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Microsoft Business Intelligence (BI) Making a significant impact in the market

Business Intelligence (BI) is a much hyped-up buzz word in the IT and business world today. Few organizations have got into an early start by implementing BI solutions while a number of others ponder on how such a project and especially an investment in BI, can actually help drive the bottom line. This situation is reflected in Sri Lanka too. The writer of this article, a Solutions Specialist from Microsoft Sri Lanka takes a look at the fundamentals of a BI solution and reflects with initiatives and development from Microsoft to address the BI space in Sri Lanka.

Business intelligence (BI) delivers on a simple promise: to improve business performance by driving better decision making throughout an organization. When an organization is confident that their insight into corporate data is sound, informed, and complete, they can trust that all their decisions will help them create competitive advantage and achieve corporate objectives. But for BI to reach its potential, it must have the flexibility and functionality to extend from the individual through the team to the organization. BI must also be responsive to the different needs of people in an organization and take into account all the information- structured and unstructured, that will be used to make decisions.

The foundation to a successful BI solution is trustworthy data that people can access and understand easily. Today the biggest problem in many information systems, including the popular ERP implementations is that the users don’t trust the data. This is no fault of the systems or BI products. It is a fundamental issue of how systems and processes are integrated with the business and how IT is managed by the organization. Data duplication, synchronization between systems and processes, workarounds introduced, lack of deep understanding of data modeling skills, multiple data and application platforms have all contributed to this issue. Unless these issues are addressed, it is unlikely that a BI solution will deliver the desired results and benefits that were advertised when it was sold to the decision makers.

The objective of a BI solution is not to produce decisions, but to use as a tool to gain deeper insight to the business and understand “What is happening”, “Why is it happening” and then come-out with strategies to either mitigate the potential risks or to maximize the opportunities. Once these strategies are identified, fine-tuned and implemented, it is necessary to monitor and measure the business outcome of them. This essentially results in three main activities that will be performed in a cyclic manner, Monitoring – understanding what is happening in the business, Analysis – find out why is it happening and Planning – building the required strategies to implementing the decisions made.

A good BI solution must help the decision makers to combine the required structured and unstructured data and facilitate each individual to analyze the data using tools familiar to them and develop business insight, understand the complexity of an issue, analyze the factors and root-causes of the issue and come-up with assumptions leading to what-If analysis models and scenarios. This refines the decision makers thinking and helps to build potential solutions to address the issues. Finally these solutions need to be discussed, presented, articulated and argued with each other to arrive at, and select the most viable solution for the business. By repeating this process over and over again, a business develops better insights to decision making using BI as a tool. BI is then seen as a strategic tool that will help decision makers to unlock the potential in them and bring out the creativity, intuition and business insight to solve challenges in the organization.

Microsoft has been carefully observing the Business Intelligence domain and have been strategically investing in technologies and acquisitions to strengthen the presence in this area. With the launch of Microsoft SQL Server 2005 it was possible to bring all of the data within the organization together, no matter where it resides, and helps improve business data processes. SQL Server 2005 offers an enterprise-ready and proven engine that can store huge amounts of data, scale to the largest enterprise needs, and support high query loads, high performance, and clustering. The SQL Server 2005 comes with a powerful and easy to use ETL (Extract Transform and Load) tool that helps to bring together data from different data sources and databases. The SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) engine helps to build OLAP cubes and provides enterprise class analysis capabilities. Using SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) reports can be developed and published quickly to address both routine and ad-hoc information requirements.

Microsoft has made a huge investment in the 2007 Microsoft Office system, improving integration and functionality to allow decision makers to seamlessly analyze, visualize, and gain insight into data by means of the already familiar Microsoft Office environment. Reporting and analysis tools help information workers access and investigate the data necessary for better decisions. Microsoft Excel is arguably the most widely used BI tool today. It can help perform a simple data aggregation and analysis to complex data models built using pivot tables and macros. With Excel 2007 users now have the ability of directly connecting to a SQL Server Analysis cube via the Local Area or Wide Area network and analyze the data using pivot templates and new data analysis and visualization tools in Excel.

Microsoft Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 is one of the latest products introduced to build a comprehensive performance management program that supports organizational decision-making processes. Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 was built to support corporate and line-of-business scenarios—from sales to HR and operations to finance. Decision making now has a greater context that captures the workings of your entire company. Performance management harnesses the tools, applications, and data involved in decision making, helping to align strategies, people, and processes. Office PerformancePoint Server 2007 provides score-carding and dashboard features to help monitor the business, comprehensive set of tools for decomposition analysis, heat-maps and for slicing and dicing the data. A powerful financial budgeting and planning component which is integrated with Excel 2007 and a host of graphical capability to analyze and understand data patterns, perform What-If scenarios and predictive analysis.

Microsoft believes in providing BI for the masses. By enabling many people to have better insight to the business, tools to analyze data and the means to collaborate with each other, Microsoft believes in unlocking the true potential in people. To enable many users to consume the BI information and have access to BI tools, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) is used as the presentation layer. MOSS provides the platform required for publishing the score-cards, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), reports and graphs with drill-down capabilities and a host of other collaboration features. The entire solution stack is integrated with Windows Server Active Directory for user authentication. This enables the organization to provide access to different levels of information based on the user profile.

Recent independent analyst reports confirm the strategic direction and leadership position Microsoft is taking in the BI space.

The Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms presents a global view of Gartner’s opinion of the main software vendors that should be considered by organizations seeking to develop business intelligence (BI) applications. Garter has placed Microsoft as Leaders in the BI Platform (2008). The Gartner group has identified the following strengths of Microsoft in the BI space.

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Microsoft’s pricing and integration with its Office (including its major CPM-led innovation of 2007, PerfomancePoint Server) and SQL Server products are especially attractive to organizations that have standardized on the Microsoft information infrastructure. The bundling and pricing of its BI products makes them an economically attractive offering that will be considered by many organizations.

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Microsoft’s BI products appeal to the large community of Microsoft application developers. Microsoft’s BI platform provides developers with infrastructure, development tools, workflow and collaboration capabilities that are held in higher regard than those of many of its competitors.

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Microsoft is benefiting from developing its indirect sales and services channel and market awareness of its SQL Server, Office and SharePoint Portal installed base. As a result, Microsoft estimates that it now has around 2,000 OEM/ISV partners for its BI products. Many departmental and business unit end users who hear the Office and SharePoint integration marketing messages for BI will likely ask for the products and associated support from their IT departments.

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According to the customers we contacted as part of his research, Microsoft offers the best BI software quality of all the megavendors, with over half of them reporting no problems with software. This reflects Microsoft’s focus on BI, the strength of its product line management team and the fact that much of its BI technology has been internally developed rather than acquired.

The AMR Research, in its article published in June 27, 2007 identifies Microsoft as a formidable player making a looming impact on the existing and established players in the BI space. AMR identifies five areas of impact by Microsoft. These are; BI for everyone, Lowest Total Cost of Ownership compared to the investments on competitive solutions, complete solution in terms of ETL tools, Database / data warehouse, analysis, reporting and consumption through MOSS and Office 2007 suite of products, A better go-to-market strategy and positioning and finally the Microsoft partner echo system providing the all important augmentation to develop and implement customized solutions.

AMR has also stressed the commitment that Microsoft has shown in developing and improving its BI presence in the market especially with the launch of SQL Server 2008 and a host of other developments in the pipeline to strengthen the capability of the complete BI solution stack.

A number of corporate customers in Sri Lanka have shown interest and enthusiasm on Microsoft Business Intelligence solutions. Few corporate are evaluating how Microsoft can augment the solutions that are already in place. Microsoft Sri Lanka is confident that organizations will consider and adopt the solution offered by Microsoft as it provides a better overall proposition compared to competition in terms of functionality, price and user experience.