Yet Another New Day Dawning

Ed Scannell, editor of Redmond magazine, will now be taking over Thursday's edition of Redmond Report. You can e-mail him your comments and questions at escannell@redmondmag.com.

Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, kicked off the company's first-ever Business Intelligence (BI) conference yesterday by heralding that the conference and the four product, partner and acquisition announcements it made will help represent a "new day for Business Intelligence."

Well, if this new day is anything like the "new day for business" that reportedly dawned on Nov. 30 last year when Microsoft rolled out the business version of Windows Vista, Office 2007 and Exchange Server 2007, the sun will be up closer to noon than 5 a.m. Overly cynical? Perhaps, but that is a feature -- not a bug -- in my personality. However, there's a long track record that suggests any major Microsoft software initiative requires a very long day to get the work done.

Raikes and company did, however, seem earnest about nudging their BI strategy forward. That strategy, of course, is to push a host of BI-related technologies down further in organizations to more "average information workers," who can be more productive by then tying into the existing and higher-end tools used by BI experts.

The four announcements included: new details of the next version of SQL Server, code-named "Katmai," expected to be delivered in 2008; the acquisition of Soft Artisan's OfficeWriter technology that helps with authoring reports for SQL Server reporting services; the intent to commit more deeply to important system integrators; and building momentum around Office PerformancePoint Server 2007.

I sat down with two Microsoft executives -- namely Alex Payne, Microsoft group product manager, and Francois Ajenstat, director of product management for SQL Server -- to talk about the significance of the announcements.

REDMOND: Taken as a whole, how do these announcements move your overall BI strategy forward?

Payne: From what we see, and quite a few third parties support this view, BI is not used throughout an entire organization because it is a separate tool. Yeah, the hardcore business analysts use it, but we want to get it out to more average information workers. BI is big on CIO's spending lists, but when you look at adoption rates within companies, it is still fairly low. What we are trying to do (through these announcements) is fundamentally change how we are going to deliver BI. We will still deliver BI tools to hardcore experts in the organization -- like the ProClarity stuff we acquired over a year ago -- but we are also expanding how people can consume BI through the investments we are making in the platform for embeddable BI and things we are doing in the Microsoft Office system to surface BI capabilities right inside where people live and breathe. It is an economic model strategy that says we want to drastically drive down the price points. We are fundamentally charging one-tenth of what competitors do.

REDMOND: Speaking of competitors, how does this further distinguish you from competitors' BI strategies, most notably IBM's?

Payne: Well, IBM, Oracle, Business Objects -- they are still delivering on a BI economic model and strategy that says "charge a lot of money for capable products but that are also cumbersome and not part of the every day process." And I don't see them changing that. And they [IBM] still has price points at $1,500 per user. You are not going to see people using BI pervasively.

REDMOND: So you believe BI for the masses continues to be distinctive strategy among competitors?

Payne: Right, BI for the masses, or pervasive BI, but let me stress that people often take this message the wrong way. They tend to think we are just dumbing it down -- like, OK, this is great for people who just want to look at data in Excel. We'll have a tool for hardcore BI analysts too, but we believe there is no one tool that we can deliver to an entire organization that will serve all their needs. We want to offer a breadth of functionality.

REDMOND: How do these announcements gel with your software-plus-services initiative?

Ajenstat: They are orthogonal right now. I look at this as a tipping point for BI for Microsoft. We have the infrastructure and the delivery capabilities, and we have everything in place for driving pervasive BI. When you talk about software-as-a-service or software-plus-services, the infrastructure we have from a platform standpoint of enabling the BI infrastructure can be consumed through SOA. So, all the various services that we offer are in fact all Web service-enabled. That is something we just have now as part of how we build the technologies. Reporting services and analysis services all are exposed through Web services. And it just so happens that we consume those through the Office tool set and SharePoint and Excel. We are working closely with the BizTalk team in terms of business processes and SOA to make analytics part of a business process.

REDMOND: What does Office 2007 do to help out what you announced today for BI?

Ajenstat: Office 2007 is where we have made a significant bet in terms of BI. Specifically, delivering BI directly to where users want it, namely Excel, delivering it within SharePoint, or even using Visio for data visualizations. So Office 2007 becomes that core place where we are going to deliver this information. You see Excel connecting natively to SQL Server analysis services, so now your business dimensions or metrics are available directly from within Excel. And SharePoint becomes a very significant piece of our BI offering because not only does it provide a portal or dashboard capabilities but it also provides content management, search, collaboration -- which can be applied on top of documents or unstructured information -- but also applied to BI. And when you start putting BI in those sorts of tools, then BI is no longer a separate thing. It is part of how you do your job. Office 2007 is core to how we will make pervasive BI a reality.

REDMOND: How hard a sell has it been for Microsoft to go to the Fortune 1000 companies and sell them in your overall vision for BI?

Ajenstat: You know, it is interesting. My real answer is customers, proof points, customer testimonials and partners. The fact you have partners like Capgemini, Accenture betting on Microsoft, meaning their customers are asking for Microsoft-based solutions. Those companies work with the largest organizations in the world. Some of the companies at this conference talked about looking at Microsoft BI as a strategic application for them where it is mission-critical. First Premier Bank Card is a good example of that where they are analyzing call record details in order to improve customer service in their call centers. So they [Fortune 1000 companies] are getting it.

And aLittle Further On Down the Road...
...yesterday in Santa Clara, Calif. was Jeff Raikes' boss, Steve Ballmer, declaring at the Software 2007 conference that Microsoft's early decision to strongly position Office 2007 as a development platform was starting to pay big dividends. He wasn't declaring that a new day was dawning, or anything, but said he was quite heartened by the number of ISVs jumping on board and the wide range of innovative applications they are bringing with them.

In his keynote, Ballmer boasted about the progress he felt Microsoft's Office Business Applications (OBAs) were making since their introduction last June. OBAs are essentially those applications that tie the company's desktop Office suite with server-based apps such as CRM and ERP using Web services. Ballmer said over 120 enterprise customers are deploying OBAs in a meaningful way, including Del Monte Foods, BMW, National Aviation Authority, Sasfin Bank and the Scripps Research Institute.

Another reason why the growing acceptance of OBAs lifts Ballmer's heart is that they're important to the company's overarching software-plus-services strategy. That strategy, of course. is designed to keep Microsoft's licensing revenues stream from Office 2007 in the pink. Ballmer said Microsoft is hoping to drive the deployment of licenses that customers now own as well as increase the number of upgrades to newer versions and sell more seats among larger corporate accounts.

Ballmer also announced Microsoft is making available the OBA Reference Architecture Pack for Price Management, which is part of an ongoing series of whitepapers and technical resources intended to guide the development of OBAs. More information can be had by going here.

The Greening of Big Blue
Not a ton of stories are written about the level of concern larger IT shops have about energy savings (although more are appearing over the past year). But when you get some quality time with an IT executive and ask what his three biggest concerns over the next few years are, a plan to develop some sort of green strategy will almost always be on that short list is.

Well, IBM set a shining example yesterday for all to see by announcing a $1 billion per year investment program that will result in significantly increasing the efficiency of not just its data centers, but those of its larger customers.

In the announcement expected today, IBM officials will discuss how, by 2010, it plans to double the computing capacity of hundreds of its data centers scattered around the world without increasing their power consumption. What will continue to drive up demands placed on data centers around the world will be the mushrooming number of servers placed in them to accommodate all sorts of Internet-based computing. IBM said the number of servers increased by 30 million just over the past 10 years, and many of those machines are increasingly powerful and require lots of juice.

The company hopes to accomplish its goal by using a mix of hardware, software and services, including a new cooling system capable of storing energy and putting the big chill on data centers, but only as needed. IBM will also discuss new software that increases the use of computers as well as put them into a sort of standby mode when they are not being accessed. Also new will be 3-D modeling and thermal engineering to improve the air flow through data centers.

It's nice to see a major company blowing cool air and hot air over what will be an increasingly important issue for IT shops over the next few years.

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