PowerPivot/Excel/Sharepoint and SSRS – should they merge?

I’ve been doing a fair amount of work with SSRS over the last few days, and with PowerPivot also fresh in my mind it got me thinking about the amount of overlap between SSRS and the PowerPivot/Excel/Sharepoint stack. Of course anyone who’s had to try to sell a MS BI solution to a potential customer over the last few years will have had to deal with conversations like this:

Customer: So, what is Microsoft’s solution for building BI dashboards?
Consultant: Well there’s SSRS, or if you want to build an SSAS cube you can use PerformancePoint, or maybe Excel and Excel Services, or you can go with any of these 50 third-party tools…it depends…
Customer: I’m confused already!

But just about any large software company has a certain amount of overlap between their products, that’s just life. However, that doesn’t mean that sometimes some rationalisation of products isn’t a good idea.

Let’s take a look at some of the things you’d want to do when building a dashboard, and how you can achieve them with both stacks:

Requirement SSRS PowerPivot/ Excel/ Sharepoint Comments
Get data from a number of different sources Create data sources and then datasets to return the data you want Import data into PowerPivot ‘tables’ from Excel, RDBMSes, OData feeds There’s a slight difference between the data sources here, but the most important case is always going to be getting data from a RDBMS, which both do well.

The key difference, though, is that in general with SSRS you get data on demand through parameterised queries, whereas with PowerPivot you import all the data you’re ever likely to need up front.

Integrate that data No real solution here, though SSRS developers have wanted to be able to do joins on datasets for a while. The new R2 lookup functions partly address this. Create joins between PowerPivot tables PowerPivot has the obvious advantage here, although for SSRS you can argue that in most cases any data integration should be happening upstream in your ETL.
Perform calculations on that data Use SSRS expressions Use DAX calculations I’d say that SSRS expressions, while as not powerful as DAX, are easier for most people to understand; however there are a lot of things that only DAX can do.
Create reports from that data Use BIDS if you’re a developer, or Report Builder if you’re a power user Use Excel or any client tool that speaks MDX (including SSRS) For developers, BIDS is a great tool for creating reports. However SSRS has always struggled with Report Builder – in my experience users find it too difficult. And that’s where Excel comes into its own: it’s a powerful tool and most end-users are familiar with it.
Publish reports to a wider audience Deploy up to your SSRS server Publish to Excel Services/Sharepoint The advantage SSRS has here is that most companies have no problem with the IT department setting up an SSRS server. On the other hand, Sharepoint is a Big Deal. If your company has a Sharepoint strategy, and is planning on installing Sharepoint 2010 Enterprise Edition, you’ll be fine with PowerPivot. If not, and I guess many companies are in this position, you have a problem.
Export reports to a variety of formats SSRS handles exporting to a lot of different formats Export to Excel isn’t a problem, but other formats are a bit trickier (though doable) SSRS has the clear advantage here
Schedule report refresh Again, SSRS has a lot of options for controlling when reports are refreshed PowerPivot’s functionality for scheduling when data is refreshed is a bit v1.0 SSRS has the advantage again

Anyway, you get the idea – there’s a fair amount of overlap and some things are done better by one tool, some things are done better by the other. Isn’t it, though, a bit of Microsoft’s time, money and energy to develop two parallel BI stacks? If they could merge in some way, it would mean less effort spent developing duplicate functionality and a more coherent message for customers to hear.

How could this be done, you ask? Well here are some vague ideas I had about what you’d need:

  • Inside SSRS – BIDS as well as Report Builder – in addition to the existing functionality for bring data into datasets, and possibly in the long term as a replacement for it, you get the option of building a PowerPivot model to act as the main source of data for your reports. For Report Builder especially I think this would be a winner, given that the PowerPivot UI for building models is already aimed at the same power users that Report Builder is aimed at.
  • The fact that you need to load all of your data into a PowerPivot model upfront is both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on your scenario. When you know the data’s not going to change much, or you’ve got relatively small amounts of data, it’s good because you get joins and fast query performance. But if the data changes a lot or you don’t want the overhead of loading it into PowerPivot then you’d need the option to pass requests straight through PowerPivot back to your sources – so maybe PowerPivot would need something like ROLAP mode, or proactive caching, or the ability to make its tables work like existing SSRS datasets and send parameters to them.
  • Include proper support for MDX queries in SSRS reports (my old hobby horse). This would involve developing a proper, fully-functional MDX query builder (not the rubbish one SSRS has right now – a standard MDX query generator across all MS products which was also available as a control for custom development would be ideal) and the ability to bind the results of an MDX query direct to a tablix (and no messing around with mapping field names to rowgroupthingies in the tablix control please). If power users didn’t have to worry about tablixes and could just build their queries as easily as they could in an Excel pivot table, Report Builder would be a much more popular tool. I think many developers would appreciate it too. Once all the data you need for your report is in a PowerPivot model, and you have full MDX support in SSRS, the business of report design is much easier. You also no longer need to join datasets because the data is already joined in PowerPivot, you have a powerful calculation language in DAX, and query performance is extremely fast. Oh, and with this functionality in place you could probably kill off PerformancePoint too and no-one would complain…
  • Blur the line between Excel and SSRS. There’s been talk about being able to author SSRS reports in Excel for a long time (whatever happened to the Softartisans technology MS licensed?), but nothing’s ever come of it. Why not also have the option within SSRS to take a range from Excel Services and make that the body of your report? So your report is essentially still a fragment of an Excel worksheet, but it’s just surfaced via SSRS which then handles the refreshing and rendering to different formats.
  • You’d also need SSRS to be able to schedule the refresh of your PowerPivot model, but that should be very doable; it would be great if it could refresh different parts of the model at different times. SSRS would also maintain control over report security, rendering, folders etc etc.

The end result would be that this PowerPivot/Excel/SSRS hybrid would give you the best of both worlds. I also have some ideas about how PowerPivot and SSAS should be integrated which I might get round to blogging about soon too, that would fit nicely with this vision of the future.

What are the chances of all this happening? Practically zero. It would involve the SSRS team, the SSAS team and the Excel team setting aside their differences, co-operating, and possibly sacrificing large chunks of different products. But it’s a nice thought to kick around…

PASS Summit Thoughts

The PASS Summit is over for another year and I’m just starting out on the long trip back home, so there’s plenty of time to get my thoughts together on what’s happened over the past week. In fact there’s not much to say about the event itself: it was, as ever, a lot of fun and totally worthwhile. Hey, within 30 minutes of arriving at the conference I learned I’d won an award for the best BI-related blog entry, for my post on implementing real SSAS drilldown in SSRS!

Attendance was up from last year although probably the recession still took its toll: remember that there was no BI Conference this year and I would have thought that a lot of people who would have gone to it would have gone to PASS instead. To be honest I think not having a BI Conference is a good thing, actually. I don’t like having to choose which conference to attend, and part of the benefit of a conference is to get as many members of a tech community together in one place. And this was certainly the largest gathering of Analysis Services people I’ve ever seen: all the usual crowd were there, I met a lot of people who I’d only met a few times before, and I finally got to meet Darren Gosbell in person after having known him by email for at least five years. One complaint I would make about the event was that the sessions weren’t scheduled particularly well. I know everyone always complains about this but in this case it did seem worse than usual: my session, for example, was up against two other SSAS-specific sessions, but in other cases there were time slots with no SSAS content at all.

The other benefit of PASS is that you get to talk at length about what’s going on in the world of SQL Server with other like-minded people. As a result you get to crystallise your thoughts on a lot of matters and – guess what – I’m going to share mine here.

First of all, the topic that was on everyone’s lips was PowerPivot. In fact everyone at the conference must have seen the standard demo at least five times and there were also a lot of advanced sessions on it too. Don’t get me wrong, I really think PowerPivot it cool from a technology point of view, I am going to take the time to learn it, and I also think from a make-money-by-getting-people-to-upgrade-to-Office-2010 point of view it is a very clever move for Microsoft. But my feelings about it remain ambiguous. Quite apart from the arguments about it discouraging ‘one version of the truth’ and encouraging spreadmarts that have already been discussed ad nauseam, I have another problem with it: I don’t honestly know whether I, as a consultant, will be able to make any money from it. The very nature of it, as a self-service tool, means no expensive outside consultancy is necessary. I don’t think it will take business away from me though; it will be widely used and it will be used instead of regular SSAS for more basic projects, but the more serious stuff will stay with SSAS I hope. I think the need for sophisticated security and more complex calculations will be the deciding factor when people choose between SSAS and PowerPivot; I’m not sure I see many people upselling from PowerPivot to SSAS either. We’ll see.

Something that worries me more about PowerPivot is the fact that it seems to have diverted the attention of the SSAS dev team. For SSAS 2008 we had few new features, although the performance improvements were very welcome. For 2008 R2 I can only think of one new feature in SSAS, and that’s the ability to use calculated members in subselects that will allow Excel 2010 to use time utility dimensions properly (I’ll blog about that at some point). Even though work on good old server-side SSAS will resume for the next major release of SQL Server I worry that PowerPivot will take priority in the future. If this happened it would be bad for me and other BI partners from a business point of view, and seems crazy given that SSAS has been such a successful product in the enterprise sector; it’s not like there aren’t a lot of new features and fixes that could be done. Shades of IE6 and Microsoft getting complacent once it’s cornered a market, I think.

Last of all on PowerPivot, I suspect that there is something new relating to it in the roadmap that hasn’t been announced yet. David DeWitt devoted his keynote on Thursday to it, the specifics of column-store databases and the Vertipaq engine (which is the new in-memory storage engine that PowerPivot uses), and at the end hinted at this saying that although he couldn’t make any announcements, those people who had been paying attention might have some ideas on what the future held for it. Of course I hadn’t been paying attention properly, but the obvious thing would be to integrate it with the relational database somehow. Given that PowerPivot is now being hosted inside Sharepoint, why not host it in SQL Server too? It’s already very table and join friendly, and I could imagine a scenario where it was used inside SQL, pointed at a schema, some kind of proactive caching kept the data in SQL in synch with the data in the Vertipaq store, difficult BI calculations could be expressed in DAX, but the whole thing was transparent to TSQL. Imagine integrating that with Madison too!

Moving on, the other thing that has become clear to me is that I really have to sit down and learn Sharepoint (or at least the relevant bits of it) properly. It’s at the heart of Microsoft’s BI strategy and there’s no avoiding it. I have to admit to some mixed feelings about this move though, and I know other people I talked to at the conference share them. Partly it’s because, in the past, there were BI specialists and there were Sharepoint specialists and we didn’t necessarily have much to do with each other; now,  though, the two worlds are colliding and I’m outside my comfort zone. You might say that Sharepoint has been part of the MS BI strategy for ages now, what with PerformancePoint etc, but I see an awful lot of MS BI customers in my work and I very rarely seem to see any Sharepoint, although it could be because I’m not looking out for it. A more valid objection is that the need for Sharepoint Enterprise Edition CALs adds a lot of extra cost to a project; and from a technical standpoint Sharepoint itself carries a very big overhead – its installation and maintenance may put a lot of customers off if they don’t already have a company-wide Sharepoint strategy, and if they do have one they may not be willing to go to 2010 for some time. Sharepoint might be just too big for some customers to swallow, and be a difficult sell for BI partners.

I’d like to stress though, once again, that I see the considerable technical benefits for using Sharepoint for BI, and even if the reception of the latest wave of PerformancePoint has been somewhat muted (eg the realisation that the decomposition tree has been tacked on at the last minute and isn’t properly integrated) I am impressed with what’s coming with Excel 2010 and Excel Services too; for example I think the Excel Services REST API is very cool indeed, and as a SSAS client Excel 2010 is a big improvement on 2007 (which wasn’t all that bad either). I’ve decided I also need to learn Excel properly now as well – get to know all those advanced Excel functions, use Solver and all that. Once again two worlds are colliding: the Excel guys and the SSAS guys are going to have to learn a lot more about each others’ technologies for truly effective BI applications to get built.

Anyway, I think this post has gone on quite long enough now. As always, your comments on everything I’ve written here would be much appreciated.

Google Wave, Google Squared and Thinking Outside the Cube

So, like everyone else this week I was impressed with the Google Wave demo, and like everyone else in the BI industry had some rudimentary thoughts about how it could be used in a BI context. Certainly a collaboration/discussion/information sharing tool like Wave is very relevant to BI: Microsoft is of course heavily promoting Sharepoint for BI (although I don’t see it used all that much at my customers, and indeed many BI consultants don’t like using it because it adds a lot of extra complexity) and cloud-based BI tools like Good Data are already doing something similar. What it could be used for is one thing; whether it will actually gain any BI functionality is another and that’s why I was interested to see the folks at DSPanel not only blog about the BI applications of Wave:
…but also announce that their Performance Canvas product will support it:
It turns out that the Wave API (this article has a good discussion of it) makes it very easy for them to do this. A lot of people are talking about Wave as a Sharepoint-killer, and while I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison I think it’s significant that DSPanel, a company that has a strong history in Sharepoint and Microsoft BI, is making this move. It’s not only an intelligent, positive step for them, but I can’t help but wonder whether Microsoft’s encroachment onto DSPanel’s old market with PerformancePoint has helped spur them on. It’s reminiscent of how Panorama started looking towards SAP and Google after the Proclarity acquisition put them in direct competition with Microsoft…

Meanwhile, Google Squared has also gone live and I had a play with it yesterday (see here for a quick overview). I wasn’t particularly impressed with the quality of the data I was getting back in my squares though. Take the following search:
The first results displayed are very good, but then click Add Next Ten Items and take a look at the description for the TopCount function, or the picture for the VarianceP function:

That said, it’s still early days and of course it does a much better job with this search than Wolfram Alpha, which has no idea what MDX is and won’t until someone deliberately loads that data into it. I guess tools like Google Squared will return better data the closer we get to a semantic web.

I suppose what I (and everyone else) like about both of these tools is that they are different, they represent a new take on a problem, unencumbered by the past. With regard to Wave, a lot of people have been pointing out how Microsoft could not come up with something similar because they are weighed down by their investment in existing enterprise software and the existing way of doing things; the need to keep existing customers of Exchange, Office, Live Messenger etc happy by doing more of the same thing, adding more features, means they can’t take a step back and do something radically new. Take the example of how, after overwhelming pressure from existing SQL Server users, SQL Data Services has basically become a cloud-based, hosted version of SQL Server with all the limitations that kind of fudge involves. I’m sure cloud-based databases will one day be able to do all of the kind of things we can do today with databases, but I very much doubt they will look like today’s databases just running on the cloud. It seems like a failure of imagination and of nerve on the part of Microsoft.

It follows from what I’ve just said that while I would like to see some kind of cloud-based Analysis Services one day, I would be more excited by some radically new form of cloud-based database for BI. With all the emphasis today on collaboration and doing BI in Excel (as with Gemini), I can’t help but think that I’d like to see some kind of hybrid of OLAP and spreadsheets – after all, in the past they were much more closely interlinked. When I saw the demos of Fluidinfo on Robert Scoble’s blog I had a sense of this being something like what I’d want, with the emphasis more on spreadsheet than Wiki; similarly when I see what eXpresso is doing with Excel collaboration it also seems to be another part of the solution; and there are any number of other tools out that I could mention that do OLAP-y, spreadsheet-y type stuff (Gemini again, for example) that are almost there but somehow don’t fuse the database and spreadsheet as tightly as I’d like. Probably the closest I’ve seen anyone come to what I’ve got in mind is Richard Tanler in this article:
But even then he makes a distinction between the spreadsheet and the data warehouse. I’d like to see, instead of an Analysis Services cube, a kind of cloud-based mega-spreadsheet, parts of which I could structure in a cube-like way, that I could load data into, where only I could modify the cube-like structures containing the data, where I could define multi-dimensional queries and calculations in an MDX-y but also Excel-y  and perhaps SQL-y type way – where a range or a worksheet also behaved like a table, and where multiple ranges or worksheets could be joined, where they could be stacked together into multidimensional structures, where they could even be made to represent objects. It would also be important that my users worked in essentially the same environment, accessing this data in what would in effect be their own part of the spreadsheet, entering their own data into other parts of it, and doing the things they love to do in Excel today with data either through formulas, tables bound to queries, pivot tables or charts. The spreadsheet database would of course be integrated into the rest of the online environment so users could take that data, share it, comment on it and collaborate using something like Wave; and also so that I as a developer could suck in data in from other cloud-based data stores and other places on the (semantic) web – for example being able to bind a Google Square into a range in a worksheet.

Ah well, enough dreaming. I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest: some of those ideas have been floating around my head for a few months now. Time to get on with some real work!

Fourth Blog Birthday

For the second year running I’m late celebrating my blog birthday (it was yesterday); my only excuse is that I’m still reeling from the amount I’ve eaten over the last two weeks. But four years of blogging… wow… it feels like ages.

And to a certain extent I feel that, after all this time, I’m running out of things to say here. The actual writing of blog entries isn’t a problem, it’s more the problem of having something to write about. Part of the problem is me: I don’t want to write about things I don’t find interesting so I haven’t gone down the route of turning the blog into a MDX tutorial (Bill Pearson does that much better than I ever could, and only Mosha could ever cover the advanced stuff properly), but at the same time I’m not coming across so many MDX/SSAS issues or obscure features as I used to. Part of the problem is, too, that SSAS2008 was so light on new features that it didn’t provide me with much new to write about. So I’m hoping that Gemini, Kilimanjaro, Excel 14, Azure etc will give me something to get my teeth into in 2009; I’m sure they will. If not, well, I’ve always wanted to spend some time getting into Mondrian and other open source BI technologies. And with the economy the way it is I suppose I’ll have a lot more spare time for learning new stuff in the coming twelve months…

But anyway, bear with me and keep reading! For those of you who have stuck with me for the last four years, thanks, and best wishes for 2009.

Why can’t we just draw our own reports?

Here’s a way-out thought I had over the Xmas break for a new approach to building BI reports….

Have you, when you’ve asked a typical non-technical business user what they want a report to look like, asked them to draw a quick sketch? I do all the time – I find seeing what the user wants the report layout to look like is much the best way to understand what they want and for the user it’s the best way to express their requirements. So on the back of the proverbial envelope you’d get something like this:


…and then go back to your desk and write the query and design the report layout in something like SSRS. So – why can’t we cut out a step and go direct from the sketch to the report design? I can see two options for the first step here:

  • Using a tablet PC you write some software that works a bit like OneNote, but where the user can draw the outline of a report freehand. Unfortunately tablet PCs just aren’t that common and the really tech-phobic end user wouldn’t feel comfortable using one.
  • The user draws the report on paper and then the drawing gets scanned; definitely something the most computer illiterate manager would be comfortable with.

You would then take the freehand drawing and:

  • Interpret the freehand lines into the borders of a table, and
  • Interpret the text on columns and rows as either
    • Explicit selections of members, or
    • Set expressions
  • Apply a lot of smarts to format the report in ways that conform to the best practices laid down by the likes of Stephen Few et al. Almost no business or IT people (me included) have any idea on how to format reports properly, and while you could argue that this might be intrusive I think users would appreciate a tool that did this for them.
  • Apply a standard corporate template, with the appropriate logos etc in place.

Working out what the borders of a table should be from a freehand drawing must be possible (although implementation would be well beyond me). Interpreting what the user has written they want on columns and rows would present more problems:

  • Handwriting recognition is notoriously difficult to do well, and usually the software needs to have a bit of practice to get good. On the other hand, in this particular scenario it should be easier because the user won’t be writing just any old text. For instance, if we assume that we’re working with an Analysis Services data source, we know that any text is either going to be the name of a member or something that will resolve to a set expression; we also know, for instance, if there are what look like multiple member names on the same position on the same axis they will all have to come from the same hierarchy.
  • Resolving text to member names is all very well, but turning sentences into set expressions would be trickier. It seems reasonable to think that phrases like "Products where sales is greater than £100" could be interpreted effectively, but whether your average business user can write something as clear as that is debatable. Any tool would certainly have to prompt the user to confirm that the interpretations it has made was correct, and do to that it would have to resort to the kind of techy interface that the tool is trying to get away from.
  • Similarly there are going to be ambiguities that need to be resolved when looking at a the design. For example, the drawing might have the years 2006, 2007 and 2008 on columns. But does this mean the report should always have these three years on columns, or the last three years with data, or something else?

So it certainly wouldn’t work like magic, but at the same time I think it would offer some advantages over current report design tools, the designers of which have fallen into the trap of building a UI on top of the functionality they’ve got  available in MDX or SQL, rather than building a UI for what the user actually wants to do. After all, don’t you think that it’s actually very difficult to lay out anything other than the most simplistic reports in most report design tools, compared to how easy it would be to draw the report?

Interesting stuff coming from Microsoft soon

A couple of interesting (and possibly BI-related) technologies are coming soon from Microsoft:

  • I see today via Nick Carr that soon we’ll be able to run Windows and SQL Server on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). I wonder if that includes Analysis Services too? If so, that would be handy.
  • Also announced today, the new MS cloud operating system, coming within the month
  • Windows High Performance Computing (HPC) server is due to launch at the beginning of November (see here for a news report on it, here and here for some details). Hmm, I see SQL Server is listed on the ‘supported applications’ page… surely there’s got to be some kind of tie-in here with the whole MatrixDB/DATAllegro MPP stuff?

Enterprise Search and BI

I notice from various sources (for example, Don Dodge) that Microsoft have released a free version of their Enterprise Search product, Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express. The thing that caught my eye was the list of federated connectors:


…which includes Business Objects, Cognos, SAS, but there’s no mention of Reporting Services or Analysis Services anywhere. As I think I’ve said here before, I’m not convinced that a search interface on top of a BI platform is going to be useful in the real world (though I bet you could do some cool demos with it): I suppose if you have hundreds of SSRS reports for example you might want to look for the ones that contain figures for a particular Product or Customer, but I would have thought that it’s just as likely that you’d do a search, find a report and then find you don’t have permission to view it. As for using a search interface as a way of querying a cube, all I have to say about that is two words: English Query.

But I think there’s a more interesting application for BI here: what if you could build a cube off the index this thing creates? You could have dimensions like Date Updated, Keyword, File Type and Path, and measures like Count of Files and File Size; you’d be able to do things like create reports which tracked the overall space taken by mp3 files on your network and where these files were, the number of emails with the phrase "new job" in; even just browsing ad hoc in Excel you’d have a new way of searching for files: for example, you could slice on File Type=Word doc, Keyword="CV" or "Resume" and then put the Path dimension on rows and drill down to find all the CVs on your network.