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What Kind of BI Powerhouse Is Microsoft?

As 2003 draws to a close, Microsoft is busily preparing an enterprise reporting add-on for SQL Server for release early next year and has also announced a substantial overhaul of SQL Server’s extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL) capabilities. Microsoft has been a BI player for at least half a decade, introducing its first back-end BI offerings—an OLAP add-on called “OLAP Services” and an ETL facility called Data Transformation Services (DTS)—with SQL Server 7.0.

The latest moves offer proof that the software giant is intent on enhancing the BI capabilities of its flagship database. The company has introduced a metadata repository, ratcheted up the integration between its Excel front-end tool and SQL Server, enhanced both OLAP Services—rechristened as Analysis Services (AS) for SQL Server 2000—and DTS incrementally, and, in a related move, introduced a CRM offering (under the auspices of its Microsoft Business Solutions division).

“If you look at SQL Server, we have integrated ETL, we have built-in, integrated data mining, we have built in, integrated OLAP—we’re the leader in that space—and we’ll have built-in reporting services coming online soon,” says Tom Rizzo, director of product marketing for SQL Server. “We also have the built in accelerators for Office, we’re just investing heavily in business intelligence for our customers. We want to be able to provide everything that [customers] need.”

Despite all this activity, Microsoft remains a curiously low-profile BI player—at least by its own standards, which include market leadership in the operating system, office productivity, e-mail, groupware, and relational database markets.

“Reports of Microsoft's domination of the BI market in the late 1990s were greatly exaggerated,” agrees Wayne Eckerson, research director at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), who nevertheless agrees that the software giant seems to have many of the pieces of a successful BI stack. “Microsoft's BI platform had almost everything back then—an RDBMS, a hybrid OLAP database, an ETL tool, a metadata repository.”

In spite of its lack of overt success, few would dispute that Microsoft has had an important impact in BI. After all, many users were first exposed to OLAP, data mining, or ETL when they deployed these capabilities in combination with SQL Server 7.0 or SQL Server 2000.

It’s also possible to argue that Microsoft has been a force for innovation in BI. Its decision to incorporate both an OLAP engine and ETL capabilities into SQL Server 7.0 was at the time unprecedented among large database vendors, notes Mike Schiff, a senior analyst with consultancy Current Analysis. This move anticipated, to a large extent, Oracle’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to building BI functionality into Oracle 9i. Since then, IBM Corp. has strengthened its ties with Hyperion Solutions Corp. to provide OLAP capabilities with DB2 and partnered with Ascential Software Corp. for ETL.

Microsoft has perhaps been most successful in jumpstarting user interest in BI. Many users of Microsoft-based BI solutions with whom we spoke say they often had no prior experience with ETL or OLAP tools, but have nevertheless tapped SQL Server’s native support for both facilities to support applications that might otherwise not have been developed.

Take Eric Johnson, a SQL Server administrator with a national architectural design firm. Prior to implementing SQL Server 2000 and DTS, Johnson’s company stored all of its data in a Filemaker workgroup database. “Currently our data is in Filemaker and we are converting it into a SQL-based database … for use in SQL Server,” Johnson explains. “We did not use any other [ETL] method [before DTS and SQL Server 2000] and this has been our only tool.”

Johnson isn’t alone. “We didn't use any other ETL Tool [before DTS and SQL Server 2000]. This was our first use of tools like this,” confirms a database administrator with a prominent financial services firm. “We are using DTS as a migration tool from one [database] structure to another. Either from a completely different database engine such as Pervasive.SQL or from a [Microsoft] SQL 2000 database we've designed before with a completely different structure due to column additions [or] deletions, etc.”

Most novice users say that DTS has more than met their expectations. “From my limited experience so far it has done everything we have wanted,” Johnson confirms. I don't have enough experience to suggest any improvements, or I should say I have not run into any problems that need improvement, not to say that it does not need improvements.”

Some users have moved beyond basic applications and are now tapping Microsoft’s BI stack for mission-critical tasks. In some instances, they say, they’ve chosen Microsoft BI solutions over competitive offerings from third-party vendors—and long-time market leaders.

“We use DTS to pull data from DB2 running on mainframe VSE, perform an assortment of transformations, followed by migrating the final data to our data warehouse [running on SQL Server 2000],” says Chuck Richardson, a SQL Server administrator with Santa Fe Community College. “We evaluated Informatica Power Mart, IBM Warehouse Manager, and DTS and completed proof-of-concepts with all three products successfully. In the end, DTS was extremely capable and much more affordable than the competitor's products were, so we chose DTS.”

Emil Nadzhafov, a SQL Server administrator with a fulfillment services provider, also uses DTS to import data from a mainframe system. “I am using DTS to import data from our mainframe into SQL server … and produce batches of .CSV output for the payroll application which has very specific requirements,” he comments. Prior to SQL Server 2000 and DTS, Nadzhafov says, he relied on some fairly long-in-the-tooth technology to get at his Big Iron data: FoxPro running in an MS-DOS command-line environment.

As a practical tool for importing data from, or exporting data to, many common data sources, DTS has been a big success story for Microsoft, but Analysis Services—nee, OLAP Services—has also found uptake in many shops. A report administrator with a large telecommunications company says his employer plans to tap Analysis Services to migrate off of a home-grown OLAP solution that it originally developed for SQL Server 6.5. “We are moving to an [Analysis Services] OLAP process in the next quarter to replace our current infrastructure. We developed an OLAP process back in SQL [Server] 6.5 when OLAP didn't exist, however, it's completely I/O dependent,” he explains. “We have to move these processes to OLAP to take some stress off our hardware.”

This administrator is also a user of Crystal Reports from Crystal Decisions, which was acquired by Business Objects SA this summer. He says he’s been beta testing Microsoft’s forthcoming SQL Server Reporting Services and will in all likelihood deploy that offering when the software giant ships the gold code sometime next year.

For his part, TDWI’s Eckerson believes that Microsoft is starting to piece together a compelling BI stack. “Slowly but surely Microsoft is putting together a robust BI platform that will serve many companies exceedingly well. They still don't have the ear of corporate America, but they are starting to make inroads,” he says.

Along with the software giant’s much-anticipated Reporting Services add-on, Eckerson speculates that the capabilities that Microsoft is building into the next revision of DTS—slated to ship with its SQL Server “Yukon” database—could have an impact on the market. “Many companies are using DTS for basic ETL work because it offers a programmatic interface and comes for free with SQL Server, compared to the high price tag of most ETL tools,” he says. “The next version of DTS is supposedly much more robust … comparable to the higher priced tools. If that's true—and if it's still free—it will affect the market.”

In a twist, Sanjay Poonen, vice president of marketing with data integration specialist—and ETL powerhouse—Informatica Corp. agrees.

“The tools market for ETL is where the database players are just going to get stronger and stronger and commoditize their tools, so you would expect over time that the capabilities that Oracle has with [Oracle Warehouse Builder] and Microsoft has with DTS will get better,” he concurs. “In fact it will commoditize ETL, so if people are extracting data out of SQL server, they’ll use DTS, and if they’re extracting out of Oracle, OWB.”

The curious thing about Microsoft as a BI player is that it is a partner to, or is otherwise an essential enabling platform for, many of the same vendors—such as Informatica—that it’s competing against. Not surprisingly, then, many BI players are decidedly cautious when asked to discuss the software giant. Reporting vendors, in particular, have practically bent over backwards to downplay the threat posed by Reporting Services—and to pigeon-hole Microsoft’s offering at the same time.

“I think that’s exactly the type of low-end, very specific purpose-oriented type of reporting solution that some users need,” said Michael Branchaud, director of product marketing for Cognos Inc., in an interview earlier this year. “I could see that being a nice complement to a Microsoft platform that they’ve already built that application [which has a reporting requirement] on.”

For his part, Informatica’s Poonen says there’s a good reason his company and other purveyors of data integration platforms will be insulated from the more disruptive effects of Microsoft’s ascendance as a BI player.

“When we took this thing [ETL] public, the analysts said to us ‘This thing that you’re talking about appears to be a feature of the database, so why do you think that you’re not just going to get eaten up by Oracle?’” he recounts. “It was the same answer then as it is now: There’s a need in a Global 2000 company for a Switzerland player that can move data between heterogeneous systems. And that’s something that Oracle and Microsoft with their [ETL] tools just cannot do.”

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