DM Review Published in DM Review Online in August 2005.
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Volume Analytics: Microsoft Vista's View of BI

by Guy Creese

In July, Microsoft not only announced the official name of its next operating system (previously named "Longhorn," now called "Vista"), but also shipped its first beta release of the software. Therefore, now is a good time to talk about how Vista will alter the role of business intelligence.

While the trade press has had a field day documenting Longhorn's delivery slippages, it has not always explained why. In the 1990s, Microsoft spent its time merging its OS code base - combining its DOS and Windows NT-based architectures into one. After completing that standardization work, Microsoft shifted from thinking tactically to thinking strategically about its OS - and Vista is the result. Major chunks of the OS have been rebuilt to enable new capabilities - and that has taken time.

The Changes: Graphics, .NET, the File System

In Vista, Microsoft focused on revamping its user interface/graphics subsystem (code named "Avalon," now called Windows Presentation Foundation), how it worked with .NET-based Web services (code named "Indigo," now called Windows Communication Foundation) and the underlying file system (code named "WinFS").

At this point, WinFS will not initially ship with Vista, but it has shaped a lot of Vista's design. WinFS embeds large amounts of meta data within the file system. Rather than letting document management, imaging or search systems put their meta data layers on top of an 8.3 file system, Microsoft is looking to manage that meta data itself. In other words, WinFS is a next-generation file system built to manage information, rather than data.

Why Did Microsoft Make These Changes?

Microsoft has spent literally thousands of man years revamping the Windows OS so it will better work with both today's technology and people's ways of working.

PCs these days are cheap, powerful and ubiquitous. Microsoft is embedding RSS feeds, speech recognition and speech synthesis into Vista because today's machines can handle the workload - five years ago, they couldn't.

In addition, Microsoft realized that the time had come to move beyond the old habits of separating research and action. Ten years ago, when a lot of corporate information was still on paper, employees would gather memos and reports, make a decision and then enter an order or send an e-mail on the computer. In other words, in the 1990s, documents (the research tools) and applications (the means for action) were separate. Today, with virtually all business information created and searchable electronically, these hard distinctions are blurring. Information gathering and business action can now occur concurrently - the system can feed a snippet of relevant information to a worker quickly, and that employee can act on it instantly.

Vista not only embraces this dynamic way of working, it promotes it. And this is why Vista will have such a long-term impact on the BI market.

The Vista View: BI As a Service

After all, BI, at its inception, also assumed that research and action were separate activities. It had to, for technological reasons. Enterprises created data warehouses because they wanted to analyze the business - but couldn't afford to impact the speed of operational systems with continual queries. Operational systems ran the business; BI systems researched the business. This separation of research and action was manifested in the fact that a user running the business logged onto SAP or Oracle; a user monitoring the business logged onto Business Objects or Cognos.

With Vista, Microsoft is arguing that this bopping back and forth between operational and BI systems is a needless waste of user time. Instead, data from BI systems should be supplied as a service to operational applications when needed. According to Microsoft, users should live in their operational applications - Vista will supply the necessary data when needed, and in context. Note that this stance of "Microsoft interface, BI-supplied data" is just an edgier, more comprehensive version of the integration that has occurred between BI and Microsoft Office recently. To mention two currently shipping examples, SAS's Add-In for Microsoft Office enables users to access SAS data from within Word or Excel; BusinessObjects Live Office connects Excel, PowerPoint and Word to Business Objects data servers.

By leveraging a more visual user interface (think maps and highly interactive graphics), Web services, and ultimately a new file system, Microsoft is looking to bring "BI as a service" to all Windows-based applications, not just Microsoft Office.

What You Need to Do

What does all of this mean to you, a BI professional? First, expect your end users to know about and argue for Microsoft's viewpoint. Microsoft 1) is not a bashful company and 2) is a marketing juggernaut. It will flood the world with its views via the Microsoft Web site, books from Microsoft Press, books from third-party publishers, articles in the IT trade press, Microsoft seminars and blogs. Your end users will be conversant with what's possible in Vista; you should be as well.

Second, this "BI as a service" paradigm is the way you will bring most of your corporations' employees into the BI fold. While heads-down analysts will continue to live within your BI application, most of your workers will not. Delivering the numbers that they want within a familiar interface (SAP, Siebel, Microsoft Office) is the best way to give them the data they need without disrupting their lives.

Third, you want to ask your BI vendors how they plan to work with Vista. For example, when will they certify running on it and do they have the necessary RSS feeds or APIs in place so that they can integrate their numbers with operational systems that leverage Vista's capabilities.

If you do these three things - become familiar with Vista, embrace "BI as a service," and verify that your in-house solutions can leverage Vista's capabilities - you will be ever closer to Bill Gates' mantra that he began chanting 15 years ago: "information at your fingertips."

Guy Creese is an analyst with the Burton Group, covering content management and search. Creese has worked in the high tech industry for 25 years, at both Fortune 500 companies and small startups, in positions ranging from programmer to product manager to customer support engineer.  He can be reached at

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