This is the sixth article in this series “What is this SharePoint thing all about anyway?” In this installation we are going to look at the Business Intelligence features that are included in SharePoint 2010.

shutterstock_54809998.jpg
These features allow for data within the organization to be presented to users in a way that allows them to interact with the data and make key decisions based on the data. These tools make data available to everyone in easy to work with formats.

There are many different approaches that can be used to display the data and in this article we are going to highlight those different approaches. Like many things in technology, this is one area that your solutions can mature over time as your needs develop.

Starting out you may simply use Excel Services to display your data, and then over time as needed you may implement additional items such as Performance Point Dashboards. The main thing to understand is that there are many tools available to you, each matching different business needs. By understanding your current needs, you can select the best BI tools to use within your organization.

Chart Web Part & Status Indicator Lists

Within the browser there are two different options available -- the Chart Web Part and the Status Indicator list. These allow you to connect with data that exists within a SharePoint list, Excel Services Document or SQL Server Analysis Services data.

Once you connect with the data you can create different charts and graphs to be displayed on your site. The chart web part allows you to create charts similar to what you will find in Excel and the status lists provide a way for you to track a status in time that can be used as a notification of problems or issues. These are great tools to provide some visual representations to your users.

Excel Services

Excel Services is a collection of tools that allows you to render Excel documents within a web part on the page. Beyond just displaying the content, the value in the Excel Services web parts is found in how you can interact with the data on the page.

This type of solution allows users to access data on the web and then filter or drill down to see finer details. Since the data is being displayed within the web part, no client program is needed. This means it becomes easier to work remotely, from a computer that isn’t running Office, while still being able to access all the data that you need to make decisions.

Publishing data from Excel to SharePoint is fairly simple and can be compared to doing a Save As operation. When you are going through the publishing process you can either publish the entire contents of the spreadsheet or just specific named regions. This approach can be especially helpful if you want to provide someone with the final data chart but not allow them to see the underlying data points.

Visio Services

Visio Services is similar to Excel Services in that it allows you to display data from Visio within a Web Part so that users can access the data without having the client installed. Users who are running Visio Premium will be able to publish various Visio files to SharePoint and then display them in web parts. The data then is available to any user who has access to the site and no client application is required to view the data.

Publishing the data is just the start though for Visio Services, the real power comes when you use the web part connections to interact with the data. An example of this would be having a flow chart that mapped out a specific business process. Using the connected web parts you can configure a solution that when one of the phases is selected within the diagram, all associated templates are loaded in another web part on the page.

This type of solution merges the visual and the content and allows for users to quickly access data in a way that is natural for them. In addition to the connection just described you can also create solutions that allow for various shapes to be highlighted based on conditions and criteria. An example of this connection could be selecting a user in a list and then seeing a box around the location in the office where their desk is located.

If you would like to see some more resources specifically around this concept, I encourage you to check out this post about getting started with Visio Services.

Performance Point Dashboards

Performance Point Dashboards are a way to display data from various locations in advanced Charts, Graphs and KPIs. To create these dashboards a free tool can be downloaded that allows you to access the data through connections, create the reports and graphs and then publish them to SharePoint.

The most common data source for this type of solution is typically data that is stored in the SQL Server Analysis server. The design tool for creating these dashboards is free, but in most cases requires someone with experience building reports to generate new items.

Business Connectivity Services

Business Connectivity Services is a way that you can present backend line of business data within various SharePoint lists. Connection files are created by developers who can then configure external content types that allow you to view and interact with the data. The level of interaction can range from reading the data to making changes to the data and is dependent on the way it was created by the developer.

Pulling It All Together

The great thing about all of the BI features is that you have a collection of tools that you can use together based on your specific needs and your environment's configuration. You can select to use the tools based on specific scenarios and each solution can use different elements of BI.

There are many ways to get started with the BI features and in most cases organizations will end up choosing the tools that best match their data maturity model. Those with mature models will likely jump right into the BCS and Performance Point Dashboards and those that are just getting started will likely find great value getting started with Excel Services and working towards using Performance Point.

The key is to really understand your data and the story it needs to tell and then select the best tool for the job. Within each business solution you create it is possible that different elements of BI can be used to enhance the solution to bring added value to your users.

Image courtesy of Carsten Reisinger (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Jennifer Mason: