Slicing and Dicing Microsofts Freebie BI Tools

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2004-06-17

Slicing and Dicing Microsofts Freebie BI Tools

Upon Microsofts release earlier this month of two new, free accelerators aimed at speeding business intelligence by easing data access and scorecard creation, two thoughts occurred: First, that Microsofts handing out of BI tools like they were so much Halloween candy must be driving the proprietors of expensive BI tools nuts. Second, are these tools robust enough to compete with offerings from the likes of Crystal Reports or Cognos?

BI vendors are indeed scrambling. The fact that theres been so much industry consolidation proves that theyre struggling to cope: Hyperion acquired Brio in the fall; Business Objects acquired Crystal in December; and most recently, Microsoft acquired ActiveViews in April.

"The BI vendors are scrambling around to add on new features, functionality or even new tools" in the wake of Microsofts entry, pointed out Keith Gile, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Indeed, the top vendors well know that theyve saturated the market for high-end analytic reporting and are now trying to branch out to the reporting that gets done by more humble users, Gile opined—think administrative assistant with Excel.

In the meantime, many if not most enterprises are looking to consolidate on a single BI platform. Steve Berry, president of the BI consultancy and training shop Strafford Technology, told me that the level of interest in Reporting Services is "very significant."

It doesnt fit in all cases, particularly in enterprises with more complex needs, but in many cases, customers already have SQL Server databases and are willing to give up some functionality for the price tag—which, in most cases, is zero. If you dont count the cost of licenses for SQL Server, of course.

But what about the tools themselves? News reports following the accelerators release noted a slew of weaknesses that make them unfit to compete with established BI products.

As Gile said, its easy to pick on Version 1 of a product. Gile has been telling the many clients who ask him about Reporting Services that he expects it to be a viable production environment in 18 to 24 months.

Opinions are mixed, however: Berry found the product to be a pretty extensive offering with regards to Web reporting and distribution of reports over the Web, and Adib Khartabil, vice president of professional services at the company, agreed.

Next page: Which features to look at when considering Reporting Services.

Drilling Down

What features are the experts looking at? These things:

Is the report development mechanism robust enough for power users? Gile finds the report development function of Reporting Services to be "pretty lame," since it requires a Visual Studio .Net add-in.

Berry was concerned about the same thing, but when his people got it into the lab, they found that there are a number of third-party tools you can swap in for use as a front end, such as those from ProClarity. Such tools give you much easier interfaces to work with, Berry said.

No sharing of metadata between reporting platforms. Many of the various proprietary platforms create their own metadata level, meaning you cant leverage that data component from one tool to another. You cant create a Reporting Services report, hit a button and bring it up to work on in Crystal, for instance.

This isnt Microsofts fault per se and instead has to do with how architectures have evolved, as vendors have attempted to shield hapless end users from the complexity of working in too close a proximity to the convoluted back end of the database.

Thus we get tools from Brio, Cognos and Hyperion that are, as Khartabil put it, self-serving from a database standpoint, grabbing data from databases and staging it for reporting.

But then came upstarts such as Brio and Crystal, which allowed users to go directly against the database and get reports fast. Now, we have a situation where every company has its own approach with metadata schemes, since all of those metadata layers are proprietary and prevent sharing.

Microsoft isnt to blame, but it could and perhaps should take the lead in creating adapters that allow users to seamlessly share reports back and forth. One thing thats holding up others from working in that direction is what Gile says is a paranoia within BI vendors who think that opening up to Microsoft would put them out of business. An understandable fear, but one thats likely short-sighted.

What will bring us to the holy grail of switching between reporting tools? XML-based reporting, of course. Berry said he knows of at least one company thats got a potential XML-based solution, so keep your eyes peeled for announcements in that direction.

Tight integration with Office components. Enterprises now need Office developers, Visual Studio developers and SQL Server DBAs, Gile noted. Why isnt Microsofts Office group working more closely with the SQL Server group to make life more cost-effective? Why does the Office group have separate drivers? Why is it a separate group at all?

If BI vendors are shaking now, just wait until the day when Microsoft pulls all of its disparate parts together and turns out BI tools that bridge the gap between all of those technology islands.

Write to me at Associate Editor Lisa Vaas has written about enterprise applications since 1997.

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