Should BI Users Get Total Freedom or Sanctioned Solutions?

Ann All

Whether it's user-driven, vendor-driven or some combination of the two, there's a lot of fuss about getting business intelligence into the hands of more folks, not just the super users who pride themselves on their abilities to whip up data-intensive reports at the drop of a pivot table.


That trend is one of the biggies mentioned in a SearchCIO.com article about the Gartner Business Intelligence 2010 Summit in Las Vegas. (Wonder if any of the attendees are crunching numbers to determine their odds on winning big at various gaming tables? If so, let me save you some time: Your odds are abysmal.) Gartner analyst Kurt Schlegel says users have all kinds of new BI tools at their disposal that will allow them to bypass IT, which usually serves as a BI gatekeeper.


The article cites Microsoft's PowerPivot, which I wrote about in November after interviewing some folks from SharePoint360, a SharePoint hosting and consulting company specializing in BI that is part of Microsoft's Technical Adoption Program for PowerPivot. Organizations can use Excel as a front end for PowerPivot data.This is likely to be pretty appealing with the addition of an in-memory engine that can handle up to a hundred million rows of data to the forthcoming release of Excel 2010, SharePoint360's Arlene Watson told me. For smaller BI projects, Watson said a combination of Excel 2010 and PowerPivot can replace the need to have data marts and run SQL analysis services and SQL integration services or Excel services.


In an InformationWeek article, Herain Oberoi, Microsoft group product manager for the SQL Server Business Group, says PowerPivot will win fans in IT by giving IT staff the ability to "get out of Web site development and report development and get back to building and managing infrastructure, which is its real job."


Maybe, but as the SearchCIO.com article notes, the idea of giving users such free access to data made Gartner attendees "shudder." And it's no wonder, judging by "father of business intelligence" Howard Dresner's finding that data integration is the top complaint of BI users. Apparently, as Dresner explained during a recent podcast, this includes integration hassles with back-end systems, front-end tools, desktop tools, personal productivity applications, collaborative and social-media solutions.


Watson told me the biggest concern with PowerPivot used in conjunction with Excel 2010 and/or SharePoint Server 2010 is a lack of built-in governance tools. She said SharePoint360 plans to employ SQL Server to establish the appropriate degrees of data access and governance. Paul West, SharePoint360's founder and principal, said it'll be important for companies to address data governance up front. He said:

... You're no longer seeing technology being the inhibitor for users having this kind of power, so now you're having to rely on cultural or behavioral processes like governance. As a consulting firm, that's one of the things we focus on with our clients, making sure appropriate models for governance and taxonomy are in place.

Oberoi's explanation of how Microsoft envisions data governance will work? From the InformationWeek article:

... As with SharePoint, the key is that BI can now be "self-managed." With SharePoint, IT has full insight and oversight into what's being built. As soon as a solution is published to SharePoint, IT knows -- and in the same way with PowerPivot for Excel, IT can then have an aggregate view of what's being used heavily, what's not being used at all, and how resources should be juggled accordingly.

John Kitchen, SVP and chief marketing officer for Datawatch Corp., a regular guest columnist on our site and one of the sources I consulted for my recent piece on questions companies should ask before investing in a BI solution, told me about what I thought was a great approach used by one of his company's partners, which helps its clients with their BI implementations. The partner company establishes BI Centers of Excellence, and one of the commonly recommended practices is for companies to select a dominant BI platform to be used across the enterprise, but also to offer a list of accepted tools that can be used by individual departments.


The partner told Kitchen this approach helps ensure users' needs are met and reduces the incidence of unpleasant IT "surprises." This approach is also mentioned in the SearchCIO.com article about the Gartner event. The article quotes attendee Joe Grossnickle, an IT consultant who worked with a large financial services company that opted for Oracle BIEE [Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition] because Oracle was used for other enterprise applications, but also purchased MicroStrategy for operational use.

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