UPDATED: Microsoft Ships PerformancePoint Server 2007

Microsoft Corp. today officially unveiled PerformancePoint Server 2007, its highly anticipated performance management (PM) software. There's a good chance PerformancePoint Server could do for PM what SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) did for OLAP and reporting (respectively): take it mainstream.

Microsoft announced PerformancePoint in June of 2006, just a couple of months after it acquired the former ProClarity Corp. This helped raise expectations for Redmond's inaugural PM suite, in part because ProClarity brought so much to the table, especially in terms of analytic, dashboard and data visualization capabilities.

Microsoft officials concede that ProClarity's assets comprise an important portion of PerformancePoint, but stress that Redmond developed much of the PerformancePoint technology in-house. In late 2005, for example, Microsoft announced Business Scorecard Manager (BSM) 2005, its first-ever dedicated PM offering. Before that, the company shipped several PM-oriented SQL Server "Accelerators" -- including a scorecarding tool.

"PerformancePoint has been under development for a number of years. Really, it's an application to help you improve the business process of performance management," said Michael Smith, director of marketing for Microsoft's Office Business Applications Group, in an interview earlier this year.

"Analyzing that performance, that's where the ProClarity acquisition came in. We’ve been building out the underlying platform that those features sit in or hang off of. So we've incorporated the server-side aspects of ProClarity into PerformancePoint.

"A lot of PerformancePoint's magic takes place behind the scenes. From the perspective of most users, in fact, the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel spreadsheet will continue to be the go-to client for most analysis and data visualization.

"We're continuing to use Office as a front-end for the application. Most of the visualization you’ll see is using Excel for submitting budgets and plans, or SharePoint for rendering dashboards, or Excel for analytics. Most of the ProClarity stuff is really going to be in the back-end, on the server," Smith said.

In this respect, Smith continued, PerformancePoint Server comprises a kind of translation layer -- between SQL Server 2005 on the back-end and Excel on the client-side -- for analytic data. "You can really think of PerformancePoint as almost putting Excel on top of a database. We’ll use the Excel grid for creating things like budget forms and templates, but when you save information, the server will actually take information out of the spreadsheet UI and write it back into the SQL Server database."

"Anyone considering using PerformancePoint Server needs to understand that it's a scorecard-based application," said Philip Russom, senior manager at TDWI Research. "I suppose it's possible to deploy lots of unconnected dashboards with PerformancePoint, but it’s really designed for scorecards that relate and are connected in a hierarchy. That way, the hierarchy of scorecards puts all metrics and key performance indicators in the context of a unified corporate strategy, unlike the disconnected dashboards seen most PM solutions.

"The upside is that scorecarding --especially when coupled with budget and planning functions, as in PerformancePoint-- provides better management command and control for performance management than a bucket of dashboards. The possible downside is that scorecarding occasionally involves more methodological rigor than some corporate cultures can handle or tolerate."

A Refinement in Microsoft's BI Strategy

Smith and other Microsoft officials like to position PerformancePoint as a refinement of Redmond's existing BI strategy. Instead of giving organizations a breadth of SQL Server-based OLAP, data mining, data integration, and reporting capabilities on the back-end, along with a suite of Office productivity tools on the client-side, PerformancePoint draws from both technologies.

"What we're doing with PerformancePoint is taking [SQL Server and Microsoft Office] and building on them a set of applications that are geared toward solving a business problem. We use SQL Server in the back end, we use Office in the front end, and PerformancePoint has specific business logic around things like budgeting and planning performance and scorecarding," Smith said.

Microsoft’s SSAS and SSRS offerings have become dominant market forces -- SSAS has been the OLAP market leader for about half-a-decade now -- thanks mostly to the pervasiveness of their parent SQL Server database. However, PerformancePoint isn’t bundled (or otherwise sold in tandem) with SQL Server 2005. Earlier this year, in fact, Microsoft published PerformancePoint pricing and licensing details (go here).

One upshot of this is that there doesn't seem to be all that much built-in demand for PerformancePoint -- not, that is, among the rank-and-file data management (DM) pros who helped make SSAS, SSRS, and even SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS, the former Data Transformation Services) such rousing successes.

In a sense, the value-add that helped make SSAS, SSRS, and SSIS so successful -- i.e., they're essentially free -- is missing in PerformancePoint Server's case. For this reason, many DM pros who decided to tap Microsoft's SQL Server BI technologies -- in a sense (like Everest explorer George Mallory) because they were there -- say PerformancePoint Server isn't yet on their radar screens.

Consider the case of Vidya Jayaraman, a BI technologist with a U.S.-based Microsoft partner. Jayaraman -- who requested that we shield his employer’s identity -- says he believes PerformancePoint will make a big splash in larger organizations, although he doesn’t know how that product will fare in the small-and-medium-sized business (SMB) segment to which his company caters.

"Our organization works typically with small and midsized businesses and we use SQL [Server] 2005 and some of them are still using SQL [Server] 2000. It is [our] primary RDBMS product as we use one of the Microsoft Dynamics products. We also see a trend where we would be using more of the BI stack in future," Jayaraman comments.

Price May be an Issue

PerformancePoint Server isn't yet available, but Jayaraman's employer has looked at its predecessor, Business Scorecard Manager (BSM) 2005. "We were evaluating Scorecard Manager and many clients use Excel and Reporting Services as front-end BI tools. However, BSM seems to be a little too expensive at the moment for smaller businesses."

For this reason, he concludes, PerformancePoint will probably remain a large enterprise play -- although it could make some headway into the SMB segment if Microsoft packages it correctly. "I perceive that Performance Point Server...will become [widely] popular only if there is a smaller, scaled-down version that addresses the needs of small businesses," he indicates. "I do see that it eminently suits mid- to large-sized businesses."

For Jim Youmans, a SQL Server DM pro who likewise requested that his employer not be named, it comes down to an issue of pricing: His organization made use of the BI capabilities Microsoft built into SQL Server 2000 and (more recently) SQL Server 2005 when it identified uses for them. One of the most attractive points of Microsoft’s SQL Server-based BI stack is its price tag, Youmans says; as for the Office tools that Microsoft pitches for the BI front-end, they're already on every desktop computer, he continues, so -- from a DM budgeting perspective -- they're basically "free," too.

For this reason, Youmans questions whether his organization would be willing to pony up even more cash for the separate PerformancePoint product, even though -- at this point -- his shop is pretty heavily invested in SQL Server.

"[W]e have one unit [that] relies on SQL 2005 Reporting Services very much and they really like it. We do use SQL 2000 Analysis Services, but it is somewhat difficult to tune and that group is looking towards migrating to SQL [Server] 2005. We are using SSIS quite a bit and, so far, we have found that it works very well," he observes.

"We tend to avoid BI tools that will cost us more. Since we have a copy of Office on every desktop, the business sees that as ‘free’ and encourages us to use it. Not that Office is free, but it comes from the desktop budget and not the SQL and Reporting budgets." That same probably can't be said about PerformancePoint Server, Youmans points out.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.