Business reporting might seem old fashioned next to the latest advances in big data, but organisations need both, faster than ever. That’s where SQL Server 2016 comes in, says Lindsay Clark
It’s a year since research firm Gartner killed big data. In 2015, as the much-hyped concept came to the Trough of Disillusionment in Gartner’s Hype Cycle, it disappeared and was never seen again. Big data, Gartner reasoned, had become too prevalent and too diverse to be adequately described by a single moniker.
The term was coined as far back as 1998 and the hype surrounding it reached fever-pitch around five years ago, as a mass of incumbent and start-up vendors encouraged businesses to exploit high-velocity unstructured data from clickstreams, smartphone locations and social media, among many other sources, to make better business decisions.
The industry noise around big data masked what many businesses were still trying to achieve: an up-to-the-minute, consistent and accessible approach to recording performance of sales, finance, operations and supply chain across the enterprise.
For example, as the big data hype peaked around 2011, global consumer goods giant Unilever began implementing a new data warehouse architecture for conventional business performance records. In part, it wanted to improve system performance to queries from expert analysts. But it also wanted to give ordinary business users access to standard reporting from anywhere in the world within three clicks of a mouse.
As the big data concept is consigned to the hype-cycle graveyard, it is time to recognise that conventional, structured business reporting still requires attention. It can mean success or failure for businesses trying to cope with ever more complex and rapid changes in market demand.
According to PWC, an enterprise-wide reporting solution is the most effective way to consolidate management information. Besides effectively helping businesses manage product and customer portfolios, this approach can cut the time and cost of managing data in half, the consultancy firm says.
Business leaders lack dashboards
However, Gartner has found business leaders are not likely to get a clear, up-to-date view of performance relevant to their roles. The analyst firm revealed that while 71% of business and IT leaders understood which key performance indicators (KPIs) are critical to supporting the business strategy, only 48% can access metrics that help them understand how their work contributes to strategic KPIs. Meanwhile, only 31% have dashboards to provide visibility of these metrics.
Samantha Searle, research analyst at Gartner, says: “[Businesses] persist in using historical measures and consequently miss the opportunity to either capture a business moment that would increase profit or intervene to prevent an unforeseen event, resulting in a decrease in profit.”
Companies that struggle to cope with today’s accelerated business cycles, which require leaders to keep track of work-in-progress, are seeing an increasingly vital need to make adjustments in real-time to optimise performance to increase organisational responsiveness to market dynamics, Gartner says.
Organisations are adopting suites of software to manage business processes, as well as operational intelligence platforms, to dramatically improve their response to unexpected business disruptions. Such technologies use predictive analytics and make it easier to identify relevant metrics, says Gartner.
Rapid reporting keeps business on course
Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst firm Quocirca, says these trends demand that businesses cut their reporting cycles as well as look to new sources of data.
“If a reasonable-sized organisation is depending on quarterly reports, it is like steering a supertanker by waiting until it is a mile off course: it takes a long time to pull it around. But if you can see it is 10 metres off course then smaller adjustments are required and less time is wasted. The more rapid reporting can be, and the more information you can offer, the easier it is for people to turn things around,” Longbottom says.
It might require structured data from within the business, as well as external semi-structured data, Longbottom says. “They need data which is contemporary, useful and has all the contextual elements to make decisions. This is where Oracle has struggled: everything is stuck into relational databases as a blob. You still need a relational database and super-fast tables. But you might also need to be able to do quick searches and ingest a load of less structured data from the internet and then figure out how to combine that with relational tables. Once you can do that, you can figure out how the business is performing in context, make short-term predictions, and share the results with the business.”
Microsoft brings big data and business reporting together
As such, Microsoft’s approach to SQL Server 2016, its latest enterprise database release, has been sound, Longbottom says. Based on Microsoft cloud database Azure SQL, it offers users access to the big data technologies, such as Hadoop and NoSQL, as well ensuring established relational database techniques are fast and secure. Users can access the structured and unstructured world from the same environment.
Gartner has already placed Microsoft in the “magic quadrant” of data warehouse and data management solutions for analytics for 2015 and 2016. SQL Server 2016 comes with a set of new features focused on improving business reporting, intelligence and analytics, Microsoft says. It has moved the enterprise analytical infrastructure to reside within the database, instead of functioning as an external application. The move is designed to improve speed and efficiency as the system will no longer need to pull data from the other databases to figure out what is happening within the dataset.
Advanced data mining and reporting using multi-dimensional data models are also included and integrate with an Excel spreadsheet via the PowerPivot add-in. The database engine includes high-availability features such as failover and replication.
Microsoft says SQL Server 2016 offers “groundbreaking” performance and efficiencies. For example, it set up the database on a single server with four Xeon E7 processors, and it took just 5.3 seconds to run a complex query on the entire 100TB dataset.
The new enterprise database also comes with Microsoft advanced analytics tool, Power BI, on-premises or in the cloud. The aim is to make it easier for users to build KPI and other data dashboards that are mobile-friendly and publish them to their servers from the SQL 2016 platform. For example, Mobile Report Publisher is available to create custom dashboards compatible with modern browser interfaces and mobile device apps, directly from the tool.
Independent analyst firm Ovum is impressed with Microsoft’s ability to make advanced analytics and reporting techniques more available to the business users with a lower level of technical skills.
Slick reporting in the same environment
Microsoft has been able to draw on its rich history of popular and commoditised business applications through simplified visual tooling, aggressive price points, and compatibility with tooling that already reaches a large professional skills base, Ovum says. “[SQL 2016] brings important capabilities to Windows: expanded in-memory computing, pushdown in-database analytics, more granular and dynamic data security, hybrid cloud support, and housekeeping features aimed at productivity and compliance.”
In particular, Ovum sees SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) differentiating SQL Server from its principal rivals. “Oracle and IBM DB2 reporting tools are included as part of separate BI suites, while Teradata does not provide native reporting tools. SSRS allows SQL Server customers to avoid the need for buying à la carte BI or visualisation tools.”
Microsoft also offers SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) as an optional add-on for providing multidimensional online analytical processing (OLAP) cubes for faster report generation. Outside the database, ubiquitous spreadsheet tool Excel can generate analytic reports through its charting capabilities.
Reporting to reach the mobile masses
SQL Server 2016 can also generate reports native to Android, iOS, and Windows Phone formats. Ovum says: “SSRS mobile reports are dynamically adjusted to the footprint – from tablet to smartphone form factor. This capability has come through Microsoft’s 2015 acquisition of partner Datazen Software. The company developed a server that converted SSRS and Microsoft Power BI visualisations to mobile form factors. SQL Server 2016 integrated that capability, eliminating the need for a separate mobile report server. Obviously, Microsoft is not the first to add mobile BI reporting – those capabilities have become widely available with many third party BI, reporting, and visualisation tools. But adding it to the core database allows Microsoft customers to get basic reporting capabilities – now on mobile – without additional third-party tool cost or architectural complexity.”
Ovum says that the upgraded HTML5-based Web Report Manager portal adds support for the new mobile report generation capability, allowing mobile and desktop reports to be accessed through the same portal.
All these features allow up-to-the-minute business performance reports to be published to users wherever they are, without the need to log into a PC-based system.
Better intelligence, faster decisions
Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom, says that if SQL Server 2016 lives up to its promise, it could help business decision makers get faster access to the information they need to guide their organisation in the right direction before it is too late.
“You start to get to the democratisation of data. Making sure that those who have the information available to them can extract knowledge which can be fed through to the places where the decisions are made. Organisations may no longer need to steer the business by looking in the rear view mirror. Instead, they get the chance to peek around the corner and figuring out what is coming next.”
Microsoft says SQL Server 2016 is set to open up conventional business reporting, and unstructured big data, to a much wider audience of mobile business users, at ever reducing timescales. At the same time, it costs less than the competition. Gartner has shown that the total cost of ownership of SQL 2016 offers a saving of 50 percent compared with Oracle and SAP HANA implementations. As markets become more dynamic and prone to disruption, businesses should ask if SQL 2016 is an investment opportunity they can afford to miss.