Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Microsoft Gets Business Intelligence

Normally, I would not use a public forum like this blog to endorse vendors and products, so when it happens, I do so with a fair amount of deliberation and forethought. Such is the case with my opinions about Microsoft and the evolution of their Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing strategy. In short, they get it. I think it's important to share these thoughts at a time when health care is turning the corner of interest on BI, and complexity and total cost of ownership for BI still tends to be a barrier to entry. Taken in its entirety, realizing that no vendor offers a perfect solution yet, Microsoft's BI/DW product stack and execution on vision offer the best overall value currently available to health care-- and other industries, too, for that matter.

My data warehousing background is rooted in the military and national intelligence communities, which were IBM and Oracle centric. The data warehouse that my team built at Intermountain Healthcare was (is) Oracle-based. Oracle and IBM have been good to my career. My first exposure to Microsoft-centric BI came at Intel in the mid-1990s when SQL Server and Windows were still on wobbly legs. We built a BI solution at Intel to help analyze the various trade-offs between logistics product options and chip fabrication defects and throughput for the Rio Rancho production facility in New Mexico. It was a whopping 300Gbytes in size. Long story short, the "New Mexico Data Repository" was a huge success and was eventually deployed to something like 35 of Intel's sites. My colleague Rob Carpenter deserves the credit for implementing the strategy and design that I started.

The point is, I've watched closely for a number of years as Microsoft has evolved SQL Server into what is now the equivalent of Microsoft Office for Business Intelligence-- i.e., a very rich stack of products that integrate very well to deliver a complete BI solution, from the database to the desktop and web. One of the most impressive aspects of this evolution was Microsoft's willingness to completely reengineer SQL Server's foundation at least once-- arguably twice-- during this period. They caught much-deserved criticism for these overhauls and the lack of backwards compatibility with SQL Server, but it was their willingness to take the heat in the short term, while the product was young and the install base was small, in return for long-term success that is particularly noteworthy. Part of their "willingness" to reengineer SQL Server was no doubt related to cutting commercial ties to Sybase, but nonetheless, whatever their motive, the outcome was strategically invaluable. Other RDBMS vendors have not done the same and they suffer from legacy baggage as a consequence.

Despite their very impressive vision and steady execution around SQL Server and BI, Microsoft could polish their strategy even more with the addition of two more tools in their BI product stack: (1) An integrated customer/person/patient identification tool-- that's a BI problem that plagues numerous industries, especially health care; and (2) A metadata repository and browser, which is a must-have for every BI/DW system, anywhere.

If Microsoft were smart ;) they would offer Windows on the desktop and the Office Suite for free and relinquish to their eventual commoditization-- in return for the value of the desktop's integration with a company's data. That's where the future value and differentiators for Microsoft reside. It's in the data, not the desktop.

Again, my motives in sharing these comments are to facilitate a faster rate of BI adoption and success in health care. Those who know me, know that I purposely keep vendor relationships at arm's length and wouldn't accept anything closer if it were offered. Microsoft can tell you that I've given them plenty of headaches and criticisms on other issues lately, so this blog isn't about a love fest. It's about getting to a data-driven health care environment in the U.S., the sooner the better.

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