Sunday, February 14, 2010

Things To Come

This week I attended a Microsoft TechNet session on the new and improved BI features that will arrive this summer in SQL Server 2008 R2 and Office 2010. The presentation was interesting and informative, but the products being presented were something of a mixed bag.

We first got a good look at PowerPivot, the Excel pivot table-local Analysis Services hybrid formerly known as Project Gemini. The performance, functionality and ease-of-use were certainly impressive given multi-million record datasets, but there seems to be no good reason to confine the functionality to Excel 2010. It's an add-in, and Excel 2007 supports large datasets, so there would seem to be no insurmountable technical reason to confine it to the new version. The MS take on the issue is apparently, "give Excel 2010 to a few power users, and the other users can access the workbooks thus created from SharePoint/Excel Services". Which may work fine for organisations that have implemented SharePoint, but leaves a lot of other companies in the cold. I'm not at all convinced that many firms are interested in upgrading to Office 2010 any time soon, and this smells like a marketing-driven decision to force upgrades in the absence of other compelling new features.

We saw the newest version of Report Builder in action, and to be honest it was a let-down. I was discussing it with another attendee afterwards, and we both felt that Report Builder is neither fish nor flesh. It's not full-featured enough to compete with professional reporting applications, and not simple enough to provide to users for basic or personal reporting needs. It's certainly better than the reporting tools included with the SQL 2005 BI Studio, but that's hardly the most ringing endorsement.

The biggest disappointment, though, was the first look at the long-awaited Master Data Management solution. This turns out to be little more than a data modelling tool with a very poor interface and a data store on the back-end. Populating the data store was out-of-scope (the sensible suggestion was that SSIS be used, but I'd expected at the very least some rudimentary wizards for building the pipes) and there was no mechanism whatsoever for enforcing the business rules defined for and in the central data model in the host applications and data stores. The idea is good and a market exists, but the execution, in this iteration at least, seems to leave a lot to be desired.

The last new product we got a look at was StreamInsight, an event response platform that will ship with SQL Server 2008 R2. The idea is, instead of checking for the existence of data meeting particular criteria in large volumes of fast-changing data, you define sets of criteria and filter your data through them. It sounds at first like the answer to many prayers, until one considers that SQL Notification Services did exactly the same thing in SQL Server 2005, only to be unceremoniously dropped with little explanation or apology less than three years later in SQL Server 2008. It's very difficult to expect customers and partners to invest time or money in technologies if they can't be confident that support and upgrade paths will exist in the future. Most businesses simply don't work with the three-year version cycles of Microsoft, so StreamInsight will be very much a wait-and-see proposition. Which is something of a pity.

It brings me no pleasure to complain about Microsoft; I've earned a living for many years on the back of their efforts and am always interested in seeing what they come out with next. The new crop of BI technologies don't seem to cut the mustard, though, in many essential aspects.

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