A few months ago, I discussed the pending release of a new Microsoft business intelligence (BI) tool called Data Analyzer, which the company officially launched on November 1. I'd like to revisit Data Analyzer and focus on its features and—more important—the impact it might have on the BI space.

Data Analyzer is BI software that lets you easily display and analyze data even if you're not an analysis expert. The tool can help you quickly find problems, opportunities, and trends that might be hidden away in mountains of data. Microsoft brands Data Analyzer as part of the Office family of products; however, Data Analyzer is essentially a standalone product that runs independently of Office.

Today, you can use Microsoft Excel as a front-end tool to SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services, but many people agree that Excel is sorely lacking as a front-end data-visualization tool. You can certainly find third-party offerings more sophisticated than Data Analyzer, but Microsoft's newest BI offering greatly improves the level of data visualization and analysis that's possible without adding third-party tools to the mix.

Data Analyzer's new visualization capabilities can:

  • Help users identify opportunities and trends, find business anomalies, and visualize many sets of data through one interface by displaying multiple measures and relationships between business dimensions.
  • Quickly identify areas well suited for further exploration by providing standardized business questions and measures to analyze data and identify key performance indicators.

"Data Analyzer is a great addition to the Office family because it enables any knowledge worker to perform sophisticated analysis with an easy-to-use tool," said Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of Microsoft Office. "An application such as Data Analyzer is an example of how we are delivering the tools customers need to quickly and easily unlock hidden knowledge from their corporations and use that knowledge to make smart business decisions."

Data Analyzer is a nifty product, but I believe its true importance goes far beyond the capabilities of its current feature set. Data Analyzer has the potential to be a foundational building block in Microsoft's attempt to bring BI to the masses. The company shipped its first BI offering several years ago when it bundled OLAP Services with SQL Server 7.0. I was convinced that OLAP Services would fundamentally change the way people worked with their data by making advanced BI capabilities more cost-effective for the typical business. OLAP Services did successfully lower the price point of BI, but—to make a long story short—BI solutions have been too difficult for typical IT folks to build and deploy to end users. As a result, BI hasn't achieved the critical mass necessary to become a true commodity solution.

A decade ago, the initial release of Visual Basic (VB) sparked a revolution by putting an inexpensive, easy-to-use GUI tool in the hands of developers. In a similar way, Data Analyzer is a mass-market, mass-distributed tool with the potential to put inexpensive, easy-to-use analysis and visualization capabilities in the hands of business users. Most of today's business users have no idea what OLAP and BI can do for them. Building powerful OLAP applications can be difficult, and I've rarely seen an IT shop that wasn't pushed practically to the breaking point with respect to time and resources. It's easy to ignore BI solutions when internal business users aren't clamoring for them.

I'm not naive enough to believe that installing Data Analyzer will take the hard work out of building the back ends necessary to support flexible BI solutions. I don't believe that Data Analyzer will magically answer all the questions business users might have. However, I do believe that Data Analyzer will add immediate value to many business users. More important, I believe that mass-distributed BI tools such as Data Analyzer will dramatically raise the BI awareness level within the business community, which will create pressure on the IT organization to release better analytical solutions; the cycle will feed on itself. Several years from now, I think we'll look back and see that Data Analyzer was an important step in Microsoft's mission to make BI techniques and technology a part of our daily routines in the world of business and IT.

Data Analyzer is available for $179; you can download an evaluation copy from the Microsoft Web site. The site also includes links to a detailed product guide and an animated tour of Data Analyzer that will help you better understand its features and capabilities.