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PPS 2007 Could Make BI(g) Impact

PerformancePoint Server launch to bolster Redmond’s BI push.

Microsoft hasn't been in the business intelligence (BI) market as long as competitors such as Business Objects, but recent research studies have seen Redmond growing strongly in the space.

Microsoft is about to write the next chapter in its BI story with the release of PerformancePoint Server (PPS) 2007 on Sept. 19.

PPS is essentially the middle tier of Microsoft's BI stack, where Office serves as a front-end and SQL Server is the back-end, storing data and providing an online analytical processing engine. PPS is used to generate corporate performance management features such as scorecards and dashboards.

Gartner Inc. analyst John Van Decker says PPS 2007 will make a big splash in the BI space because Microsoft is set to challenge its competitors based on price. "We think it will have a market-transforming effect because the price point should be much lower," Van Decker says.

However, Van Decker suggests, that doesn't mean Microsoft is targeting its products at small and midsize businesses. "Initially, there's been some talk that it would've been positioned more as a mid-market offering. Based on what we've seen, it's anything but. It's an offering for the tier-one space."

Development Implications
PPS's core capabilities are based on analytics technology Microsoft acquired by purchasing ProClarity last year. Redmond has issued several community technology previews of PPS leading up to the September launch. The result is surprisingly full-formed, analysts tell RDN. Van Decker says the modeling tools within PPS "are good for a first release.

"We thought it was going to be an environment where you develop your own applications. That's true to a point. ... It will require some IT involvement to get the environment up and running."

Forrester Research Inc. analyst Paul Hamerman says PSS was created with the business analyst and end user in mind. "Developers may want to sit side by side with the business people and configure these models," he says by way of painting a development scenario.

Microsoft's Bill Baker says enterprise developers would work on tasks such as integration of PPS-generated functionality into other apps. "The more business-oriented person can handle the modeling but a developer can punch it into the application," says Bill Baker, whose full title is general manager, Office Business Platform, business intelligence.

Development atop PPS is partly constrained by which version of Office an enterprise is using. While PPS supports both Office 2003 and Office 2007, the end-user experience will differ, Hamerman notes. "Basically what it comes down to is that Office 2007 has some added UI functionality -- the ribbons, stuff like that. It's a richer UI and PPS 2007 takes advantage of some of those capabilities," he says. "This is a strength. UI is clearly a Microsoft strength."

Big BI Jumble
PPS -- at least this initial version -- is also in a sort of limbo on the back-end. It is built atop SQL Server 2005, but Microsoft has been touting SQL Server 2008 -- set for launch in the second quarter of 2008 -- as the cornerstone of its BI offerings.

But Baker says PPS won't immediately take full advantage of advanced features planned for SQL Server 2008 -- which include new support for spatial and unstructured data, and the ADO.NET Entity Framework.

The company plans to issue a PPS service pack to ensure the 1.0 product is "fully compatible" with SQL Server 2008, but customers won't see true integration until PPS version 2.0. Baker says that release will coincide with the next version of Office. (Microsoft hasn't given a release date but reports have pegged 2009.)

Ventana Research Inc. analyst and CEO Mark Smith says this seemingly scattershot approach is nothing new, and probably not a big deal in this case. "Like any company, Microsoft has these release cycles. Nothing is ever lined up. ... There are sufficient interfaces to make this stuff hold together."

Baker argues that incongruous release schedules can provide opportunities. "You can go back and forth about whether you want to line these things up or stagger them," Baker argues. "The nice thing is they're putting stuff into SQL Server 2008 now that we'll use very richly in our next version."

PPS has also gained interest from a number of ISVs, which are using Microsoft's code to add reporting functionality into their own products, Baker says. He declined to name the company but says announcements will follow the PPS launch.

Intelligent Choices
.NET shops looking to add BI capabilities might naturally gravitate to Microsoft's ready-made stack. That said, enterprise BI customers have a wide range of other and more mature and sophisticated technology to choose from, Smith says, and those working in mixed environments have certain questions to consider.

"You need to do an assessment of what your company is requiring in what timeframe. ... You have to kind of commit to using an Office-based environment for BI, which has yet to be proven. People use Excel in the enterprise but not necessarily in a shared fashion," Smith says.

Also, PPS is built atop SQL Server and isn't compatible with other databases. That's not the case with some competing vendors, Smith notes. "Most of the BI products support SQL Server or IBM."

About the Author

Chris Kanaracus is the news editor for Redmond Developer News.

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