Why Corporate BI and Self-Service BI Are Both Necessary

I was chatting to a friend of mine a few days ago, and the conversation turned to Microsoft’s bizarre decision to make two big BI-related announcements (about Mobile BI and GeoFlow) at the Sharepoint Partner Conference and not at PASS the week before. I’d been content to write this off as an anomaly but he put it to me that it was significant: he thought it was yet more evidence that Microsoft is abandoning ‘corporate’ BI and that it is shifting its focus to self-service BI, so that BI is positioned as a feature of Office and not of SQL Server.

My first response was that this was a ridiculous idea, and that there was no way Microsoft would do something so eye-poppingly, mind-bogglingly stupid as to abandon corporate BI – after all, there’s a massive, well-established partner and customer community based around these tools. I personally don’t think it would ever happen and I don’t see any evidence of it happening. My friend then reminded me that the Proclarity acquisition was a great example of Microsoft making an eye-poppingly, mind-bogglingly stupid BI-related decision in the past and that it was perfectly capable of making another similar mistake in the future, especially when Office BI and SQL Server BI are fighting over territory. That forced me to come up with some better arguments about why Microsoft should not, and hopefully would not, ever abandon corporate, SQL Server BI in favour of an exclusively Office-BI approach. Some of these might seem blindingly obvious, and it might seem strange that I’m taking the time to even write them down, but conversations like this make me think that the time has come when corporate BI does need to justify its continued existence.

  • From a purely technical point-of-view, while most BI Pros have been convinced that the kind of self-service BI that PowerPivot and Excel 2013 enables is important, it’s never going to be a complete replacement for corporate BI. PowerPivot might be useful in scenarios where power users want to build their own models but the vast majority of users, even very sophisticated users, are not interested in or capable of doing this. This is where BI Pros and SSAS are still needed: centralised models (whether built in SSAS Tabular or Multidimensional) give users the ability to run ad hoc queries and build their own reports without needing to know how to model the data they use.
  • Even when self-service BI tools are used it’s widely accepted (even by Rob Collie) that you’ll only get good results if you have clean, well-modelled data – and that usually means some kind of data warehouse. Building a data warehouse is something that you need BI Pros for, and BI Pros need corporate BI tools like SSIS to do this. Self-service BI isn’t about power users working in isolation, it’s really about power users working more closely with BI Pros and sharing some of their workload.
  • Despite all the excitement around data visualisation and self-service, the majority of BI work is still about running scheduled, web-based or printed reports and sending them out to a large user base who don’t have the time or know-how to query an SSAS cube via a PivotTable, let alone build a PowerPivot model. Microsoft talks about bringing BI to the masses – well, this is what the masses want for their BI most of the time, however unsexy it might seem. This is of course what SSRS is great for and this is why SSRS is by far the most widely used of Microsoft’s corporate BI tools; you just can’t do the same things with Excel and Sharepoint yet.
  • Apart from the technical arguments about why corporate BI tools are still important, there’s another reason why Microsoft needs BI Pros: we’re their sales force. One of the ways in which Microsoft is completely different from most other technology companies is that it doesn’t have a large sales force of its own, and instead relies on partners to do its selling and implementation for it. To a certain extent Microsoft software sells itself and gets implemented by internal IT departments, but in a lot of cases, especially with BI, it still needs to be actively ‘sold’ to customers. The BI Partner community have, for the last ten years or so, been making a very good living out of selling and implementing Microsoft’s corporate BI tools but I don’t think they could make a similar amount of money from purely self-service BI projects. This is because selling and installing Office in general and Sharepoint in particular is something that BI partners don’t always have expertise in (there’s a whole different partner community for that), and if self-service BI is all about letting the power users do everything themselves then where is the opportunity to sell lots of consultancy and SQL Server licenses? If partners can’t make money doing this from Microsoft software they might instead turn to other BI vendors; I’ve seen some evidence of this happening recently. And then there’ll be nobody to tell the Microsoft BI story to customers, however compelling it might be.

These are just a few of the possible reasons why corporate BI is still necessary; I know there are many others and I’d be interested to hear what you have to say on the matter by leaving a comment. As I said, I think it’s important to rehearse these arguments to counter the impression that some people clearly have about Microsoft’s direction.

To be clear, I’m not saying that it should be an either/or choice between self-service/Office BI and corporate/SQL Server BI, I’m saying that both are important and necessary and both should and will get an equal share of Microsoft’s attention. Neither am I saying that I think Microsoft is abandoning corporate BI – it isn’t, in my opinion. I’m on record as being very excited about the new developments in Office 2013 and self-service but that doesn’t mean I’m anti-corporate BI, far from it – corporate BI is where I make my living, and if SSAS died I very much doubt I could make a living from PowerPivot or Excel instead. Probably the main reason I’m excited about Office 2013 is that it finally seems like we have a front-end story that’s as good as our back-end, corporate BI story, and the front-end has been the main weakness of Microsoft BI for much too long. If Microsoft went too far in the direction of self-service we would end up with the opposite problem: a great front-end and neglected corporate BI tools. I’m sure that won’t be the case though.

The PASS Business Analytics Conference is not the PASS Business Intelligence Conference!

The call for speakers for the new PASS Business Analytics Conference (to be held April 10-12 next year in Chicago) is now live here:
http://passbaconference.com/Speakers/CallForSpeakers.aspx

Since I think this conference is a Very Good Thing, and because I’ve been asked to help shape the agenda in an advisory capacity, I thought I’d do a little bit of promotion for it here.

The important thing I’d like to point out is that this is not just a SQL Server BI conference: it covers the whole SQL Server BI stack, certainly, but really it aims to cover any Microsoft technology that can be used for any kind of business analytics. Which other technologies actually get covered depends a lot of who submits sessions but there are no end of possibilities if you think about it. I’d love to see sessions on topics such as F#, Cloud Numerics, Sharepoint, NodeXL, GeoFlow and especially non-BI Excel topics such as array formulas, Solver and techniques like Monte Carlo simulation, for example.

This brings me to the point of this post. Obviously I’d like all the SQL Server BI Pros out there who read my blog to consider submitting a session (or if you can’t travel to Chicago, the call for speakers for SQLBits is open too) and to attend. However what I’d really like is if the SQL Server BI community could reach out to the wider Microsoft Business Analytics community to encourage them to submit sessions and to attend too. This is where your help is needed! Who do you think should be speaking at the PASS BA Conference? Do you know experts outside the realms of SQL Server BI who you could persuade to come? What topics do you think should be covered? If you’ve got any ideas or feedback, please leave a comment…

First Screenshots of Microsoft’s Mobile BI Solution

It didn’t get much attention at the time (maybe because it was done at the Sharepoint Conference, and not at PASS… why?) but last week Microsoft gave the first public demos of its Mobile BI solution. I wasn’t there to see it but Just Blindbaek was and this morning he tweeted some pictures of what he saw. Some of you Microsoft BI enthusiasts might be interested to see them:
https://twitter.com/justblindbaek/status/270812739365130241/photo/1
https://twitter.com/justblindbaek/status/270785164689412096/photo/1

The codename seems to be ‘Project Helix’.

Thoughts on the PASS Summit 2012 Day 1 Keynote

Normally I’d rush to blog about the announcements made in the keynotes each day at the PASS Summit, but this year I had a session to deliver immediately afterwards and once I’d done that I saw Marco had beaten me to it! So, if you want the details on what was announced in today’s keynote I’d advise you to read his post here:
http://sqlblog.com/blogs/marco_russo/archive/2012/11/07/pass-summit-2012-keynote-and-mobile-bi-announcements-sqlpass.aspx

I can’t not comment on some of these announcements though, so here (in no particular order) are some things that occurred to me:

  • The first public sighting of Power View on Multidimensional raised the biggest cheer of the morning, which surprised even me – I didn’t realise there were so many SSAS fans in the audience. I’m certainly very pleased to see it, even if it isn’t shipping right now (it’s not in SP1 either). Part of why I’m pleased is that all too often Microsoft BI has been good at building amazing new products but then forgetting about the migration path for its existing customers: think of the Proclarity debacle, and more recently I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the abandonment of Report Models. I suspect this is because Microsoft is not like most other software companies in that it doesn’t do much direct selling itself, but lets partners do the selling for it, and when partners get stick from customers over issues like Proclarity migration then the partners have no leverage over Microsoft to make it deal with the problem. Power View on Multidimensional is a welcome exception to this pattern, and I’d like to see more consideration given to this issue in the future even if it comes at the expense of developing cool new features.
  • The PDW V2 news is interesting too. It was clearly stated that Polybase will, initially allow TSQL to query data in Hadoop but that other data sources might be supported in the future. I wonder what they will be? DAX/Tabular perhaps? Or something more exotic – wouldn’t it be cool if you could query the Facebook graph or Twitter or even Bing directly from TSQL? I’m probably letting my imagination run away with me now…
  • The other thing that popped into my mind when hearing about Polybase was that it might be possible, one day, to use SSAS Tabular in DirectQuery mode on top of PDW/Polybase to query data in Hadoop interactively. I know Hadoop isn’t really designed for the kind of response times that SSAS users expect but I’d still like to try it.
  • It hardly seems worth repeating the fact that Mobile BI is very, very late but again it was good to get some details on what is coming. As partners we can deal with the criticism we get from customers and plan better if we have some idea of what will be delivered and the timescales involved, something that has been conspicuously lacking with Mobile BI up to today. To use a current phrase, Microsoft and its partners are “all in this together”, so please, Microsoft, let us help you!

Some thoughts on what Office 2013 means for Microsoft BI

You may have seen the news late last week that Office 2013 has RTMed, which in itself isn’t that significant – it’s not going to be until mid-November that the likes of you or I can download it. But it’s a milestone and therefore a good time to think about what Office 2013 means for Microsoft BI as a whole.

Let me start by saying that I’ve spent a lot of time playing with Office 2013, especially Excel 2013, over the last few months and I’ve been very impressed with it. I think it’s a great product and also that it represents a significant turning point for Microsoft BI. I won’t summarise everything I’ve said in previous blog posts about new functionality (you can read those yourself!), but here are what I consider some of the important points to consider when assessing its impact:

  • Number 1 on the list of new features for BI has to be the way PowerPivot has been integrated into Excel. Indeed, although PowerPivot still exists as a separate addin, I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful to think of PowerPivot and DAX as something distinct from Excel any more – we should think of them as the native Excel functionality that they are. Maybe we shouldn’t even use the names PowerPivot and DAX at all any more? And of course, now that users will get it by default, it will open the way to much, much wider adoption. I’m working on a PowerPivot/Excel 2010 project at the moment where the customer’s desktops are locked down and it took several weeks to get PowerPivot installed on even a few desktops; with Excel 2013 those problems won’t occur.
  • The integration of Power View into Excel comes a close second in terms of significant new functionality. Like a lot of people I was impressed by the technology when I saw first saw the Power View in Sharepoint last year, but frankly the Sharepoint dependency meant none of my customers were even vaguely interested in using it and I thought it was stillborn. Putting Power View into Excel changes all this – it’s effectively giving it away to all corporate customers and, as with PowerPivot, this will remove a lot of barriers to adoption. It might not be as good at data visualisation as something like Tableau, but it doesn’t need to be – you’re going to get it anyway, it will do most of what these other tools do, so why bother looking at anything else?
  • The way PivotTables and Power View reports now work so well in the browser with Excel Services and the Excel Web app means that Excel should now be considered the premier web reporting and dashboarding solution in the Microsoft BI stack, and not just as something for the desktop. I’ve never been fond of PerformancePoint (and again I never saw significant uptake amongst my customers – indeed, over the years, I’ve seen it used only very rarely) and I see less and less reason to use it now when Power View does something similar. SSRS still has its own niche but even it will start to decline slowly because it will be so much easier for BI pros and end-users to build reports in Excel. This in turn will make the whole Microsoft BI stack much more comprehensible to customers and a much easier sell – Excel will be the answer to every question about reporting, data analysis, data visualisation and dashboards. 
  • Office 365 will help overcome the problems customers have with the Sharepoint dependency in the Microsoft BI stack. I discussed this problem at length here; having now used Office 365 on the Office Preview myself, I’m a convert to it. I’ve had Sharepoint installed on various VMs for years but it’s only now with Office 365 and freedom from the pain of installation and maintenance that I can start to appreciate the benefits of Sharepoint. For small companies it’s the only way Sharepoint can be feasible. More important than anything else, though, is the subscription pricing that has just been announced: Office 365 is a no-brainer from a cost point of view.  I saw recently that Toyota Motor Sales in the US have just decided to go to Office 365 and I wouldn’t be surprised if other, larger enterprises to do the same; this isn’t just something for SMEs.
  • The ability to stream Excel 2013 to desktops means that yet more barriers to deployment will be removed.
  • We’re still waiting for Microsoft’s mobile BI solution, of course. I hope it’s coming soon! Whatever form it takes, I would expect it to be very closely linked to Office 2013.

What do you think, though? I’m interested in hearing your comments – have I drunk too much Microsoft Kool-Aid?

Data for Sale?

I read an interesting article by Stephen Swoyer today on the TWDI site today, about a new Gartner report that suggests that companies should start selling the data they collect for BI purposes to third parties via public data marketplaces. This is a subject I’ve seen discussed a few times over the last year or so – indeed, I remember at the PASS Summit last year I overheard a member of the Windows Azure Marketplace dev team make a similar suggestion – and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh in with my own thoughts on the matter.

The main problem that I had with the article is that it didn’t explore any of the reasons why companies would not want to sell the data they’re collecting in a public data marketplace. Obviously there are a lot of hurdles to overcome before you could sell any data: you’d need to make sure you weren’t selling your data to your competitors, for example; you’d need to make sure you weren’t breaking any data privacy laws with regard to your customers; and of course it would have to be financially worth your while to spend time building and maintaining the systems to extract the data and upload it to the marketplace – you’d need to be sure someone would actually want to buy the data you’re collecting at a reasonable price. Doing all of this would take a lot of time and effort. The main hurdle though, I think, would be disinterest: why would a company whose primary business is something else start up a side-line selling its internal data? It has better things to be spending its time doing, like focusing on its core business. If you sell cars or operate toll roads why are you going to branch out into selling data, especially when the revenue you’ll get from doing this is going to be relatively trivial in comparison?

What’s more, I think it’s a typical piece of tech utopianism to think that data will sell itself if you just dump it on a public data marketplace. Maybe apps on the Apple App Store can be sold in this way, but just about everything else in the world, whether it’s sold on the internet or face-to-face, needs to be actively marketed and this is something that the data generators themselves are not going to want to make the effort to do. As I said earlier, those companies that are interested in selling their data will still need to be careful about who they sell to, and the number of potential buyers for their particular data is in any case going to be limited. Someone needs to think about what the data can be used for, target potential customers and then show these potential customers how the data can be used to improve their bottom line.

For example, imagine if all the hotels around the Washington State Convention Centre were to aggregate and sell information on their bookings for the next six months into the future to all the nearby retailers and restaurants, so it was possible for them to predict when the centre of Seattle would be full of wealthy IT geeks in town for a Microsoft conference and therefore plan staffing and purchasing decisions appropriately. In these cases a middle man would be required to seek out the potential buyer and broker the deal. The guy that owns the restaurant by the convention centre isn’t going to know about this data unless someone tells him it’s available and convinces him it will be useful. And just handing over the data it isn’t really good enough either – it needs to be used effectively to prove its value, and the only companies who’ll be able to use this data effectively will be the ones who’ll be able to integrate it with their existing BI systems, even if that BI system is the Excel spreadsheet that the small restaurant uses to plan its purchases over the next few weeks. Which of course may well require outside consultancy… and when you’ve got to this point, you’re basically doing all of the same things that most existing companies in the market research/corporate data provider space do today, albeit on a much smaller scale.

I don’t want to seem too negative about the idea of companies selling their data, though. I know, as a BI consultant, that there is an immense amount of interesting data now being collected that has real value to companies other than the ones that have collected it. Rather than companies selling their own data, however, what I think we will see instead is an expansion in the number of intermediary companies who sell data (most of which will be very small), and much greater diversity in the types of data that they sell. Maybe this is an interesting opportunity for BI consultancies to diversify into – after all, we’re the ones who know which companies have good quality data, and who are already building the BI systems to move it around. Do public data marketplaces still have a role to play? I think they do, but they will end up being a single storefront for these small, new data providers to sell data in the same way that eBay and Amazon Marketplace act as a single storefront for much smaller companies to sell second-hand books and Dr Who memorabilia. It’s going to be a few years before this ecosystem of boutique data providers establishes itself though, and I suspect that the current crop of public data marketplaces will have died off before this happens.

Office 2013 Store and BI

By now you’ve probably already seen that the new Office Store, where you can get hold of apps for Office and Sharepoint, is now open. If you haven’t, check out the following blog posts:
http://blogs.office.com/b/office-next/archive/2012/08/06/introducing-apps-for-the-new-office-and-sharepoint-and-the-office-store.aspx
http://blogs.msdn.com/b/officeapps/archive/2012/08/06/173-173-the-office-store-is-now-open.aspx
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/08/07/microsoft_apps_for_office/

The implications for BI are obvious: new apps for data visualisation (along the lines of what’s available in  Sparklines for Excel maybe; perhaps also the long-lost decomposition tree from Proclarity?), analysis, importing and exporting data. I’ve already downloaded and had a play with the Bubbles app, which is quite fun:

image

Will it take off? Who knows; it’ll certainly be a while before enough people are on Office 2013 before we can tell. Will anyone want to pay for apps? Again, who knows – I wonder if we’ll see something similar to OLAP PivotTable Extensions appear, and if free, open source apps will kill the paid app market at least in some areas? If you’ve got any ideas for a BI-related app, please leave a comment!