Would you and others in your company like to make better decisions faster? Would your company like to capitalize on information assets to thrive in a competitive marketplace? The Microsoft SQL Server Accelerator for Business Intelligence (BI), a free tool that helps you quickly get BI solutions in production, might be just the ticket for your company.

Microsoft released the SQL Server Accelerator for BI about 2 months ago. I encourage you to peruse the information available at the SQL Server Accelerator for BI home page. In particular, the fast-fact data sheet provides a short but comprehensive introduction to the product.

Microsoft designed Accelerator for BI to help customers get real-world, production BI solutions to market faster. Think of Accelerator as a rapid application development (RAD) tool for BI. In designing the tool, Microsoft has determined that BI solutions must include business-level domain knowledge in addition to supporting technical data. This philosophy is 100 percent accurate. You can't create decision-support systems unless you understand the decisions and analysis you're trying to influence.

Microsoft attempted to make Accelerator for BI more than "just another tool for techies" by including reasonable real-world data models and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for two business scenarios. The Retail Analytics model provides data models and KPIs that support analysis of topics such as sales, sales representative performance, fraud detection, store performance, and marketing campaigns. The Sales and Marketing model supports analysis of topics such as orders and backlogs, sales and shipments, returns by customer type, sales force performance, and marketing campaigns. These two models cover a tiny percentage of real-world BI needs, so Microsoft ensured that third-party providers could add models. Also, you can use the existing models as templates to build custom solutions.

Accelerator for BI represents a combination of business-model knowledge, data-warehousing best practices summarized in a prescriptive architecture guide, and a series of technical components that you access through the Analytics Builder Workbook. The workbook is a Microsoft Excel-based tool that lets you capture metadata and business data to describe a data mart for a particular business scenario. The Analytics Builder Workbook provides much of the infrastructure plumbing you need to build a production-quality data warehouse, including a staging database, relational star schema, an OLAP cube, Data Transformation Services (DTS) packages designed to move data through the pipeline, and a set of preconfigured client views of the data.

Microsoft is a plumbing company. Many of its most successful initiatives are platforms that provide the plumbing and infrastructure customers and third-party vendors need to build solutions quickly and inexpensively. Businesses have struggled—more than Microsoft anticipated—to build high-quality BI solutions, and this difficulty has slowed Microsoft's vision of "BI for the masses." Simply put, BI for the masses will never be reality until customers can easily, quickly, and inexpensively build production-quality data warehouses based on business analysis needs. Accelerator for BI is a handy tool, but don't be mistaken: the tool doesn't let BI novices with zero experience build robust solutions. Accelerator makes delivering projects quicker and easier for skilled BI professionals.

By the way, the prescriptive architecture guides included with Accelerator provide great value as standalone guides. They encapsulate a wealth of BI best-practices information, and you should read the guide even if you don't plan to use Accelerator in your next BI project.

Accelerator for BI is available for free download, although you must run it on SQL Server Enterprise Edition. To find the download, go to the SQL Server Accelerator for BI Partner Overview page at http://www.microsoft.com/solutions/BI/partners/overview.asp and click the "Register to download the SQL Server Accelerator for BI" option. You need to log on with a Microsoft .NET Passport account, then the interface will take you through the process of registering your intent to apply as an Accelerator partner. There's no cost to apply, and you don't have to become a partner. But following these steps is the only way I know to download the software for free.

Why the obscure route? Accelerator is a power tool for skilled users. Power saws are great tools in the hands of skilled users but can cut off the hand of a careless and untrained user. Accelerator won't cut off your hand if you don't use it properly. But users with no BI skills might not get the results they want, and they might conclude that the tool is useless. Microsoft hopes to avoid that scenario by driving tool usage through a trained partner community. However, you can download the software and legally use it even if you're not a partner. Just don't get mad at Microsoft if you accidentally cut off your hand.