Microsoft looks to unlock door to wider BI use

Strategy will scale up size of data warehouses SQL Server can support and introduce an Excel-based user analytics mashup tool.

SQL Server may be one of the most popular databases among corporate users, but Microsoft is a relative laggard in the business intelligence market. It ranked just fifth among BI vendors last year, according to market research firm IDC.

But Microsoft last week detailed a multipronged strategy aimed at scaling up the size of the data warehouses that SQL Server can support into the hundreds of terabytes while also, in the vendor's words, democratizing BI within companies through the use of Excel and other Office applications.

In particular, Excel may turn out to be Microsoft's BI ace in the hole.

The ubiquitous spreadsheet is already the most popular front-end program among business analysts and other workers looking to display and analyze the results of BI queries, said James Kobielus, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Now, via a self-service analysis project code-named Gemini, Microsoft plans to develop "an Excel-based user analytics mashup tool" designed to make it easier for end users to build their own BI applications , Kobielus said in an e-mail. He called Gemini a "game-changer" for the BI market.

Some IT managers whose companies use SQL Server were also impressed by what they heard about Gemini, which Microsoft plans to ship as part of a BI-oriented release of SQL Server 2008 that is code-named Kilimanjaro.

Lacking Resources

David Smith, CIO at ServiceU Corp., an event management and ticketing services provider in Memphis, said his IT staff has "a limited number of man-hours" that it can devote to BI projects for end users. And he doesn't think ServiceU is alone in that regard.

"Microsoft has correctly determined that the limiting factor for most businesses to implement significant BI projects is the scarcity of IT resources," Smith said. In some cases, that means workers are shut out from using BI tools, he added. But to Smith, Gemini appears to offer a way of making analytic capabilities available on a much broader scale.

Mayur Raichura, vice president of information services at Long & Foster Real Estate, also thinks that Microsoft's plan will enable more users to analyze data without IT's help.

And Excel's ability to handle millions of rows of data in memory should make it possible for Long & Foster to examine large amounts of data from the company's transaction systems and its Web site search logs, according to Raichura. If so, that will "position us to deliver a better financial analysis in a real-time mode," he said.

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