Slicing and Dicing Microsofts Freebie BI Tools

Opinion: Lisa Vaas grants that Microsoft may indeed be attempting to drown big BI vendors, but are the tools really able to compete with the likes of Crystal, Cognos and the rest?

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.