Microsoft's first-ever BI Conference kicked off this morning in Seattle with a keynote that promised the next version of SQL Server will hit the streets sometime next year.
Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division outlined/reiterated Microsoft's strategy for "delivering pervasive BI and performance management" to the surprisingly huge audience. Estimates vary but there are probably at least 2,600 people here - mostly Americans - but there are also representatives of 65 countries.
SQL Server 2008?
For the first time, Raikes talked about the features and launch time for "Katmai", the next version of SQL Server which, he said, will be released in 2008. The fact that this forecast wasn't greeted with howls of derision I put down to the innate courtesy for which American audiences are justly famed. Followers of SQL Server will doubtless remember the debacle of SQL Server 2005's release date - had it shipped as originally planned, the product would have been called SQL Server 2003.
After the keynote I talked to Francois Ajenstat, group product manager for SQL Server. He is adamant that Microsoft has learnt from the mistakes of the past and there is an absolute commitment to release Katmai on time. And I for one am convinced he's right; I never doubted the commitment back in 2003, or 2004, or even 2005. Commitment is easy, it's the delivery that is traditionally challenging. For those who like long distance extrapolations, the next, next version is scheduled for 2010-2011.
Whenever it releases, Katmai promises to be a very interesting product. There is considerable emphasis on non-relational aspects of the engine such as the ability to handle spatial data. There is also emphasis on scalability for BI. Microsoft is, quite correctly, reticent about exact figures for data warehouse size, present and future. Too much depends on other factors - number of users, hardware, etc. However, Microsoft currently has customers working comfortably in the one to 15 Terabyte range and the company expects Katmai to extend this into the 20 to 40 Terabyte range with 100 at a stretch.
Performance Point Server
Performance Point Server was also discussed during the keynote. This should make RTM by the end of the summer 2007 (September?) and promises to be a powerful addition to the Microsoft BI line up. Very broadly it addresses the issue of Performance Management, a process that enables business users to monitor and analyse the performance of the company against targets (I was delighted to observe in a later presentation on Performance Point Server that Microsoft used, without any apparent irony, "shipping a product on time" as a good example of where Performance Point Server could help a company).
PPS not only allows business users to see and interact with performance related analytical data, it also allows them to play a greater role in defining the analytics that should be performed. From what I have seen so far, it looks very powerful.
According to Microsoft: "The application reaches all employees, across all business functions (finance, operations, marketing, sales, and human resources)." My impression is that this is an aspiration rather than a full description of the product as it exists now. In other words, the main focus of the current build seems to be financial data/information and my guess is that, over time, Microsoft will buy in expertise (in the form of companies/products) to add more specific domain functionality. PPS is a product well worth watching.
Office and other client tools
One of Microsoft's huge advantages in the BI world is that it owns the tool that most business users favour for looking at analytical data - broadly Office, specifically Excel. Jeff stressed that Microsoft is strengthening the hooks from Office into its BI suite and took the opportunity of the keynote to announce that Microsoft has acquired SoftArtisans OfficeWriter. When combined with SQL Server Reporting Services, OfficeWriter enables business users to create managed reports in Microsoft Office applications.
Mix and match
BI has always been a delicate interaction between technical capability and business requirements. Happily, the conference represents this well and there are session threads for Business Value, Customer Best Practices, BI Clients and Applications, Partner Training, and finally BI Platform and Infrastructure. ®