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New SQL Server BI features could cut IT chores

The next release of Microsoft's SQL Server database brings self-service analysis tools and better reporting features straight to end users. But will it be less work for IT?

Microsoft said its next release of SQL Server will add self-service reporting and analysis tools so more end users can have access to corporate business intelligence, without the need for IT intervention.

Code-named Kilimanjaro, this upcoming version of SQL Server is actually a minor release that is due out in 2010. Microsoft executives said the next major release of SQL Server won't be out for another 24 to 36 months. Kilimanjaro will feature self-service analysis tools, code-named Gemini, and data warehousing functions, which are referred to today as Project Madison.

One SQL Server expert observed that Microsoft has been inching toward business intelligence (BI) features developed for the masses since SQL Server 2005, and then again with recently released SQL Server 2008.

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"They even want small shops to develop data warehouse BI solutions and make them available to enterprises, regardless of their size," said Baya Pavliashvili, an independent database consultant specializing in analysis services.

With every release since SQL Server 2005, Microsoft has gotten a little closer to reducing the need for skilled programmers in relation to developing reporting services, he said.

Today, individuals who have access to enterprise BI typically use Excel or specialized tools from third-party vendors. These individuals are a small subset of the overall corporate population however. Gemini will have an in-memory column-based storage add-in and an Excel add-in to simplify self-service analysis. End users will be able to access the add-ins either through a Web front-end or Excel, said Herain Oberoi, a group product manager on the SQL Server team at Microsoft.

Microsoft will also add some features to its existent self-service reporting tools, particularly with regard to its ease-of-use, its reuse of components and rich interactivity, Oberoi said. With regard to the level of "self-service" Microsoft intends to provide, Oberoi said the goal was "little or no IT dependence." End users will have the ability to schedule their own reports, for example, which is not possible today.

Microsoft also plans to integrate the self-service features with SharePoint, so end users can upload and share complete BI scenarios. Because of the "in-memory" nature of the underlying technology, end users can upload BI to SharePoint just as they might upload a single file, Oberoi said.

"Uploading the file includes uploading the layout, the underlying model and the data, which is then hosted on a server and can be managed by IT," he said. "This allows end users to not have to worry about depending on IT to build out their BI solution infrastructure and, at the same time, enables IT to manage and support BI solutions that can easily scale if the usage needs increase."

John Hagerty, a vice president and research fellow at AMR Research Inc. in Boston, believes the integration between Office and SharePoint would be beneficial. "[Microsoft] is trying to piggyback on its pervasive desktop, using the tool set that people are already using."

Hagerty said SharePoint's broad installation heightens its importance to Microsoft's BI strategy, mainly because SharePoint serves as the connection point where people can share derived results. In the past, IT created report views and pushed them to SharePoint, and end users took over from there. "Now IT people don't need to get involved because users can post this themselves," he said.

With Project Madison, Microsoft plans to boost its business intelligence scalability by integrating the technology it acquired from data warehouse appliance vendor, DATAllegro Inc., which Microsoft bought in July.

To that end, Microsoft plans to enter some new territory by shipping an appliance-like product that will be available first through a CTP within the next 12 months. There have been no decisions on price or packaging as of yet, Oberoi said.

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