Microsoft Outlines BI Strategy, Platform

Katmai, PerformancePoint Server and Excel will play key roles in Microsoft's quest to make business intelligence more ubiquitous.

Microsoft declared the opening day of its first BI conference, May 9, "a new day" for business intelligence, with the same old goal every BI vendor has had for years: To make BI ubiquitous in the enterprise, used by all relevant workers, not just by executives and IT (who jigger reports for executives).

The difference with Microsoft and other BI providers is its ability to not only circulate BI technology through a massive technology stack—SQL Server, Office, other servers, tools—but to push that technology out through a ubiquitous application: Excel.

Microsoft has estimated that there are 500 million licenses of Office floating around in companies throughout the world; the company plans to tap at least a percentage of those users for its BI Platform, previewed today at Microsofts BI conference in Seattle.

"Were one company; we can deliver the underlying platform, tools and applications that can help your company leverage BI," said Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, during his keynote address at the BI conference.

"And we can build for scale ... You need to gain insight and drive decisions. Thats the focus of the tools in our applications layer. We are very focused on integrating into our tools—the Microsoft Office system—and using that on top of whatever you get from SQL Server.

In its sum total, the Microsoft BI platform includes three major components: SQL Server, SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft Office (including Excel 2007). The final piece is PerformancePoint Server 2007, which is really the applications layer of the BI platform. To this end, Raikes outlined the next version of SQL Server, code named Katmai, that will be the basis of Microsofts overall data platform vision.

The updated server, due in 2008, will include capabilities for large scale data warehousing and richer information delivery through Microsoft Office. "Katmai will be optimized for highly predictable performance and will include policy-based management," said Raikes. "Beyond rational database capabilities [users] will be able to store any type of data, including unstructured. Its a new data model that will enable [developers] to build richer applications faster."

Raikes also announced the acquisition of SoftArtisans, a company that develops Microsoft Office format reporting and file transfer software for managed report authoring in Office. The companys OfficeWriter software generates functional Excel spreadsheets and Word documents over the Web—without the need for Microsoft Office on the server—by populating Office documents with dynamic data from any source, according to the companys Web site.

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The reports take advantage of Office 97-2003 features, from advanced charts and formulas to macros/VBA and pivot tables. Microsoft actually acquired SoftArtisans a year ago, but chose to announce the deal at its BI conference. The companys technology will show up first in Katmai, and later in PerformancePoint Server. At bottom, however, SoftArtisans represents a big step forward in the interoperability of reporting with Office by allowing users to access, modify and author reports in Office and in Word.

"We have a very strong interoperability in terms of taking reporting services and exporting that to Word, or to Excel, but [SoftArtisans] gives you the capability to start in Word or start in Excel to access information, and author reports from there," said Chris Caren, general manager of Office Business Applications at Microsoft.

With the upgrades in Katmai, Microsoft is clearly targeting the enterprise market (its line of business applications, Dynamics, will be a line to midmarket customers) and enterprise-level BI projects. The heart of this initiative, however, is the Office PerformancePoint Server 2007, now in its second community technology preview.

Next Page: Office differentiates Microsoft from Oracle and SAP.