Business intelligence for the masses, dynamic data analysis, and rich enterprise reporting are just a few things you can look forward to over the next 5 years in the SQL Server BI market. See what else you can expect as leading solution providers analyze the BI space—past, present, and future.

What are the biggest changes that you've seen in the SQL Server BI market over the past 5 years?

Michael Engbrock, product manager, Hewlett-Packard (HP): The increased ability and performance of industry-standard technologies has decreased the difficulty and cost of implementing BI systems. SQL Server has been a major change agent. The value of actionable BI has always been clear, but the cost to deliver that information made it a function available only to the best-funded organizations. The decreasing cost of powerful technologies such as the HP ProLiant system and HP storage joined with SQL Server creates a BI platform that delivers value in a cost-effective manner.

Eric de Roos, senior product manager, MicroStrategy: SQL Server's data scalability and breadth of built-in functions have improved over the past 5 years. This growth has had a positive effect on MicroStrategy customers using SQL Server because accessing very large data volumes is one of MicroStrategy's sweet spots. SQL Server and MicroStrategy customers can now access the most granular, transactional-level information stored in their databases and perform sophisticated data analysis, providing effective data-driven decisions. SQL Server's robustness and performance has also improved, allowing the implementation of mission-critical BI implementations.

Rony Ross, chairman and founder, Panorama Software: The SQL Server BI market was nonexistent 5 years ago. Microsoft released the first version of OLAP Services (the predecessor of Analysis Services) in late 1998, based in part on technology acquired from Panorama Software Systems in 1996. Since then, the SQL Server share of the BI market has grown exponentially. According to The OLAP Report, SQL Server's share of the BI market was more than 25 percent in 2002—this is a remarkable success. The release of SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services early this year is expected to bring about an additional wave of penetration for SQL Server, positioning the database system as an across-the-board solution that's highly competitive in other sectors of the BI space.

Clay Young, senior vice president of strategic marketing, ProClarity Corporation: We've seen the following positive changes in the past 5 years: increased importance of OLAP and other analytic technologies created by their inclusion in the SQL Server kit, a growing acceptance of SQL Server as a solution for larger companies, and high growth of the SQL Server platform. However, SQL Server is still not widely accepted by large enterprises except as a departmental solution. We'd like to see that change.

Mike Zubey, senior marketing manager, Unisys Corporation: SQL Server has moved from a departmental BI solution to delivering enterprise BI capabilities. For example, SQL Server offers the full suite of BI tools (extraction, transformation, and loading—ETL; data warehousing; OLAP; data mining; and Reporting Services) that let enterprise customers (those with more than 5,000 employees) handle BI workloads that include multiple terabytes of data and more than 25,000 users. Areas of growth for SQL Server are system security and ETL performance.

What's the state of the SQL Server BI space in supporting a healthy third-party community and bringing innovative, useful products to customers?

HP: A broader, more diverse user base for BI has created more opportunity for third parties to develop and produce products. Organizations can deliver innovative products to customers by using standard technologies and offerings for a general platform and invest their knowledge and resources in specific areas that address customer problems. The outcome is a wider, richer range of solutions that can more easily interoperate across organizations and industries.

MicroStrategy: Standardization is a key theme in the current BI space. And BI vendors now need to provide a BI platform that can support all five styles of business intelligence—enterprise reporting, cube analysis, ad hoc query and analysis, statistical analysis and data mining, and report delivery and alerting—through a single, unified interface on a single unified backplane. MicroStrategy accomplishes this by using a single metadata abstraction layer.

Panorama: The BI space has undergone dramatic changes in 2003 with the consolidation and acquisitions wave (Business Objects–Crystal Decisions, Hyperion-Brio, and so on). We see more large-scale, $500 million-and-up type of players in a market that was previously known for competitiveness and agility. Larger players tend to take on more services and more consulting, especially when driven to preserve their revenue, having a negative impact on the third-party community. We believe Microsoft, with its very different distribution model, will be clever enough to avoid eroding the value add of the third-party vendors and keep a successful and growing community around its offering.

ProClarity: The variety and complexity of BI problems ensures an ongoing thriving community of innovative software companies.

What are the top three criteria customers use in selecting a BI tool?

HP: The top three criteria we see customers using for selecting a BI tool are ease of implementation within the existing infrastructure, the cost of purchase and operation, and the ease of modification as business requirements change.

MicroStrategy: The main criteria for our customers are user scale (beyond 1,000 users), data scale (beyond 250GB), and a highly functional Web interface. MicroStrategy's zero-footprint Web interface and its highly scalable middle-tier BI platform enable it to scale to tens of thousands of users. MicroStrategy's Relational OLAP Engine, which generates multi-pass SQL optimized specifically for SQL Server, has enabled BI implementations that access many terabytes of data. And Web deployments that use no add-ins or plug-ins are essential for large user populations. These interfaces also need to contain all the functionality needed to create, run, print and export reports and analyses quickly and efficiently in a secure environment. More than 85 percent of MicroStrategy users access their BI applications through a standard Web browser.

Panorama: BI isn't a one-size-fits-all industry. The criteria change dramatically between organizations based on their deployment requirements. For organizations that want to deploy BI to a large number of users across the Internet, the three major concerns are extensibility, ease of use, and price per user. The solution will fail if it can't scale, isn't intuitive enough for users to use without much training, and is prohibitively expensive. For organizations that want to deploy BI for select analysts and executives, the three major concerns are functionality, flexibility, and quality. Functionality is key for analysts. Most executives will insist on a special look and feel they'll be comfortable using. Because the trend today is to extend the reach of BI across and outside the organization, we see more and more customers who base their decisions on extensibility, ease of use, and price.

ProClarity: The top three criteria really vary by customer and depend on the problems a business is trying to solve. If an organization's problems are somewhat simple and a basic BI product will do, then price is usually the main factor, followed by functionality. In the case of most of our customers, their problems are much more complex, so sophisticated analytic solutions are needed and cost isn't as much of an issue. Their key concerns are typically the depth and breadth of functionality and the customizability and extensibility of the solution.

Unisys: Customers want solution references; they want to know where the BI solution has been deployed before and what the results were. They are also interested in return on their investment; they evaluate the total cost of ownership of a BI solution and the expected benefits in terms of increased revenues and operational efficiencies. And customers are concerned with the deployment and management risks of a BI solution. We see customers asking such questions as "Does the BI solution have an implementation 'blueprint' that reduces implementation risk through tested infrastructure and software components?" and "Once in production, will the BI solution deliver service levels required by the end users?" Service levels are often measured by timeliness and relevance of data in the BI system, system query performance (wait time), and system availability.

What are the biggest needs and challenges your customers are facing?

HP: Organizations need to identify the source of funds to invest in BI. The justification of BI through an objective financial process such as return on investment (ROI) or other means has always been difficult.

MicroStrategy: The biggest needs and challenges are closely related to the BI tool selection criteria: user scalability, data scalability, and Web BI deployments.

Panorama: A major trend we see is extending the reach of BI outside the corporate firewalls-that is, using BI to communicate better with, or provide better services to, customers, partners and suppliers. We have several customers who extended their BI offering across the Internet to provide analytics either to the public at large or to their own customers or suppliers. One of Panorama's customers is a leading supermarket chain that has close to 200 branches and a highly sophisticated national logistic center. It identified a need for a new BI system to support its suppliers in a B2B environment. The idea was to enable the suppliers to analyze the sales of their brands in different branches. The aim of the system was to enable a more effective use of inventory, better management of the distribution and logistic network, and realtime improvement of product pricing in line with actual demand. The chain wanted to improve and strengthen its ties with the suppliers, enabling them to receive information that had previously been unavailable to them.

ProClarity: The biggest needs and challenges our customers face are 1) user adoption-how to get more people within the company to use the information and enhance organizational productivity and efficiency, 2) how to share best analytic practices from experts in the company to less experienced decision makers, and 3) embedding business processes into their analytic solutions to drive or enhance their competitive advantage.

Unisys: We see two main customer challenges: compliance and enterprise reporting. BI managers struggle to deliver solutions that can support a breadth of BI compliance requirements (e.g., HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, USA Patriot Act, SEC 17- A). And reporting-getting relevant data to decision makers at all business levels in a timely manner and in a format that the end use can use-is a major need.

How does the SQL Server BI marketplace compare with other BI markets you serve in terms of choice, pricing, tool sophistication, customer demand and so on?

HP: The BI opportunities customers require are the same no matter what technologies are used to resolve them. SQL Server-based solutions tend to be acceptable to a larger universe of users than other technologies.

MicroStrategy: The BI market, excluding MicroStrategy, is currently highly fragmented into OLAP analysis, reporting, score-carding, data mining, and so on. SQL Server is a good choice as competent data warehouse and metadata repository storage. Its relational and SQL capabilities are on par with its competitors.

Panorama: The SQL Server BI marketplace was the first to successfully establish a standard, OLE DB for OLAP, that enables the real separation of the client/application side of the implementation from the server/engine side. As a result, the SQL Server OLAP engine has successfully established itself as an almost de facto standard, encouraging the creation of a thriving third-party vendor community that provides solutions and services that support this market. The SQL Server BI market also offers solutions that have a low total cost of ownership compared with other solutions in the market. More importantly, the SQL Server BI marketplace is also the first where the costs associated with the engine side of the implementation are lower than the costs of the application. This frees budgets to support other important issues such as faster deployment and training. The active third-party vendor community surrounding SQL Sever BI also provides this marketplace with highly sophisticated tools and applications that enable and extend the Microsoft platform. This makes the SQL Server BI marketplace even more competitive. And the result is a high level of customer interest and very high growth rates.

ProClarity: The SQL Server BI market is the only market we serve-our products run exclusively on the Microsoft BI platform.

Unisys: In the 1990s, data warehousing projects often had huge software, hardware, and services costs associated with the implementation. Today, Unisys and SQL Server can deliver a BI solution at about half the cost of a similar UNIX/Oracle solution (according to an Avanade white paper). In addition, in the enterprise market, many customers are accustomed to using Oracle and IBM DB2 for their large BI and data warehouse projects. SQL Server had a perception issue that its tools weren't ready for enterprise BI. But Unisys and Microsoft have made large strides in changing that perception, and many projects that historically were delivered using Oracle or DB2 now have SQL Server as a viable option.

What are the biggest changes we'll see over the next 5 years in the SQL Server BI arena?

HP: Increasing power and sophistication of SQL Server-based solutions will enable organizations to implement BI solutions that can react in realtime to changes in customer behavior and to identify new business opportunities and the strategies necessary to capture those opportunities.

MicroStrategy: Data sizes will keep growing as corporations collect more and more data. BI is an important solution for analyzing these vast data stores. Furthermore, as analytical richness of reports and analyses made available by BI tools increases, distributing them throughout the enterprise and outside to partners, suppliers, and customers will become common practice.

Panorama: The future depends a lot on Microsoft. If Microsoft continues to partner with third-party ISVs to build technology and solutions that extend its BI platform, we believe that SQL Sever will become the market leader in BI. Maintaining that leadership will be achieved by leveraging the expertise of Microsoft's partners.

ProClarity: We believe the biggest changes will be mass commoditization of the BI industry, which will drive prices down for small to medium-sized companies. We also see increased importance in the area of centralized reporting and increased emphasis on higher-end, more sophisticated technologies.

Unisys: Advancements in the underlying SQL Server products will let enterprises significantly close the time gap of reporting. Improvements in SQL Server Data Transformation Services (DTS) and 64-bit computing will give enterprises the tools to deliver massively scalable BI solutions on the Microsoft platform. The future will also bring BI for the masses. Microsoft Office dominates the personal productivity software market with its Microsoft Office Products. As Microsoft more closely integrates SQL Server with Microsoft Office, BI managers will be able to deliver value to everyone in an organization. End users already know how to use Excel, Word, and PowerPoint, so the data will be in a format that is easier to consume by the information worker.