Microsoft's (un)secret weapon for winning the BI battle

Ubiquitous Excel to be tied more closely to SQL Server and back-end BI tools.

But as Microsoft gets serious about BI, it has an ace that turns out to have been hiding in plain sight all along. The software maker's ubiquitous spreadsheet Excel is already the most popular front-end program used by business analysts and others who want to analyze and display the results of their BI queries, according to Forrester Research Inc. analyst James Kobielus.

Microsoft had done some work to tie Excel closely to SQL Server and its other back-end BI tools, such as PerformancePoint Server or SharePoint Server.

With its just-announced Project Gemini, that will greatly accelerate. Microsoft aims to "bring an Excel-based user analytics mashup tool into the core of Microsoft's BI and data warehousing product portfolio," wrote Kobielus in an e-mail. What is now only in "the hands of OLAP data modelers" and other highly trained staff will -- as Community Technology Previews roll out to public beta testers late next year -- become available to any company employee as an "in-memory, drag-and-drop, pivot-table-enabled" dashboard, Kobielus wrote.

Excel isn't the only client application Microsoft plans to leverage. Users will be able to access BI query results from Microsoft's Dynamics 2009 ERP application, according to Tom Casey, Microsoft's general manager for SQL Server business intelligence. Internet Explorer will also be used to deliver Microsoft's vision of "pervasive BI," said Kobielus.

"Yes, other BI vendors (e.g., IBM Cognos, QlikTech, TIBCO/Spotfire, SAP Business Objects) have in-memory BI/OLAP tools, but none of them offers the synthesis of Excel integration, ad hoc self-service analytics authoring, collaborative publishing and sharing, and managed IT governance that Microsoft will provide under Project Gemini," Kobielus said. "This is a game-changer for the BI and OLAP space, and will usher in the post-OLAP age of supremely versatile, deeply dimensional, user-developed analytics."

Microsoft is starting to bang that drum.

"Other companies talk about features that are like Excel; we talk about Excel," said Stephen Elop, president of Microsoft Business Division, which oversees Office and Excel. Elop was the keynote speaker yesterday at Microsoft's BI conference in Seattle.

Leveraging Excel to make BI so easy that it is virtually "self-service" isn't the only thing Microsoft is doing to make waves in the data warehousing market.

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