The first session of the 2011 SharePoint conference I decided to check out was in regards to Microsoft’s vision for business intelligence (BI). This has been a hot topic for many readers who are interested in moving to SharePoint or are already invested in the platform. The presentation was delivered by Microsoft’s Steve Tullis, Group Program Manager for the Office BI team, and Kamal Hathi, General Manager of the BI Group in Microsoft SQL Server.

A Dominant Player in the Business Intelligence Space

The session began with some informative slides in regards to the current dominance of Microsoft in the BI space. As you may or may not know, Gartner ranked Microsoft this year with the top spot in the magic quadrant for business intelligence platforms. This makes it a solid front-runner for organizations looking to enhance their BI capabilities. In 2010, Microsoft’s business intelligence portfolio experienced the fastest growth in the market at a rate of 23.9%. Currently they are the most widely deployed BI vendor.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, the presenters gave a quick briefing of how Yahoo solved a real-world BI problem in its Hadoop environment by using Microsoft solutions. There was no demo here, just cold, hard facts: Yahoo’s massive petabyte-sized Hadoop infrastructure, 3.5 billion events, 1.2TB processed per day and a 16TB cube. What does that mean to you? It means that Microsoft is alive and well in regards to “big data” analytics.

Conveniently, Microsoft recently released a CTP Hadoop connector for SQL Server. Take note of this for many reasons, including the fact that Hadoop is an open-source platform maintained by Apache. In a rather good move, I think it makes sense for Microsoft to embrace this technology by providing interoperability between SQL Server and Hadoop clusters.

Self-Service Tools with Centralized IT Management

OK, so enough of big data. Let’s talk about what most businesses are looking to do with BI. A key takeaway from the more down-to-earth side of this presentation is that Microsoft is trying to establish a balance of self-service tools with centralized IT management. In other words, Microsoft wants information workers to have the necessary insights, but at the same time providing IT with the required amount of IT oversight. Steve drove this point home by showing how Microsoft BI is familiar, collaborative, complete and on your terms. This is all made possible by some of the SharePoint 2010 BI features like PerformancePoint dashboards and PowerPivot-based Excel spreadsheets that are viewable in the browser.

It’s no secret that Excel is one of the most familiar BI tools on the market. However, there are still many who’ve never seen the full capabilities of what Excel can do with large amounts of external data. By using the PowerPivot add-in for Excel, Steve showed how you can use Excel to aggregate data from Twitter. You can analyze “top Tweeters, what #hashtags are they using and do they have a positive or negative tweet tone.” The demo did just that, and it was certainly an interesting example of how even Excel can be a powerful tool for business intelligence. If you’re interested in seeing this in action, Microsoft released this for public usage here.

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The Look of the Future

At the close of the presentation, we were given a brief taste of what the future will look like in regards to BI in the Microsoft stack. We got a demo of Project Crescent, a browser-based reporting tool, and how it will interact with SQL Server “Denali” Analysis Services.

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Essentially this is a new ad-hoc reporting tool that is optimized for web-based usage, not printing. When I say web-based, I mean SharePoint. With that said, this will eventually be a great way for SharePoint information workers to create their own reports right from this tool for immediate consumption.

As mentioned during the presentation, the idea here is to limit the amount of time that users have to fiddle with the look and feel. Within a few clicks, most of the visualizations in the report are ready for viewing, and they look professional. So you spend more time on getting the data visualized correctly and a lot less on formatting.

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