MS aims PerformancePoint Server at BI market

Continuing its onslaught in what IDC calls the $270-million Canadian business intelligence space, Microsoft announced Tuesday PerformancePoint Server 2007, a move that capitalizes on the enterprise’s massive Excel user-base and positions Microsoft well for success, according to an analyst and a couple of already-satisfied customers.

The application—which will hit in November—will sit on top of SQL Server 2005, and requires Windows SharePoint services to run properly. Like a communal, administered spreadsheet, the program is an Excel add-on that stores workflow-enhanced spreadsheets on a SQL server, allowing for collaboration, approvals, and a range of features including offline capacity (changes are logged into the server once back online), the ability to port the information to PowerPoint, and identity-based information filters and read-only controls.

Joel Martin, an analyst with research firm IDC Canada, said that PerformancePoint Server 2007 is cobbled out of a few key Microsoft products. They include FRX reporting tools (from the Great Plains suite that Microsoft acquired) and ProClarity performance monitoring tools that are bookended by the reporting services in SQL Server 2005 and Excel’s newly built-in business scorecarding components.

Since the program functions through Excel, said Martin, Microsoft already has a very sizeable, loyal fanbase who will flock to an Excel-based business intelligence option. Said Martin: “Now it’s not about what data exists, but about how to pull it out.” This, he said, taps right into enterprise affection for Excel, and for the familiarity of Microsoft—in a survey of 500 enterprises, 30 per cent said that they planned to invest in business intelligence in the coming six months. And the number-one vendor? Microsoft.

Two of PerformancePoint’s early fans include National Money Mart and GPX International Tire, both participants in the late beta iteration.

Malden, Mass.-based GPX International Tire, a wholesale distributor and sometime manufacturer, was dealing with a dispersed operation that resulted in “monster” Excel spreadsheets floating around willy-nilly. Said CIO Jean-Louis Marin: “We needed a broad solution that would reach out to the disparate offices and pull the data bits to bring together under one umbrella.”

National Money Mart’s director of IT operations, Ed Raffin, was facing a similar challenge, as, he said, his people “live and die by Excel—to try and take Excel away from a financial person would be a good fight.” His goal was to take the data “locked up in Excel, unlock it, and give it to the people who actually use it.”

Its ease-of-use was one of the key factors, Marin and Raffin agreed. Marin said that his team was using the program within a half-hour. On-the-ground staff also get to enjoy the transparency of the system, which, he said, “gets all the brainwork done on the side of the architect.” The (actual work is done with the front-lines worker) by sending them an e-mail, which prompts them to open the spreadsheet, they fill in the data, save it, and send it up the line for approval. This consolidation has helped the company already by indicating sales force inventory, which effects product orders for China and its long lead times.

Marin said that PerformancePoint was also a very cost-effective option, as GPX already owns plenty of ProClarity licenses. (As Martin pointed out, if companies already have licenses of the programs that make up PerformancePoint Server, it makes for a very appealing price point.) Even the current obsession with interoperability has been taken into account, said Martin: “The SQL Server hooks right into SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, and Epicor.”

The solution also aids companies in keeping up with compliance and providing a clear trail. “Obviously, auditors don’t like Excel spreadsheets,” said Raffin.

But it’s the Excel functionality that will drive PerformancePoint sales, according to Martin. Raffin, for instance, said that Microsoft was his business intelligence vendor of choice due to the quirks inherent with other vendors’ attempts at Excel plug-ins. Martin pointed out that, in the end, Microsoft has a significant advantage, obviously, in creating an application that eases the pain of the Excel addicts in the enterprise. He said, “Well, they do own the application that’s causing the pain.”

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