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SQL Server 2008 R2: Introducing Managed Self-Service Business Intelligence

by Rushabh Mehta
Published: October 1, 2009
This Special Feature is being published in association with the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) Summit that will be held in Seattle, Washington on November 2-5. Click on the conference banner to learn more.
Delivering the right information to the right people at the right time is the cornerstone of Microsoft’s “Business Intelligence for Everyone” vision. And the next release of SQL Server – SQL Server 2008 R2, formerly code-named Kilimanjaro – is taking that business intelligence (BI) vision a step further with “managed” self-service analytics and reporting that promise to empower business users and IT with the tools they need to turn data into better decisions.

In SQL Server 2005, Microsoft took big strides to bring BI within reach of organizations of all sizes and expertise levels, delivering rich, integrated ETL, analysis and reporting functionality. The ROI of a Microsoft solution coupled with the ease of implementation has driven healthy adoption of the DBMS for BI – even within traditionally non-Microsoft shops. The integration of SQL Server 2008 with Microsoft Office, SharePoint Server and PerformancePoint Services for delivering BI to end users has created an even stronger end-to-end platform.

Microsoft’s BI story is now poised to take an even more compelling turn in SQL Server 2008 R2, planned for release in the first half of next year. This “mini-release,” coming in between major releases of the database system, is full of new management and BI features that address reliability and scalability, developer and administrator efficiency, and self-service analysis and reporting designed to put the power of BI in the hands of business users.

With the August Customer Technology Preview (CTP) of R2 available now and the Fall CTP of R2’s BI features expected soon, let’s look at three exciting new features that promise to bring BI deeper into organizations: self-service analysis, self-service reporting, and master data services.

Self-Service Analysis

“Gemini,” the code name for one of R2’s most anticipated features, puts the power of SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) on users’ desktops. With Gemini, business users can access, manipulate and report against managed and unmanaged datasets as well as access data from existing reports for analysis. Gemini also gives IT the tools it needs to ensure reliability, performance, and security as well as capabilities that let it see how people are using their data.

Gemini introduces an in-memory BI engine that can take advantage of hardware advancements and increased memory capacity on client desktops and laptops. More important, it lets business users fulfill their analytical requirements iteratively, freeing them from the constraints of a predefined model. Data in the Gemini models can be regularly refreshed so that users aren’t just working with old copies of data from when the model was first built. And Gemini models can be easily shared with others for collaboration via SharePoint.

For IT, Gemini helps keep core data secure while freeing IT from having to spend a lot of time addressing ad hoc user requests. Because Gemini allows flexible and complex analysis against managed datasets and can be shared through SharePoint, it eliminates the need to store vital organizational data on spreadsheets that are then distributed via email. And IT pros have the tools to manage shared Gemini solutions – including data refresh, model security and resource utilization – and can enhance the model as more and more workers use it.

Self-Service Reporting

Microsoft initially delivered self-service reporting features with Report Builder 1.0 and released significantly enhanced features and functionality for business users in Report Builder 2.0. In R2, Microsoft further improves the self-service user experience and overall reporting experience with SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) managed “Grab-n-Go” reusable report components.

The libraries of reusable components can include queries, tables, charts, maps, gauges and logos. The ability to use data already contained in existing reports is another benefit. This way, users don’t always have to be aware of the data sources or data queries that generate the data they’re interested in.

R2 also provides an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop interface that lets business users design queries, reports and charts, and delivers new support for geospatial visualization such as mapping and routing along with the ability to combine spatial and business data. Again, these capabilities reduce users’ dependence on IT for many ad hoc data needs while reducing the pressure on IT to support these requests.

Master Data Services

Master data management (MDM) is a hot topic these days, especially with the proliferation of decision support systems that need to report against integrated data sets. Such needs have highlighted issues around data integration, data quality, compliance, and poor data entry and management practices. Companies that grow through acquisitions face even bigger data management problems as they try to seamlessly integrate heterogeneous and previously unrelated systems.

It’s common to find bad or inconsistent data inside organizations. Even in a scenario as simple as an order-processing system and a financial system that keeps different records of the same customer, records can quickly get out of sync. Thus, the need for well managed data for the “nouns” in your organization – people, places, things – is critical.
R2’s Master Data Services (MDS) feature provides a centralized approach to defining, deploying and managing master data as well as a centralized portal for creating, editing and updating that data. MDS improves your ability to implement MDM solutions, enabling the data’s business owners to also be data stewards and letting IT still exercise appropriate security and control. The strength of MDS is that it doesn’t need to be the entry point for master data or the final destination for managed data. Rather, it can act as a hub that provides sound data management and stewardship services to other systems in your organization, letting companies take an iterative approach to implementing MDM solutions.

Try It Out

Microsoft has committed to making BI affordable, easy to implement and easy to use. And in R2, it’s taking valuable steps to bridge the gap between the real-world needs of IT and business users. But R2 delivers much more than these features. For large data warehouses ranging from tens to hundreds of TB, R2 delivers “Madison,” which integrates the massive parallel processing innovations of DATAllegro with SQL Server. The upcoming release also delivers enhanced manageability features and improved reliability and scalability.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to download R2’s August CTP and check out some of these powerful technologies for yourself. The August CTP includes application and multi-server management as well as SQL Server StreamInsight, Microsoft’s new complex event processing technology for correlating event streams from multiple sources with near-zero latency. The Fall 2009 CTP will include the remaining SQL Server 2008 R2 features, including the self-service BI capabilities and Master Data Services.

In addition, Dell, MaximumASP and the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) have partnered to give users free access to SQL Server 2008 R2 CTP hosted trials. Sign-ups for the August CTP trial are available at www.betaforsqlserver.com. After obtaining a trial account, you can try out the new CTP online in a secure hosted lab environment without downloading or installing anything.

Plus, don’t miss the opportunity to see R2 in action at PASS Summit Unite 2009 in Seattle, November 2-5. As the largest gathering of SQL Server professionals in the world, PASS Summit will put you in touch with the leading experts inside and outside of Microsoft who can equip you with the knowledge and expertise to take advantage of R2. In the meantime, sign up for the PASS newsletter to stay up to date with the latest R2 announcements, including R2 webcasts by PASS and Microsoft.


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Rushabh Mehta - SQL Server MVP Rushabh Mehta has been designing and developing large-scale business intelligence (BI) systems with the Microsoft platform since 2001 and has also developed standardized processes and best practices for ETL, DTS and source-code management. He is a mentor for Solid Quality Mentors' global Business Intelligence Division and the Managing Director of Solid Quality India. Mehta serves as the Executive Vice President for Finance and Technology on the board of the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS).