Microsoft jumps into the data pool

Microsoft Corp. is making a play for the business intelligence software market, but exactly what the company is planning is unclear, according to one expert.

Microsoft could end up as a platform provider in the data centre, through SQL Server, or as an all-you-can-ask-for platform plus applications provider, said Rob Helm, director of research for Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm in Kirkland, Wash.

“The company is having a hard time deciding whether it is a platform or applications vendor,” he said.

There are some areas where Microsoft has achieved both these roles, in terms of NT and Office, but Helm said it must decide whether it wants to compete mostly with IBM Corp. in the platform space, or with Oracle Corp. in the everything-for-everyone business.

About a year ago, Microsoft acquired a data analysis tool, now known as Data Analyzer. Helm said this move allowed them into a market that had previously been relegated to partners. He added that he could see this happening with the software giant’s foray into the BI industry.

“The trend has been for this company to expand,” he said. “If they find partners who are 100 per cent committed to developing on Windows, who can bring in the business, then they would stay as a platform vendor. But my feeling is that they are more likely to go the other route.”

Helm said the move to data is a big deal, as it could become a strategic area for Microsoft. “An Oracle customer wouldn’t normally consider switching to a SQL Server, but they might put in one to get analysis capabilities.”

As Microsoft continues to play in this space, Darren Massel hopes the tools will bring BI to the hands of the masses.

Massel, product manager SQL Server for Mississauga, Ont.-based Microsoft Canada Co., said the company looked to BI as an opportunity to put more decision-making power into all enterprise users’ hands.

“BI is not just for power users or analysts anymore,” he said. “This is providing them the infrastructure to get more information out of their systems.”

The Microsoft business intelligence approach has at its base SQL Server, with Office on top of that. Office XP offers Data Analyzer, PivotTable Service and Digital Dashboard. SQL Server Enterprise Edition has data transformation services and analysis services.

At a recent Intelligent Data Warehousing (IDW) conference in Toronto, Massel spoke on the benefits of BI to the enterprise, and how it can help employees better understand the business strategies.

“Good employees want to make good decisions, but if they don’t have the right facts then they can’t.”

Helm said this follows the trend of trying to get data to everybody in an organization.

“There are a lot of decisions made by people who are not super geeks, but could really use the data. That is the kind of infrastructure people want to put into place,” Helm said.

The Data Analyzer tool comes with a graphical user face that Massel said starts to marry data mining and data visualization.

“This is really looking for foresight, looking to the future,” Massel told the IDW group. “Everything up to this point has been looking at the business, but this is going the last bit and looking for relationships that are not intuitive or obvious.”

He said in a later interview that visualization would help people spot trends and anomalies.

Helm said the charting, graphing and colour scales will help make it easier to manipulate data. He predicted that data mining and visualization would morph together more completely.

The only missing piece for Microsoft to look at is managed reporting, which Helm said would allow enterprises to send out the proper data to people and keep it updated.