Introducing Microsoft PowerPivot

What is PowerPivot? Well according to Microsoft:

“PowerPivot is Microsoft Self-Service Business Intelligence”

I can see from the glazed looks you are giving your monitor that was clear as mud. So let’s step back a bit and first define what exactly is Business Intelligence.

Business Intelligence

Business Intelligence, often referred to as simply “BI”, is all about taking data you already have and making sense of it. Being able to take that information and turn it from a raw jumble of individual facts and transform it into knowledge that you can take informed actions on.

In every organization there is already someone who is doing BI, although they may not realize it. Microsoft (and many IT departments) refer to this person as “that guy”. A power user, who grabs data from anyplace he (or she) can get it, then uses tools like Excel or Access to slice it, dice it, and analyze it. This person might be an actual Business Analyst, but more often it’s someone for who BI is not their main job. Some common examples of people doing their own BI today are production managers, accountants, engineers, or sales managers, all who need information to better do their job. Let’s look at an illustration that will make it a bit clearer.

In this example, put yourself in the role of a sales manager. You have gotten IT to extract all of your sales orders for the last several years into an Excel spreadsheet. In order to determine how well your sales people are doing, you need to measure their performance. You’ve decided that the amount sold will be a good measure, and use Excel to give you totals.

IntroEx01

In BI terms, the column “Total Sales” is known as a measure, or sometimes a fact, as it measures something, in this case the sales amount. The grand total sales amount is often called an aggregation, as it totals up the individual rows of data that IT gave us. But now you might be wondering why Andy’s sales are so low? Well, now you want to dig deeper and look at sales by year.

IntroEx02

In BI terms, the names of the sales people are a dimension. Dimensions are often either a “who” (who sold stuff) or a “what” (what stuff did we sell). Places (where was it sold) and dates (when was it sold) are also common dimensions. In this case the sales dates across the top (2007, 2008, 2009) are a date dimension. When we use two or more dimensions to look at our measures, we have a pivot table.

Now we can see a picture emerging. It’s obvious that Andy must have been hired as a new salesperson in late 2008, since he shows no sales for 2007 and very small amount in 2008. But for Paul and Kimberly we can look at something called trends in the BI world. Kimberly shows a nice even trend, rising slowly over the last three years and earns a gold star as our top performer.

By being able to drill down into our data, we spot another trend that was not readily obvious when just looking at the grand totals. Paul has been trending downward so fast the speed of light looks slow. Clearly then we now have information to take action on, commonly known as actionable intelligence.

So remind me, why do we need PowerPivot?

As you can see in the above example, “that guy” in your company clearly has a need to look at this data in order to do his job. Not only does he need to review it, he also has the issue of how to share this information with his co-workers. Unfortunately in the past the tools available to “that guy” have had some drawbacks. The two main tools used by our analyst have been either Excel, or a complete BI solution involving a data warehouse and SQL Server Analysis Services.

Excel’s main limitations center around the volume of data needed to do good analysis. Excel has limits to the number of rows it can store, and for large datasets a spreadsheet can consume equally large amounts of disk space. This makes the spreadsheet difficult to share with coworkers. In addition mathematical functions like aggregations could be slow. On the good side, Excel is readily available to most workers, and a solution can be put together fairly quickly.

A full blown BI solution has some major benefits over the Excel solution. A data warehouse is created, and then SQL Server Analysis Services (often abbreviated as SSAS) is used to precalculate aggregations for every possible way an analyst might wish to look at them. The data is then very easy to share via tools like Excel and SQL Server Reporting Services. While very robust and powerful solution, it does have some drawbacks. It can take quite a bit of time to design, code, and implement both the data warehouse and the analysis services pieces of the solution. In addition it can also be expensive for IT to implement such a system.

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, it’s PowerPivot!

PowerPivot combines the best of both worlds. In fact, it’s not one tool but two: PowerPivot for Microsoft Excel 2010, and PowerPivot for SharePoint 2010. What’s the difference you ask? Good question.

PowerPivot for Microsoft Excel 2010

PowerPivot acts as an Add-on for Excel 2010, and in many ways is quite revolutionary. First, it brings the full power of SQL Server Analysis Services right into Excel. All of the speed and power of SSAS is available right on your desktop. Second, it uses a compression technology that allows vast amounts of data to be saved in a minimal amount of space. Millions of rows of data can now be stored, sorted, and aggregated in a reasonable amount of disk space with great speed.

PowerPivot can draw its data from a wide variety of sources. As you might expect, it can pull from almost any database. Additionally it can draw data from news feeds, SQL Server Reporting Services, other Excel sheets, it can even be typed in manually if need be.

Another issue that often faces the business analyst is the freshness of the data. The information is only as good as the date it was last imported into Excel. Traditionally “that guy” only got extracts of the database as IT had time, since it was often a time consuming process. PowerPivot addresses this through its linked tables feature. PowerPivot will remember where your data came from, and with one simple button click can refresh the spreadsheet with the latest information.

Because PowerPivot sits inside Microsoft Excel, it not only can create basic pivot tables but has all the full featured functionality of Excel at its disposal. It can format pivot tables in a wide array of styles, create pivot charts and graphs, and combine these together into useful dashboards. Additionally PowerPivot has a rich set of mathematical functionally, combining the existing functions already in Excel with an additional set of functions called Data Analysis eXpressions or DAX.

PowerPivot for SharePoint 2010

PowerPivot for Excel 2010 clearly solves several issues around the issue of analysis. It allows users to quickly create spreadsheets, pivot tables, charts, and more in a compact amount of space. If you recall though, creation was only half of “that guys” problem. The other half was sharing his analysis with the rest of his organization. That’s where PowerPivot for SharePoint 2010 comes into play.

Placing a PowerPivot Excel workbook in SharePoint 2010 not only enables traditional file sharing, but also activates several additional features. First, the spreadsheet is hosted right in the web browser. Thus users who might not have made the transition to Excel 2010 can still use the PowerPivot created workbook, slicing and filtering the data to get the information they require.

Data can also be refreshed on an automated, scheduled basis. This ensures the data is always up to date when doing analysis. Dashboards can also be created from the contents of a worksheet and displayed in SharePoint. Finally these PowerPivot created worksheets can be used as data sources for such tools as SQL Server Reporting Services.

Limitations

First, let me preface this by saying as of this writing all of the components are either in CTP (Community Technology Preview, a pre-beta) or Beta state. Thus there could be some changes between now and their final release next year.

To use the PowerPivot for Excel 2010 components, all you have to have is Excel 2010 and the PowerPivot add-in. If you want to share the workbook and get all the rich functionality SharePoint has to offer, you’ll have to have SharePoint 2010, running Excel Services and PowerPivot 2010 Services. You’ll also have to have SQL Server 2008 R2 Analysis Services running on the SharePoint 2010 box. Since you’ll have to have a SQL Server instance installed to support SharePoint this is not a huge limitation, especially since SSAS comes with SQL Server at no extra cost.

One thing I wish to make clear, SharePoint 2010 itself can run using any version of SQL Server from SQL Server 2005 on. It is the PowerPivot service that requires 2008 R2 Analysis Services.

One other important item to note: at some point the load upon the SharePoint 2010 server may grow too large if especially complex analysis is being done. Fortunately SharePoint 2010 ships with several tools that allow administrators to monitor the load and plan accordingly. At the point where the load is too big, it is a clear indication it’s time to transition from a PowerPivot solution to a full BI solution using a data warehouse and SQL Server Analysis Services.

What does PowerPivot mean for business users?

For business users, and especially “that guy”, it means complex analysis tools can be created in a short amount of time. Rich functionality makes it easier to spot trends and produce meaningful charts and graphs. It also means this information can be shared with others in the organization easily, without imposing large burdens on the corporate e-mail system or local file sharing mechanisms.

No longer will users be dependent on IT for their analysis, they will have the power to create everything they need on their own, truly bringing “self service BI” to fruition.

What does PowerPivot mean for Business Intelligence IT Pros?

The first reaction many BI developers have when hearing about PowerPivot is “oh no, this is going to put me out of a job!” Far from it, I firmly believe PowerPivot will create even more work for BI Professionals like myself.

As upper management grows to rely on the information provided by PowerPivot, they will also begin to understand the true value BI can bring to an organization. Selling a new BI solution into an organization where none currently exists can be difficult, as it can be hard to visualize how such a solution would work and the value it brings. PowerPivot allows BI functionality to be brought into an organization at a low development cost, proving the value of BI with minimal investment. Thus when there is a need to implement a larger, traditional BI project those same managers will be more forthcoming with the dollars.

Second, as users pull more and more data, they are going to want that data better organized than they will find in their current transactional business systems. This will in turn spur the need to create many new data warehouses. Likewise the IT department will also want data warehouses created, to reduce the load placed on those same transactional business systems.

I also foresee PowerPivot being used by BI Pros themselves to create solutions. The database structure of many transactional database systems can be difficult to understand even for experienced IT people, much less users. BI Pros can use PowerPivot to add a layer of abstraction between the database and the users, allowing business analysts to do their job without having to learn the complexity of a database system.

BI Pros can also use PowerPivot to implement quick turnaround solutions for customers, bringing more value for the customer’s dollar. When a BI Pro can prove him (or her) self by providing rich functionality in a short time frame it’s almost always the case they are brought back in for multiple engagements.

PowerPivot also provides great value to BI Pros who are employed full time in an enterprise organization. They can create solutions much quicker than before, freeing them up to do other valuable tasks. In addition PowerPivot solutions can provide a “stop gap” solution, pushing the date at which the organization needs to spend the dollars for a full blown BI solution and allowing IT to plan better.

Finally I see great value in PowerPivot as a prototyping tool for larger BI projects. Now users can see their data, interact with it, analyze it, and ensure the required measures and dimensions are present before proceeding with the larger project.

I’ll reiterate, if anything I believe PowerPivot will create an explosion of work for the Business Intelligence Professional.

Where can I learn more?

Well right here for one. I have become quite interested in PowerPivot since seeing it at the SQL PASS 2009 Summit. I think it will be a valuable tool for both myself and my customers. This will be the first of many blog posts to come on PowerPivot. I am also beginning a series of presentations on PowerPivot for local user groups and code camp events. The first will be Saturday, November 21st 2009 at the SharePoint Saturday in Birmingham Alabama, but there will be many more to come. (If you’d like me to come speak at your group just shoot me an e-mail and we’ll see what we can arrange.)

There’s also the PowerPivot site itself:

I’ve also found a small handful of blogs on PowerPivot, listed in no particular order:

Summary

Thanks for sticking with me, I know this was a rather long blog post but PowerPivot has a lot of rich functionality to offer. While PowerPivot is still in the CTP/Beta stage as of this writing, I see more and more interest in the community, which will continue to grow as PowerPivot moves closer to release. I hope this post has set you off on the right step and you’ll continue to come back for more information.

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