Friday, March 31, 2006

The ratchet goes up a notch

Back last year I wrote about the creeping progress of Microsoft into the business intelligence arena. In CBR Madan Sheina, (one of the smartest analysts in the industry by the way), examines the latest move in this direction, the SQL Server 2005 suite's enhanced business intelligence offerings. The new ETL offering SSIS (previously DTS) will be of interest, although its SQL Server ties may limit the take-up of this relative to database-neutral offerings. However the new Analysis Services and Reporting Services promise to ratchet up the pressure on the pure-play BI players, Business Objects, Cognos and the rest. I have long argued that the most ubiquitous BI tool is actually Excel, and that given that people already know this, an ideal BI tool for many users would be one which magically got the data they wanted out of a data warehouse directly into an Excel pivot table. Yes, there will always be a subset of power users for who this is not enough, but in the vast majority of cases this will actually do the trick. Other tools (visualization, data mining etc) would be relegated to niches if this were to happen significant niches perhaps, but niches nonetheless.

Business Objects has done well because of its semantic layer, the "universe", which overlays something closer to a business view on top of data marts and warehouses; this imposes some maintenance overhead but this is acceptable to users since it represents the data in a more business-like form. However Business Objects has always struggled with its OLAP capability relative to competitors. Cognos by contrast, had the best OLAP tool out there in Powerplay, but a rather ordinary reporting offering. These two vendors pretty much carved up the market between them, though in a growing market there was enough room for other tools like Microstrategy, Actuate etc as well. Microsoft's new suite poses a potent threat to most of these BI vendors, since most users do not use more than a tiny fraction of the features of a BI tool, so adding more features just to stay ahead of Microsoft is ineffective; the end users simply don't need more features. With its low price point and "good enough" features, the Microsoft tools are likely to gradually eat into the market share of the independent vendors. Nothing dramatic will happen overnight, and the curious restraint of Microsoft from serious marketing of its tools to the enterprise will also slow progress. What was the last time you saw a webinar or advert for Analysis Services? Compare and contrast with Business Objects, which is a marketing machine.

However, just like a pack of hunting dogs wearing down a large prey animal, the Microsoft tools can just edge up on the BI vendors in reach with each release, secure in their Office base that they control what users really want: Excel.

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