It's been five years since DM Review interviewed Bill Baker, general manager of business intelligence for SQL server at Microsoft. Nigh onto his 10th anniversary at Microsoft, Baker has held pretty much the same position throughout his tenure, though the sands have never stopped shifting under his feet. Prohibited from certain project work early on by a non-compete clause from his former bosses at Oracle, Baker honed his understanding of middleware and data access components until he could return to his twin passions of databases and business intelligence. As time marched on, a small group at Microsoft - much smaller than its industry competitors - moved from iconoclast to the mainstream. SQL 7.0 gave way to SQL Server 2000 and the BI industry, rising on a wider tide, came into its own.
That was a long time ago. Now it's prime time once again. As this article lands on desks, SQL Server 2005 is landing on loading docks with dozens of early customers already in production. Soon to follow will be more than 200 local, regional and international launch events for SQL as well as the new VisualStudio 2005 and BizTalk 2006 server.
All the speculation about features and gripes about delays are officially moot. Now it's time to deliver, albeit in a more secure BI environment. "You look around and see competitiveness, globalization, compliance," says Baker. "There are just so many things going on in the market today that make people want business intelligence, making them find it even if they didn't know what it was, making them want it more even if they did."
A fertile marketplace doesn't come without requirements, and Microsoft has gone to pains to tune the 2005 release. One change upfront was to move focus from huge beta releases to more frequent drops to the core users that tend to deliver the most valuable input. "We've done a series of community technology previews, which are more frequent than beta releases and provide an amazing amount of really good feedback," Baker says. "We've found a way to home in on a really key audience," which includes developers, administrators and information workers.
In the Studio
Some of this feedback resulted in SQL Server Management Studio, which replaces Enterprise Manager and encapsulates functionality that used to reside in Analysis Manager and other tools. "DBAs, as it turns out, do more than manage," says Baker. "They author scripts, they author lots of data definition language; so we made an environment where it's easy to author new objects against the database as well as manage the database." For environments that now sometimes extend to thousands of servers, speedier enumeration improves visibility to the environment, making it easier and faster to find servers and objects.
On the developer side, a new environment has been built on a beefed-up VisualStudio 2005. BI Development Studio (BIDS) is an integrated environment for data warehousing and BI professionals. Within VisualStudio are editors for cubes, dimensions, KPIs, calculations, ETL scripts and reports. "Everything you see in a data warehouse or a BI solution gets created inside of BIDS," says Baker, emphasizing the platform approach. "BI used to be a best-of-breed thing where you'd wind up like a general contractor. You'd pick a database, an OLAP server, a ROLAP or MOLAP architecture, ETL, reporting and you'd wind up with seven vendors and eight development environments."
In the Background
ETL has received much attention in SQL 2005 and BIDS. Baker says Data Transformation Services, or DTS, was popular with 70 to 80 percent of 7.0 and SQL 2000 users but was never built for easy deployment with huge data volumes and throughput. "We really thought we could improve in this area because some people have calculated that 65 to 70 percent of the cost of a project comes in ETL or just data integration." The new architecture, dubbed SQL Server Integration Services, was built from scratch and handles much larger data volumes without the need for a lot of programming, all within BIDS. It's also more interactive than execution in DTS. "You can see the row counts going through the various transforms in the package, you can look at data before and after transform, branch data and see what's going one way and what's going the other." "Visualizers" allow charting and presenting data as a map and a kind of quick check on data quality showing clusters and outliers. Data mining has been introduced in the ETL process as well, allowing users to gain insight generally and impute proxies for data that are temporarily missing.
The value of BIDS goes beyond programmers even to those who don't have VisualStudio but can access bits of its functionality through BIDS. It represents a merging of a general development environment with BI-specific development tools. "We think this is really important because one of the keys of making BI an everyday thing is getting BI embedded in the applications people use. The right data in the right amount of form factor is a really powerful thing."
On the Desktop
That last thought from Baker underscores Microsoft's commitment to precede and support the consumption of information in organizations, which ideally is demand-driven but benefits from a push. Though scalability issues have been answered in the new release, at its heart Microsoft has always been a bubble-up productivity advocate. In a way, this is the whole point. No matter how many layers a company envisions in the user pyramid, Baker says it will wind up with two general types: those who go to work in the morning to do business intelligence, and those that go to work in the morning to do their jobs. The requirement is to provide context that matches the needs of both. "When you look under the covers, both groups have pretty much the same needs for quality, timely and consistent data," Baker feels. "They want to run integration to get the right data. They want to run cubes to get more insight and then they want to run reports to get the right distribution and the right timeliness. We call that integrate, analyze and report - IAR. And what a coincidence - we have Integration Services, Analysis Services and Reporting Services!"
The Information Worker team at Microsoft has just released Microsoft Office Business Scorecard Manager 2005, which sits atop Analysis and Reporting Services, leveraging Office and SQL Server 2005 to articulate business strategy through collaborative use of scorecards and KPIs. A separate sign of productivity demand is the adoption curve of the SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services service packs, which have been downloaded more than 200,000 times. "It's a pretty good indication of usage compared to downloads of evaluations because a lot of those just sit on hard disks," says Baker.
Certainly the connections with Office and Excel in particular will buoy the SQL release for Microsoft and its partners. Not just the scorecard and reporting packages, but VisualStudio support for Outlook-managed code will help developers build new, custom line-of-business applications on top of the Office environment. All of this sounds a bit "back to the future" to Baker. "You would have thought we'd have had the reporting thing knocked out 25 years ago. But anybody who takes a sophisticated look realizes that if you don't have the right data, if you don't do the right job in integration, then you're building a decision-making mechanism on sand. Some are also realizing that while reports are nice, reports on cubes are actually more useful because you can put some business logic in there. Eventually you get around to the whole stack."
For the Future
Though he's always on a variety of timelines, Baker has been focused on the 2005 release to the exclusion of just about everything else. "The last thing you want to hear just before a release is, 'Hey, wait, I have a good idea.' You just put it in the drawer and come back to it."
On the other hand, there are ongoing priorities, empowering the application being the highest because it is the logical lever for empowering the end user. Unfortunately, some of this will have to wait until nagging tension between IT and business can be resolved in a clear light. "I still visit companies where I talk about the idea of getting data and tools more widely distributed and the CIO pounds the table and says 'NO!' Some people still look at the data warehouse as a purely historical record they can go back to and see what sales were at some point. Now you begin to think about how you can get CIOs and IT departments to serve up data confidently and comfortably; at the same time you're trying to make it easy for users to find the data they need and do smart things with it. The whole industry is still facing a lot of these challenges."
Conflict can also be a sign of progress and incipient maturity. Though the impending Windows Vista operating system gets the lion's share of ink coming out of Redmond, data and BI topics are getting public mentions in appearances by Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer. "Bill and Steve both have a lot of interest and passion in this, especially Bill because he's the chief software architect and one of his key roles is keeping things consistent and seeing that all our products evolve together."
In a BI tide that is presently lifting all boats, Baker will leave it to the marketing team to worry about the competition. "I'm probably less focused on competitive issues than anybody would guess," he says. With 26 years in the business, Baker remembers his days at small vendors where a sale of 100 or 500 seats would set off an extended party. "You knew who your customers were because they all had the title of analyst. Now we're trying to mainstream this in such a bigger way, and I think we're doing pretty well."
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