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How to optimize your Microsoft business intelligence strategy

Business intelligence (BI) is about gathering data and making decisions based on a full view of that information. Planning and executing a business intelligence strategy can be tricky, but luckily there are a number of solutions to guide your organization.

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Recently, Microsoft has started emphasizing its stack of products in this space -- possibly a good fit for midsized organizations already knee-deep in Microsoft products -- and there are a number of ways to extract more value out of this strategy for a fuller, more efficient view of the data.

Here are four ways to optimize your investment in the Microsoft BI stack, now and with an eye toward the future:

Don't use Excel as the front end to your BI solutions. Many organizations assume that Excel is a capable front end for business intelligence solutions. There is some logic to this -- after all, Excel is probably the most deployed data analysis tool in the corporate world today. But in terms of being a capable product for analyzing the vast amounts of data stored on your BI farm, or a useful interface for building, querying, drilling down and looking further at that data, there are superior products designed specifically for that context. Strategy Companion Analyzer and other similar products may be a better fit for delivering this important information about your business, as opposed to hacking and slicing with Excel.

Understand the limits of SQL Server Integration Services and investigate alternatives. The Microsoft BI stack is of course SQL Server Reporting Services and Analysis Services, but you also have the SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS) piece. The common consensus in the BI industry is that this is the weakest link in the Microsoft stack, and that it leaves a lot to be desired. There are known problems, including poor logging capabilities and unreliability of tasks.

Since SSIS does the heavy lifting for importing, exporting and transforming data, you're hard-pressed to find one package that could replace the Microsoft bits in this space. One option, however, is Rhino ETL -- a free, open source package with similar features that could help reduce some of the frustrations your IT staff will encounter trying to get your new Microsoft BI solution installation optimized and working properly.

Centralize your reporting. The newest buzzword in the BI industry is self-service BI, or the ability for end users to directly access business intelligence data through a centralized portal. While this could get complex in very large organizations with many more BI users, small and medium-sized businesses could greatly benefit by including self-service, centralized reporting in their business intelligence strategies.

New features added to SQL Server 2008 R2, which was released this quarter, included the project previously code-named Kilimanjaro -- a new set of simple analysis tools for managed self-service. It also contains the previously code-named Gemini, the epitome of self-service BI -- it enables staffers in your company to slice and dice data and create their own BI applications and other rich-data assets to share and collaborate on.

The newest buzzword in the BI industry is self-service BI, or the ability for end users to directly access business intelligence data through a centralized portal.

Consider the cloud and where it's going. As you've probably heard, Microsoft is "all in" when it comes to the cloud. For companies investing in the Microsoft BI stack, future capabilities of the company's SQL Azure service should be of particular interest. For a very limited time, Microsoft offered a prerelease data-mining toolkit that removed the need for an on-premises installation of SQL Server Analysis Services: The trial allowed users to perform some basic data-mining tasks, including analyzing key influencers, detecting categories, forecasting and highlighting exceptions.

While it appears this trial has been discontinued, the premise is still important: the availability of more SQL services within the cloud that could make integrating BI data and services into your organization much easier. Of course, moving to hosted services isn't without risk, and BI data is certainly more proprietary to your organization than most other forms of data, but you'd be remiss to not at least consider some of the savings of moving your data to a hybrid cloud solution.

On top of this, as SharePoint technologies mature and Excel Services and Performance Point become more widely accepted, you'll find more emphasis on accessing this type of BI data from a Web portal. As that might become your organization's cloud, it's time to sit down and consider your cloud computing and needs in this space.

Not all solutions are one size fits all: Regardless of what you select for your business intelligence strategy, keep in mind that there are always ways to optimize how your data is mined and analyzed, and reduce the time and resources spent to do it.

Jonathan Hassell is president of The Sun Valley Group Inc. He's an author, consultant and speaker in Charlotte, N.C. Hassell's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual. Contact him at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

This was first published in June 2010

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