Will Microsoft Win Excel-Happy BI Fans with PowerPivot?

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We've been hearing for a while now that one of the best ways for companies to maximize their business intelligence investments is by getting BI tools and technologies into the hands of more users throughout an organization. The latest vendor to push this line of thinking -- and create products to back it up -- is Microsoft, with its PowerPivot (previously called "Gemini") technology.


Earlier this month, I spoke with several folks from SharePoint360, a SharePoint hosting and consulting company specializing in BI that is included in Microsoft's Technical Adoption Program (TAP) for the Gemini technology. SharePoint360 is the only partner in this program, which is usually limited to end-user customers. As Arlene Watson, a BI Solutions architect for the company, told me, giving users more ability to run BI queries and reports frees the IT staff to focus on more in-depth development work.


PowerPivot/Gemini will work best for shops that are already avid users of Microsoft technology -- or are willing to become one. PowerPivot can be used not only with Excel 2010 but also with SharePoint Server 2010 and SQL Server 2008. Offering users new BI abilities within the familiar interfaces of Excel and SharePoint should boost adoption and lower training costs, said Watson. Excel will be used for creating content, with PowerPivot giving users the ability to pull in disparate data sources and create mashups. The content can then be shared with others via SharePoint. She said:


So for instance, they might want to use RSS feeds with older SQL reporting services for reports that are already built. Some more of the table information can get information from RSS. You will use those reports as a data feed and give end users a comprehensive query someone else already developed for them.


For an idea of what a PowerPivot-enabled mashup might look like, I found an interesting example on the powerpivot(pro) site. As IT Business Edge's Loraine Lawson wrote last month, there's growing momentum for letting folks employ mashups to create their own BI reports. In fact, she cites advice from Forrester Research's James Kobielus, who recommends PowerPivot/Gemini as one of two products (the other is IBM's Cognos) he feels is sufficiently mature for BI mashups.


Though Excel has long been a popular reporting tool, it hasn't been practical for large volumes of data. But Excel 2010 will feature an in-memory engine that can handle up to a hundred million rows of data. For smaller BI projects, Watson said a combination of Excel 2010 and PowerPivot can replace the need for having data marts and running SQL analysis services and SQL integration services or running Excel services. She said:


All those components are covered with the Gemini product. Users don't necessarily have to know those technologies, but in the background it uses those technologies. So I think we'll see a reduced need for small-scale BI projects using data marts with ETL and SQL analysis and integration services.


In an assessment of PowerPivot/Gemini by The BI Verdict's Nigel Pendse published last October, he also touched upon the idea that certain technologies will be transparent to users, calling PowerPivot/Gemini "an ingenious Trojan horse for analysis services." He wrote:


The seductively inviting Gemini world is refreshingly free of the off-putting jargon like star/snowflake schemas, fact tables, cubes, measures, dimensions, hierarchies, levels, attributes, aggregations, partitions, MDX calculations and scripts typically encountered in OLAP server deployments. Instead, Excel power users with Gemini installed will be able to analyze and summarize vast amounts of data with absolutely no need to pre-define models or structures. In true spreadsheet-style, they work with the available data, rather than having to first build structures to slot it into. Microsoft is betting that this concession to the natural style of the millions of Excel power users will finally deliver the "BI for the masses" that has so far proved so disappointingly elusive.


Watson said 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, as with SharePoint, it'll be important for companies to address data governance upfront. 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.


As Pendse noted, PowerPivot/Gemini also offers an incentive for users to upgrade to the latest version of Excel sooner than they might have done otherwise, "thus justifying Microsoft's maintenance charges and quelling any plans to defect to OpenOffice." (Or Zoho or Google Apps, I'd add.) And it's a clever way for Microsoft to take on BI pureplays like QlikTech. Wrote Pendse:


Taking advantage of the ubiquity of Excel gives Microsoft the opportunity to dominate the in-memory analytics market in a way that is simply impossible for vendors that need to sell each copy of their software, rather than simply encouraging existing users to upgrade to a new release, often at no additional cost.