PASS Summit Thoughts
The PASS Summit is over for another year and I’m just starting out on the long trip back home, so there’s plenty of time to get my thoughts together on what’s happened over the past week. In fact there’s not much to say about the event itself: it was, as ever, a lot of fun and totally worthwhile. Hey, within 30 minutes of arriving at the conference I learned I’d won an award for the best BI-related blog entry, for my post on implementing real SSAS drilldown in SSRS!
Attendance was up from last year although probably the recession still took its toll: remember that there was no BI Conference this year and I would have thought that a lot of people who would have gone to it would have gone to PASS instead. To be honest I think not having a BI Conference is a good thing, actually. I don’t like having to choose which conference to attend, and part of the benefit of a conference is to get as many members of a tech community together in one place. And this was certainly the largest gathering of Analysis Services people I’ve ever seen: all the usual crowd were there, I met a lot of people who I’d only met a few times before, and I finally got to meet Darren Gosbell in person after having known him by email for at least five years. One complaint I would make about the event was that the sessions weren’t scheduled particularly well. I know everyone always complains about this but in this case it did seem worse than usual: my session, for example, was up against two other SSAS-specific sessions, but in other cases there were time slots with no SSAS content at all.
The other benefit of PASS is that you get to talk at length about what’s going on in the world of SQL Server with other like-minded people. As a result you get to crystallise your thoughts on a lot of matters and – guess what – I’m going to share mine here.
First of all, the topic that was on everyone’s lips was PowerPivot. In fact everyone at the conference must have seen the standard demo at least five times and there were also a lot of advanced sessions on it too. Don’t get me wrong, I really think PowerPivot it cool from a technology point of view, I am going to take the time to learn it, and I also think from a make-money-by-getting-people-to-upgrade-to-Office-2010 point of view it is a very clever move for Microsoft. But my feelings about it remain ambiguous. Quite apart from the arguments about it discouraging ‘one version of the truth’ and encouraging spreadmarts that have already been discussed ad nauseam, I have another problem with it: I don’t honestly know whether I, as a consultant, will be able to make any money from it. The very nature of it, as a self-service tool, means no expensive outside consultancy is necessary. I don’t think it will take business away from me though; it will be widely used and it will be used instead of regular SSAS for more basic projects, but the more serious stuff will stay with SSAS I hope. I think the need for sophisticated security and more complex calculations will be the deciding factor when people choose between SSAS and PowerPivot; I’m not sure I see many people upselling from PowerPivot to SSAS either. We’ll see.
Something that worries me more about PowerPivot is the fact that it seems to have diverted the attention of the SSAS dev team. For SSAS 2008 we had few new features, although the performance improvements were very welcome. For 2008 R2 I can only think of one new feature in SSAS, and that’s the ability to use calculated members in subselects that will allow Excel 2010 to use time utility dimensions properly (I’ll blog about that at some point). Even though work on good old server-side SSAS will resume for the next major release of SQL Server I worry that PowerPivot will take priority in the future. If this happened it would be bad for me and other BI partners from a business point of view, and seems crazy given that SSAS has been such a successful product in the enterprise sector; it’s not like there aren’t a lot of new features and fixes that could be done. Shades of IE6 and Microsoft getting complacent once it’s cornered a market, I think.
Last of all on PowerPivot, I suspect that there is something new relating to it in the roadmap that hasn’t been announced yet. David DeWitt devoted his keynote on Thursday to it, the specifics of column-store databases and the Vertipaq engine (which is the new in-memory storage engine that PowerPivot uses), and at the end hinted at this saying that although he couldn’t make any announcements, those people who had been paying attention might have some ideas on what the future held for it. Of course I hadn’t been paying attention properly, but the obvious thing would be to integrate it with the relational database somehow. Given that PowerPivot is now being hosted inside Sharepoint, why not host it in SQL Server too? It’s already very table and join friendly, and I could imagine a scenario where it was used inside SQL, pointed at a schema, some kind of proactive caching kept the data in SQL in synch with the data in the Vertipaq store, difficult BI calculations could be expressed in DAX, but the whole thing was transparent to TSQL. Imagine integrating that with Madison too!
Moving on, the other thing that has become clear to me is that I really have to sit down and learn Sharepoint (or at least the relevant bits of it) properly. It’s at the heart of Microsoft’s BI strategy and there’s no avoiding it. I have to admit to some mixed feelings about this move though, and I know other people I talked to at the conference share them. Partly it’s because, in the past, there were BI specialists and there were Sharepoint specialists and we didn’t necessarily have much to do with each other; now, though, the two worlds are colliding and I’m outside my comfort zone. You might say that Sharepoint has been part of the MS BI strategy for ages now, what with PerformancePoint etc, but I see an awful lot of MS BI customers in my work and I very rarely seem to see any Sharepoint, although it could be because I’m not looking out for it. A more valid objection is that the need for Sharepoint Enterprise Edition CALs adds a lot of extra cost to a project; and from a technical standpoint Sharepoint itself carries a very big overhead – its installation and maintenance may put a lot of customers off if they don’t already have a company-wide Sharepoint strategy, and if they do have one they may not be willing to go to 2010 for some time. Sharepoint might be just too big for some customers to swallow, and be a difficult sell for BI partners.
I’d like to stress though, once again, that I see the considerable technical benefits for using Sharepoint for BI, and even if the reception of the latest wave of PerformancePoint has been somewhat muted (eg the realisation that the decomposition tree has been tacked on at the last minute and isn’t properly integrated) I am impressed with what’s coming with Excel 2010 and Excel Services too; for example I think the Excel Services REST API is very cool indeed, and as a SSAS client Excel 2010 is a big improvement on 2007 (which wasn’t all that bad either). I’ve decided I also need to learn Excel properly now as well – get to know all those advanced Excel functions, use Solver and all that. Once again two worlds are colliding: the Excel guys and the SSAS guys are going to have to learn a lot more about each others’ technologies for truly effective BI applications to get built.
Anyway, I think this post has gone on quite long enough now. As always, your comments on everything I’ve written here would be much appreciated.