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Is Excel 2013 Power View hurting SSAS?

July 21st, 2012

Since the release of Office 2013 Preview, there has been an awful lot of commentary both in the BI blogosphere and in all media mostly praising the new look and features Microsoft are giving us. I agree that the new suite is getting a much needed face-lift (after all 2007 -> 2010 did not deliver much in this regard), and the mandatory for post-2010 releases “touch-enabled” interface. As a BI guy, the most interesting thing for me in the new Office is Excel, and within Excel, Power View (not completely ignoring the new Pivot Table options like adding new calcs natively, without using the OLAP PivotTable Extensions plug-in).

There are deficiencies in Power View as it stands now (maybe that is why it is an add-in, not enabled by default) but it is a nice data exploration tool which even Stephen Few told me was going in the right direction. It still doesn’t allow us to do things like Top 10, % of Total, etc. which I love in Excel Pivot Tables, but I am hoping that we’ll get all these and more at some point. Together with maps, small multiples and highlighting, Power View does seem like a potential killer application, making other tools like Tableau seem within reach.

However (here we go), in my opinion it has one drawback which really spoils the good things: it doesn’t work on SSAS Multidimensional cubes. I am sure that if someone from the Microsoft SSAS or SSRS teams reads this they wouldn’t be surprised. After all they have heard this numerous times since the release of Power View (even when it was Crescent). Chris Webb wrote about it and caused some stir, it was discussed and the issue was parked as “will be fixed at some point”. I don’t want to resurrect it in its previous format since we now know that a fix is coming (as publicly stated by Microsoft at PASS and other forums), but I would like to point out that last week after demoing Excel 2013 in front of some decision-makers in the organisation I currently work at, I had to answer questions like “So, we can’t use Excel with SSAS at all?” and “Do we have to upgrade all our cubes to in-memory models now?”. This made me think: we can’t cover the whole feature set of SSAS MD in SSAS Tabular, yet we can’t use the new end-user tools on SSAS MD as well. Basically, I am left with one option only – to recommend SSAS MD and Excel Pivot Tables as the only strategy for corporate BI competitive with other vendors like IBM and SAP. Furthermore, since we can’t use DirectQuery on Teradata, I can’t also say that SSAS Tabular is better than SSAS MD as an analytical platform on top of Teradata. Yes, one day when we get it working it will trump all other options, and the Teradata guys I work with are genuinely excited about the future, but it is unfortunately the future, while other options are there now. And the future in IT always looks bright, while the present is a different story altogether.

So, is Excel 2013 Power View hurting SSAS MD? Maybe not directly, but the more we promote Power View (hint: as it’s getting deployed on every workstation we hardly need to promote it), the more we also highlight the deficiencies in SSAS Tabular and make SSAS MD look like the neglected sibling. As for my demonstrations of Microsoft BI, I would probably treat the two components of SSAS – MD and Tabular as two separate stacks. MD – the best out there for corporate BI, and Tabular – the best for team/personal BI, not to be mixed together. To those who can’t wait to get their hands on a powerful, modern analytical tool working on the iPad and use it on a powerful, robust, widely used analytical engine which works on less than terabytes of memory (let me spell it out: Power View +mobile on SSAS MD), we have to tell: “at some point in the future, hopefully”.

PS: Yes, it does sound like yet another whiny post, but we have been waiting for a very long time (in IT-terms) since the inception of Crescent to get this bloody issue fixed and it is hard to imagine mighty Microsoft struggling to catch up behind Cognos (yes, they have mobile – terrible implementation, but works), Tableau (last time I checked they were a tiny company with overpriced products) and QlikView (ugly and slow from what I’ve seen). It’s not like Microsoft weren’t aware of this, and it’s not like it’s happening for the first time – remember how well PerformancePoint did being unable to connect to anything but SSAS MD and having a lacking feature set, plus SSRS to SSAS integration has always been a pain point. The new, quicker, release cycle at Microsoft seems to be delivering the same amount of features in less-complete releases, which doesn’t seem to help with inspiring confidence in its vision and ability to execute. However great these new ingredients are, the dish doesn’t taste that well when some are lacking…tends to get cold quickly too.

PowerPivot, SSAS, Visualisation , ,