SQL Server BI Blog

The Microsoft Cloud BI Story, Dateline February 2011

by Mark Kromer

Here we are in February 2011 and I thought it might make sense in the SQL Mag BI Blog to take stock of where Microsoft is at in terms of the “Cloud BI” story.

First, let’s catch you up on a little research and see where different industry leaders, including Microsoft, land in terms of their definition and products for “Cloud BI”. As with many things in the IT industry, “Cloud BI” will mean different things to different people. I’m not listing them all here, just a few that I’ve worked with/for in the past and that I see quite a bit day-in and day-out:

Gartner calls “BI in the Cloud” a combination of 6 elements: data sources, data models, processing applications, computing power, analytic models, and sharing or storing of results. This focuses more on the analytics side of the BI equation and does not address data warehouses or data integration. This makes sense from the perspective that most vendors are taking today toward Cloud BI with smaller data sets (data marts) in the Cloud, or on premises, but authoring publishing tools in the Cloud.

Oracle, on the other hand, continues to frame Cloud in terms of “private cloud”, creating on-premises infrastructures that are virtualized, flexible, elastic and includes concepts such as chargeback. The key is that Oracle sees itself as the infrastructure provider for on-prem and Cloud-based providers. You won’t find a public Cloud version of Oracle database, Hyperion or OBIEE outside of hosting partner providers or the up-coming Amazon Oracle database offering.

In terms of offering a BI platform in the cloud, open-source BI vendors are turning to Amazon and RightScale (which runs on EC2) to make use of their virtualized, hosted infrastructure for MySQL, RDS and EC2. For example, Pentaho is offering “Cloud BI” versions of their product also leveraging Amazon’s EC2 and MySQL. I also see BIRT On Demand quite a bit these days, they use Amazon RDS instead of MySQL. Jaspersoft is now offering their BI reporting platform in the Cloud through RightScale’s platform.

Thinking back to some of the very first offerings of BI in the Cloud that was marketed by Crystal Reports and Salesforce.com in the mid 2000’s, there were offerings by those vendors that were based around reporting tools hosted on a public server with subscription-based pricing. You would typically point to a data source such as a spreadsheet on your laptop to port the data into those tools. In fact, that data replication, synchronization and integration from legacy data sources in large company databases into Cloud databases and Cloud-based BI metadata or canonical models is still something that is evolving. One of the most exciting things that I am watching for in the Microsoft Azure platform for Cloud BI & database around SQL Azure, is Federated databases. This would allow us to create applications that can have a much easier time at database sharding and parallel processing. And on the BI front, the Data Sync tool could then be automated to move cleansed and transformed data into SQL Azure data marts for analysis.

So, back to Microsoft and their “Cloud BI” story. Today, what I can demonstrate from the Microsoft stack is a rich feature set of database functionality in the Cloud with SQL Azure. I can move that data around to different databases in different data centers in the Cloud and I can report on that data with analytics and dashboards from Excel 2010 with PowerPivot and Report Builder. Both of those reporting tools are sitting on my laptop, they are not in the Cloud. So it is not 100% Cloud-based. But I do not need a separate server infrastructure to do my Excel-based PowerPivot data integration and analysis. And I can always use the existing on-prem SharePoint or SSRS services to publish the reports that are built form the Cloud-based SQL Azure data.

Now that more & more Microsoft partners are providing Windows Phone 7 mobile dashboards (see Derek’s previous articles on this topic in SQL Magazine) you could build a complete Cloud-based Microsoft BI solution. Some of these tools are in preview CTP releases right now. The new data integration Data Sync CTP 2 moves data between on-premises SQL Server and SQL Azure and Reporting Services in Azure is also being made available as CTP on Microsoft.com. PowerPivot is not yet available in Azure, but keep your eyes & ears tuned to the Microsoft sites (http://www.powerpivot.com/) for PowerPivot news.

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