Microsoft getting its BI ducks in a row

With its announcement last month of Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, Microsoft Corp. is one step closer to its goal of becoming a player in the booming enterprise business intelligence (BI) market.

The new application is primarily a business performance management offering. PerformancePoint includes tools for business scorecarding, analytics and planning and will tie together previous standalone tools with analytic and visualization technology obtained through its April acquisition of ProClarity.

General availability for PerformancePoint is scheduled for mid-2007, and the main client-side interfaces will be Excel, Outlook and Internet Explorer. Microsoft also plans to integrate the PerformancePoint features directly into a future version of its Dynamics ERP financial application suite.

Elizabeth Caley, SharePoint product manager for Microsoft Canada, said PerformancePoint allows Microsoft to merge its traditional strength in analysis and reporting with products like SQL and Excel, with new functionalities in planning, budgeting and forecasting.

“It’s a really nice complement to our existing strengths,” said Caley, adding that the release moves Microsoft closer to a full BI offering.

The next piece of the puzzle will be Microsoft Office 2007, which is slated to ship to enterprise customers in late 2006. While PerformancePoint will work with previous versions of Office, Caley said Office 2007 will offer expanded functionalities and is intended to be the primary user interface to Microsoft’s BI offerings.

“People are familiar with Excel, they’re comfortable with SharePoint, and this is where they like to work on a regular basis,” said Caley.

John Haggerty, a vice-president with Boston-based AMR Research, said that while other Microsoft offerings have been aimed at the SMB space, the company is going squarely after the enterprise market with its BI play, and the pieces are coming into place.

“They’re setting the stage at this point for a really broad assault on the BI market,” said Haggerty.

One of their biggest hurdles, said Haggerty, was to develop a scaleable and robust BI architecture. He said that was accomplished with SQL Server 2005, and when Office 2007 is released, the user interface hurdle will have been passed as well.

“Microsoft is not being very subtle about connecting the dots,” said Haggerty. “That’s a very compelling story for a lot of people, because they’re very comfortable with Microsoft as the interface to a lot of their day-to-day life.”

He doesn’t see Microsoft packaging a complete BI suite like the incumbent players, but Haggerty said Microsoft will be pitching the interoperability of its products and the fact that they will work together out of the box.

While today Microsoft has comparable functionalities to the BI incumbents in specific areas, Haggerty said it won’t be until the availability of PerformancePoint and Office 2007 that the company will be able to give business users the full ability to go out and retrieve information, and drill up and drill down.

However, even once the full stack of applications is available, Haggerty said Microsoft will have some work to do bringing customers on board, predicting a transition period as companies get used to the idea of Microsoft as a BI vendor.

“It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another to have people actually do it,” said Haggerty. “I think at that point in time it becomes a lot more competitive.”

Leah MacMillan, vice-president, product marketing with Ottawa-based BI vendor Cognos, said Microsoft is entering a very hot space. With PerformancePoint, she said the company is attempting to bridge BI and performance management with a tool on the front end that glues together various components, but she said it masks a great deal of complexity on the back end.

“They really have a lot of expertise with SMBs and the way they’ve packaged this up shows (that),” said MacMillan. “(We think) Microsoft will make its first penetration with SMBs, but we don’t see them having a huge dent elsewhere until their technology really proves out.”

MacMillan said Cognos recognizes enterprise environments tend to be more complex and more diverse, with different data sources and different ERPs, while Microsoft tends to build solutions that work with very homogenous Microsoft-type environments.

“Our approach with Cognos 8 BI is, we have very open data access and work with different data sources…so we can work with existing infrastructures and allow customers to leverage that,” said MacMillan.

MacMillan added Microsoft wants to sell more Office licenses, so it’s unsurprising it would pitch Office as its primary BI user interface. But she said Cognos believes enterprise users prefer a Web-based delivery model.

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