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Business Intelligence: Empower Your Users with Business Intelligence

Business intelligence solutions provide scalable access to relevant information and analysis to help your people make the best possible business decisions.

Joshua Hoffman

You often hear the most valuable resource within any company is the people. Certainly any organization has a lot of money tied up in inventory, real estate, technology and so on, but the people are invariably more important than any of those other resources. It’s the people who make the decisions that drive the business.

The people decide the best inventory to carry, the best real estate to purchase and the best technology solutions to adopt—and making the right decisions is the primary differentiator between success and filing for bankruptcy.

The key to making the right decisions lies in ensuring that your people have timely access to the best possible information. This is where business intelligence (BI) solutions can help. By providing a robust data infrastructure, powerful integration and analysis services, and a familiar and intuitive interface, BI solutions empower a company’s decision makers. Give them access to the right information, and they’ll be better equipped to make the right decisions. 

The Power of Data

Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 is the foundation of Microsoft BI technologies. It provides a robust, scalable and enterprise-ready platform to store and deliver critical BI information to workers across your entire organization. SQL Server 2008 R2 can store structured, semi-structured and even unstructured objects, such as images and rich media. All data is stored directly within the database, so you have access to it anytime and anywhere.

SQL Server 2008 R2 also includes a rich set of integrated services that let you do more with your data. By using SQL Server Integration Services, you can quickly integrate large volumes of data from a variety of sources. You can also consolidate real-time data by capturing changes as they happen. This helps ensure you’re maintaining a single authoritative source of information upon which you can base your business decisions.

SQL Server Analysis Services is the multidimensional online analytical processing (OLAP) component of SQL Server 2008 R2. When you load detailed data from the data warehouse into a multidimensional OLAP database, SQL Server 2008 R2 will pre-calculate summarized values. Those summary values are stored in the database, which expedites report and analytical query execution.

Simplified Management

There are a number of tools included with SQL Server to help you deliver BI solutions to your users:

  • The SQL Server Management Studio is a unified environment from which you can manage all SQL Server  instances and services including relational databases, Reporting Services, Analysis Services, Integration Services and SQL Server Compact databases.
  • The seamless integration with Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 lets you monitor your BI framework and maintain optimal service-level agreements (SLAs).
  • The Performance Data Collection lets you continuously collect diagnostic information, which helps you dynamically optimize performance throughout your organization.
  • The integrated Windows PowerShell scripting environment lets you streamline and automate tasks across your entire BI infrastructure.

Facilitate Information Sharing

Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Reporting Services (SSRS) is designed to help close the gap between collecting raw data and presenting meaningful information. These tools can help you present intelligent data analysis, while still giving you the flexibility to customize reports and report formats.

SSRS gives you a catalogue of pre-configured reporting components and data sets, tailored to service the most common business needs. This approach helps you quickly leverage common data and presentation styles or common sets of data. It also alleviates the need for IT intervention every time one of your users needs a new report format, saving you and your IT department valuable time.

SSRS can also deliver reports through automated subscriptions via e-mail, SharePoint or a shared network folder. This ensures your business users are always making decisions based on the most current data. You can render reports in a variety of cross-platform formats, including HTML, PDF, CSV, XML and Image (TIFF), as well as Microsoft Office Word and Excel (see Figure 1).

A sales report generated by SQL Server 2008 R2 Reporting Services

Figure 1 A sales report generated by SQL Server 2008 R2 Reporting Services

In conjunction with SSRS, you can also use the SharePoint Silverlight interface, which lets you automatically render thumbnails of reports in the library. This helps your users find the right reports quickly and easily.

Power to the Users

While the pre-configured data and presentation components are helpful to business users, there’s considerable value in empowering those users to leverage BI data on their own—in other words, providing self-service BI. This not only gives users greater access to and control over critical business data, but it also frees the IT staff from reporting tasks so they can make better use of their time.

Fortunately, SSRS Report Builder has a familiar wizard-based interface that helps users build their own reports without requiring them to have a deep technical understanding of the underlying data structures.

Microsoft has enhanced Report Builder 3.0 with features to help users visualize and share BI. Map controls help users gain new insights from location-based information by combining business data and rich geospatial data visualization. Gauges, sparklines and data bars also help users portray information in a high-impact, graphical manner.

PowerPivot takes self-service BI a step further. PowerPivot helps your users connect to one or more data sources in any number of formats. They can then combine that data and show it in a familiar tool. They can also analyze the information and publish it for others to review. PowerPivot comes in two versions: PowerPivot for Excel 2010 and PowerPivot for SharePoint 2010.

The new version of Excel 2010 lets users create PowerPivot workbooks, which are essentially regular Excel workbook (.xlsx) files that contain PowerPivot data. It also uses Excel data visualization objects, such as PivotTables and PivotCharts. You can use these to present data. The row limitation in Excel is removed, which lets users import millions of rows of data for analysis. They can then share this PowerPivot data throughout the company using PowerPivot for SharePoint (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Using PowerPivot for SharePoint to distribute data

Figure 2 Using PowerPivot for SharePoint to distribute data

The real value PowerPivot delivers comes in its ability to integrate data from disparate sources. This lets you holistically work with large volumes of data. You can enter data, copy data from other worksheets and import data from external sources such as SQL Server databases. With the mapping functionality, you can build relationships between that data, even when it comes from disparate sources.

The data also remains within the workbook. No one needs to manage external data connections. If you publish, move, copy or share a workbook, all the data moves with the workbook. The data also remains highly compressed, so the file is of a manageable size. This makes it easier to save it in an online content-management platform.

Rich Data Visualization

PerformancePoint Services is a new feature in SharePoint 2010 Enterprise Edition. This helps you create visually rich, interactive BI dashboards in SharePoint. (Note: PerformancePoint Services replaces PerformancePoint Server 2007 by incorporating the functionality of PerformancePoint directly into SharePoint 2010 Enterprise.)

The dashboard is a valuable resource, as it provides a quick visualization of the most critical business data—often referred to as key performance indicators (KPIs). Like the dashboard of a car, a PerformancePoint dashboard helps decision makers use rich visual indicators to quickly see what’s going well and what needs attention.

Dashboards are essentially a collection of scorecards (see Figure 3). Scorecards are dashboard elements that show the performance of one or more metrics or KPIs against a goal. You may have one scorecard for regional sales, another for production and another for customer satisfaction. You can then assemble these scorecards within SharePoint to create your comprehensive dashboard.

Figure 3 A PerformancePoint dashboard displayed in SharePoint

Figure 3 A PerformancePoint dashboard displayed in SharePoint

PerformancePoint helps users have a completely interactive experience with key business data. Within PerformancePoint dashboards, users have the opportunity to drill down to explore the data in greater depth.

Using the PerformancePoint Decomposition Tree, users can break a single KPI down into its component parts. This helps them understand how individual group members have contributed to the sum. For example, your Decomposition Tree can demonstrate how individual products and product lines have contributed to the larger KPI of “Sales” (see Figure 4). Users can change visualization formats on the fly, temporarily add or remove chart elements, reformat a bar graph to a pie chart, re-sort elements and so on.

Figure 4A PerformancePoint Decomposition Tree presents an amalgamation of data

Figure 4 A PerformancePoint Decomposition Tree presents an amalgamation of data

You can export PerformancePoint reports in a variety of familiar formats, including PowerPoint and Excel. This makes it easy to share dashboard data with others. PerformancePoint Services also leverages the integrated SharePoint permissions model, which simplifies granting or restricting access to particular dashboards or sensitive data at a granular level.

To get started with PerformancePoint, SharePoint 2010 PerformancePoint Services users can install the Dashboard Designer. This is a standalone tool you can install by visiting the BI Center of your organization’s SharePoint infrastructure.

With the Dashboard Designer, your users can easily create new KPIs, scorecards, dashboards and reports, all of which they can publish and share with SharePoint. The Dashboard Designer is a wizard-driven, WYSIWYG experience, so your users can design the scorecards and dashboards that make the most sense for their line of business.

Making smart decisions requires more than information—it requires intelligence. By providing scalable access to relevant information and analysis, BI solutions add intellectual horsepower to your business users. BI solutions help them make the best possible decisions to drive your business.

Joshua Hoffman
Joshua Hoffman is the former editor in chief of TechNet Magazine. He’s now an independent author and consultant, advising clients on technology and audience-oriented marketing. Hoffman also serves as editor in chief of ResearchAccess.com, a site devoted to growing and enriching the market research community. He lives in New York City..

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