MS releases tool for creating analytics apps

A new Microsoft Corp. tool for building business intelligence applications was scheduled for release Wednesday, backed by a dozen Microsoft partner companies ready to use the tool on client projects.

The SQL Server Accelerator for Business Intelligence is intended to slash the time and cost of developing analytical applications. Developing such applications typically takes months, with programmers compelled to recreate back-end infrastructure such as databases for every new application they design, according to Don Petersen, a Microsoft product manager for SQL Server. Microsoft’s new tool automatically generates much of the code needed for low-level functions, freeing developers to focus on fine-tuning applications to meet customer needs, he said.

The SQL Server Accelerator for Business Intelligence will be available for free to Microsoft partners. Microsoft’s goal in releasing the software at no cost is to expand the market for SQL Server, Petersen said. The company competes against Oracle Corp., IBM Corp., Sybase Inc. and others, each of whom has also moved to bolster the business intelligence capabilities in their products.

One of the 13 consulting firms supporting the new tool at its launch is Quadrus Development Inc., a Calgary-based firm that has been working with the accelerator for five months. Quadrus is using the tool for four client projects and estimates that it has cut six to 10 weeks off each project’s development cycle, said Michael Matrick, Quadrus’ vice-president of business solutions.

Shell Canada Ltd. is working with Quadrus on analyzing the financial operations of its 2,000 Canadian Shell gas stations and the 900 retail shops attached to those stations. The applications being developed will let Shell Canada track data such as the operational costs of each station, along with details on what products customers are purchasing and how they’re paying for those purchases.

A test development done with a small subset of Shell’s available data was completed in January and “proved the project had value going forward,” said Dan Bainbridge, Shell Canada’s data warehousing team leader. A broader implementation is scheduled to be running at the end of June.

The accelerator has held up well under the strain of a large data volume, Bainbridge said.

“We’re a fairly big company. We were looking for a solution robust enough to handle us. A lot of solutions are fine for the mom and pop, but we’re not that,” he noted.

One problem area with the software is its flexibility in working with applications further along in the development process.

“We definitely need a product that can handle the full product lifecycle, and it’s not there yet,” Bainbridge said. “Data warehousing is very iterative. Once people see the data, they say, ‘What about this, and this and this.’ You need the ability to continually modify and adapt. It’s really good at doing the initial cut and initial development, but lacks some of the features to do the incremental changes to that OLAP (online analytical processing) environment you’ve created.”

That complaint is one many early users have raised, according to Bainbridge, and one he expects Microsoft to quickly address.

Other Microsoft partners supporting SQL Server Accelerator for Business Intelligence include ProClarity Corp. and Unisys Corp.

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