Purple Frog spent a very interesting day at Microsoft last week, at one of their many events promoting the launch of SQL Server 2008 R2. Rafal Lukewiecki presented an entertaining (as always!) and informative series of talks covering the release, focusing on the enhanced Business Intelligence tools available.
The primary changes to note are
- Power Pivot – An in memory, client side add-in to Excel, that allows users to create virtual cubes on their desktop and analyse over 100m records of data virtually instantly
- DAX – A new expression language, designed for non-technical (probably more realistically, semi-technical) users to extend pivot tables and power pivot tables without having to learn MDX
- Report Components – In a report consisting of a couple of tables, a chart and a few gauges (gauges, sparklines & maps are all new features of SSRS), you can save each element as a component and re-use it in different reports. This should result in much less duplication of work.
- Report Builder 3 – A thin-client tool allowing end users to create Reporting Services reports. This is a big enhancement over its predecessor s it is finally fully compatible with reports created in the Business Intelligence Development Studio (BIDS), including report components.
- Master Data Services – A centralised tool and database intended to provide governance of your organisation’s master data (centralised list of products, fiscal calendar, regions etc.).
The enhancements to Reporting Services (SSRS) are very welcome, and should be of huge benefit to anyone either currently using SSRS or considering using it. I firmly believe that there are no comparable web based reporting engines that even come close for SME organisations when looking at the whole picture including cost of implementation, ease of use, flexibility and capability.
Master Data Services as a concept has been around for a long time, but there has never been a tool available to organisations to effectively implement it. This is Microsoft’s first proper stab at delivering a workable solution, and although I’m a big fan of the concept, and have no doubt of its benefit to a SME, I’m yet to be convinced that the tool is ready for a large scale corporate environment. Time will tell how scalable and manageable the system is, and credit has to go to Microsoft for starting the ball rolling.
The most impressive addition is without a doubt PowerPivot. In a nutshell, it’s a user defined OLAP cube wrapped up within Excel 2010, running entirely in memory on a user’s workstation. If you’ve not yet played with it or seen a demo, I’ll try and elaborate for you… Think about loading Excel with 1 million rows, and then imagine sorting and filtering a number of those columns [cue going out to lunch whilst waiting for Excel to catch up]. With PowerPivot, you can sort and filter over 100 million rows of data almost in an instant – it’s very impressive indeed!
That’s the snazzy demo bit, but to reduce it to a glorified spreadsheet is very harsh indeed. It allows a user to import multiple data sources and combine them together into a single dimensional data model, PowerPivot will create your own personal cube, without you having to build a warehouse, without knowing anything about MDX, dimension hierarchies, attribute relationships, granularity etc. etc.
Microsoft’s vision and reason for creating this tool is self-service BI, allowing users to create their own cubes, data analysis environments and reporting systems. And this is where I start to have a problem…
I can’t remember the last time I designed a data warehouse, where I did not find significant data quality problems, conflicting data, missing data, duplicated data etc.. I also find it hard to think of a situation where an end user (even a power user) is sufficiently clued up about the intricacies of a source OLTP database to be able to extract the right data and know what to do with it. Or if they are, a dozen other people in different departments have a different idea about how things work, resulting in many different versions of the truth.
I’m therefore (for now!) sticking with the opinion that it is still absolutely vital for an organisation to provide a clean, consistent, dimensionally modelled data warehouse as the basis for their BI/MI infrastructure. Tools like PowerPivot then sit very nicely on top to provide an incredibly powerful and beneficial user experience, but to try and use the emergence of self-service BI tools to usher in a new ‘non-data warehouse’ era is a very dangerous route which I hope people will avoid.
In summary – this release brings with it a fantastic host of new tools, but with great power comes great responsibility…