For those who haven’t come across it, PowerPivot is Microsoft’s Excel- and SharePoint-based self-service BI tool. Essentially, it allows power users to build their own SQL Server Analysis Services cubes, except that they don’t need to be familiar with cube concepts and they won’t even notice that SSAS is involved. The other exception from the Microsoft BI norm is that these cubes use a new columnar, in-memory storage engine, called VertiPaq, rather than Analysis Services’ traditional MOLAP (Multidimensional OnLine Analytical Processing) storage scheme. This combination yields cubes that are far easier to build and, for power user scenarios, better-performing, even on commodity hardware. Add to all this a new Excel formula-like analytical calculations language called DAX (Data Analysis eXpressions) and PowerPivot is easily the biggest change to Microsoft BI since the 2005 version of Analysis Services was introduced, and maybe even since the original SQL Server 7 OLAP Services release in 1998.
I’m a big fan of the product. In addition to doing presentations on PowerPivot around the country since it was available in Beta, an article of mine on it was recently published and I did an O’Reilly Webcast on PowerPivot as well. And there’s more to come. Feature set aside though, I think PowerPivot is incredibly important to Microsoft, for several reasons.
First, PowerPivot makes Microsoft BI competitive in a market that seems obsessed with in-memory databases. Next, the PowerPivot product has, among others, two powerhouse MS BI figures behind it: Amir Netz, a founding father of the OLAP Services/Analysis Services product and Donald Farmer, a dynamo of brilliance and enthusiasm in a company that has sustained significant losses in both.
Netz’s and Farmer’s hard work has not been in vain. PowerPivot has been growing community and expertise around it. Sites like www.powerpivot-info.com, www.powerpivotpro.com and www.powerpivottwins.com are just a few examples of this.
But perhaps most important of all, with PowerPivot, Microsoft has crafted an important new product, and positioned it as part of the Office and SharePoint juggernaut. In so doing, Microsoft has made peace with the value of its more staid and entrenched products in general, the value of Excel to the BI market specifically, and it has learned how to innovate within the framework these products provide.
The PowerPivot story is about Microsoft drawing on its strengths. And it did that because the team behind PowerPivot was introspective and genuine about what those strengths are: creating software that works well, empowers end-users, leverages the value of PCs and their local processing power, sets standards and does it with the most compelling economics in the business.
My hope is that additional PowerPIvot-esque initiatives are undertaken. Microsoft needs a lot more of them.