Microsoft BI Vision: Excel = BI Democracy?

I frequently check out Mosha Pasumansky’s blog on OLAP. I learned from his recent post that Microsoft announced 2 very interesting milestones coming up on their BI roadmap – project Gemini (which will be the new incarnation of Analysis Services), and SQL Kilimanjaro release (a move toward column-oriented architecture). If not anything else, check out the presentation video from the 1 hour 16 minute mark — this is a pretty good presentation of common BI challenges at BI level, and I must say the demo is impressive in how Microsoft is thinking about the BI solution stack going end-to-end from data warehouse to Excel and to a web-based view for general interaction.  

As someone who is in the “open source BI land”, I must confess that I am a fan of some of the Microsoft’s BI technologies – namely Analysis Services and SQL Server. Yes, I have reservations around Reporting Services, or embedding BI into MS Office products like Word, or about bloating a solution with SharePoint and PerformancePoint – but as a common denominator, SQL Server and Analysis Services do provide the best price-performance today for a BI backend solution IMHO.

One of the challenges we constantly face as BI solution providers is to call out which is the most common interface for the BI user. In their demo, Ted Kummer and Donald Farmer are right to point out that if left to their own devices, most people trying to do a data analysis will bust out Excel. Solution providers like me don’t like this fact for several reasons (a lot of them may be valid) and try to guide our users towards purely web-based interface to do their analysis. The biggest rationale for this is to avoid various versions of Excel files floating around with multiple copies of data and custom calculations (with no QA) — and so we like to control by having all BI users access data from a centralized web interface, which is reporting data from a centralized repository — and that way, we know that users will be guaranteed a “single version of truth”, and they will be happy.

Is that true though?

In my own open source BI project OpenI, one of the most used feature turns out to be “export to Excel”, so try as we may, there are valid reasons to cater towards a BI user’s natural flow of anlayzing data, and let them get their data into Excel.

And in that sense, Microsoft’s approach may have its merit in looking at Excel as the piece in the front and center for self service BI. Of course, calling it “democratization” maybe far fetched because this democracy will only be true in the Microsoft Office world, but it is a pretty big world of BI users. And for those who would like to stay far away from the Microsoft Office world, there needs to be equally compelling alternate solutions (open source or not).

If not anything, this thinking from Microsoft is worth for all BI practitioners to consider — and see the demo. We may not agree with the exact tools used, but the use case, or the scenario, of a knowledge worker finding the data/information they need, analyzing it in an intuitive fashion, and publishing it for their peers to see — that’s a key part of what we’re all trying to solve. And unless we make it utterly easy and painless, we still have a long way to go.