Once upon a time, business intelligence (BI) vendors sold entire Enterprise stacks, including back-end servers, data integration, query, visualization, dashboarding and maybe a planning/corporate performance management module. These big stacks made for big Enterprise agreements...and big price tags. But for IT shops at big companies, it made sense.
At the departmental level, meanwhile, some users found the Enterprise data visualization tools to be cumbersome, and they wanted the ability to bring in their own data. So-called self-service BI tools addressed this by providing friendlier user interfaces, without all the baggage and expense of the rest of an Enterprise BI stack. They also provided connectivity to a range of databases, big data platforms, file formats and Web service APIs, so business users could do their own thing.
Tabelau and Qlik were the vanguard of these Self-Service BI tools. Microsoft eventually caught up and, some would say, surpassed these two vendors with Power BI, Redmond's admission that Excel and SharePoint weren't a good enough answer in the self-service BI era.
Microsoft itself was and is an Enterprise BI player and getting into the self-service game was smart. IBM, with its Watson Analytics and Watson Explorer products, has a decent story here too. But the other Enterprise players haven't had much of a plan. And Enterprise BI pure play MicroStrategy has had a particularly formidable challenge here since BI is all it does.
But at MicroStrategy World at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas yesterday, the company articulated its answer: it's created connectors to its BI back-end infrastructure for Microsoft's Power BI, Tableau and Qlik. To me, this is a significant development.
Have cake, eat too
In making this announcement, MicroStrategy made some valid points about the robustness of its platform: it's scalable, secure and includes critical data governance functionality. Enterprises need this, especially in light of the impending EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR -- which takes effect on May 25th). Meanwhile, why should these protections bring with them mandatory use of visualization/dashboard front-ends that users find unwieldy?
MicroStrategy realized that this is a false choice and it probably also realized that keeping pace with the self-service tools is really hard for an Enterprise software company. Even if the engineering challenge can be met, the restrictions on deployment of new features may prevent the rapid innovation from being appreciated by users.
Since users are starting to cling to their favorite visualization tool as much as they do to their email software client and smart phones, it just makes sense to provide compatibility, so that's what MicroStrategy decided to do. Boom! Now business users can have a mashup of self-service visualization capabilities and Enterprise-vetted, governed, curated data.
What's a bit odd here is that typically the self-service vendors create the connectors to the back-ends, sometimes working cooperatively with the vendor of the product they're connecting to. In this case, it's the back-end vendor that's providing the goods. Will these connectors work as well as if the front-end guys had built them? Will they be fully optimized?
Customers can check into the drivers for themselves, as they are available as free downloads on the the connectors page of the MicroSrategy Community Web site. I took a quick look at the Power BI connector and noticed that, just like the MicroStrategy REST API with which it was written, it provides connectivity not just to MicroStrategy cubes, but also to reports. Unfortunately, it does not support Power BI's DirectQuery capability, so data is imported into Power BI's own data model rather than being queried remotely.
My next order of business is to see if other Enterprise software vendors follow suit here. If they do, it will help simplify business users' lives, and it may even bring about a renaissance of sorts for Enterprise BI...as a back-end technology. It will also provide explicit recognition of Tableau, Microsoft and Qlik as the "big three" leaders of self-service BI.