Could the age of self-service BI (business intelligence) finally be near? And, if so, are organizations ready?
For years, BI vendors have promised a way for managers to easily build their own reports from scratch, without the help of IT staff. Now, with the release of Microsoft Office 2010, managers are finding they can do these tasks using a powerful new Excel feature, called PowerPivot. And by its ease of availability if nothing else, this feature is promising to shake up the field of BI.
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"It will spread like wildfire. As organizations upgrade to Office 2010, Excel users will adopt PowerPivot, whether the [IT staff] likes it or not," said Gartner analyst Rita Sallam.
Thus far, BI professionals seem ambivalent about PowerPivot. At a packed PowerPivot birds-of-a-feather session at the Microsoft TechEd conference last June, many admitted that the feature is powerful, even as they worried about the repercussions of its use within their own offices.
"Some of our concerns [are around] letting users loose, the size of the files that they want to share and the kind of data they want to share," one attendee said.
As the name implies, PowerPivot is a PivotTable on steroids. With PowerPivot, you can pull into Excel large amounts of data from multiple database tables, databases, or other sources of data, then sort and filter them almost instantly. Data can be reorganized around one column or compared against columns from another data source. You can divide the data by time, geographic origin, or some other parameter. Since it runs Microsoft's business intelligence software on the back end, it can do much of what a full-fledged BI application can do.
And PowerPivot can work blazingly fast too. Architecturally speaking, it replicates the technology found in many in-memory databases, allowing users to sort millions of rows of data within a few seconds.
The best part about PowerPivot is that it is free, or at least it is a free feature of Microsoft Office 2010 (though to really enjoy its full power, an organization should also run Microsoft's SQL Server on the back end). This means that all the power Excel users in your organizations will start playing with it sooner or later.
But a potential danger lurks in this ease of use, said Andrew Brust, the chief technology officer for Microsoft integrator Tallan. (Brust also moderated the PowerPivot TechEd session.) Promiscuous use of PowerPivot may only aggravate a problem that has already become an issue for many data-centric organizations over the past decade, one that came about in large part due to the managerial popularity of Excel.