steps forward,” Pendse said. “Microsoft does a very good job in seeking out and supporting partners, and generally treats them quite fairly.” There are now dozens of front-end tools like Novaview, he said, that “do a great job of exploiting the Microsoft Server.”

Pendse wrote that the total worldwide OLAP market was about US$3.5 billion in 2002. Until 1997, the market showed a compound growth rate of 40 per cent, but that has been slowing since 1999, and in 2002 plummeted to four per cent, partially because of the drop in average prices due to Microsoft’s presence as a major vendor.

“In particular, all other OLAP server vendors are now reporting poorer results, whereas the leading client tool vendors continue to thrive (especially those specializing in analysis services),” he added.