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SQL Server BI in the cloud: Feasible or fantasy?

Cloud-based business intelligence (BI) systems -- including SQL Server BI in the cloud, are becoming all the rage -- but is the cloud really the place for BI?

As surely as business intelligence (BI) and cloud computing have become marketing buzzwords, the two IT trends have indeed come together. An increasing number of vendors are offering cloud-based business intelligence systems, including SQL Server BI in the cloud, often targeting them squarely at small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

Whatever you think of "the cloud," BI in the cloud is something you have to pay attention to if you're considering implementing a BI system. Essentially, you're looking at a Software as a Service (SaaS) technology not unlike, which is arguably the poster child for cloud services. The advantages of a BI system in the cloud are numerous:

  • You don't install or implement anything (well, almost -- keep reading) in your own data center. You just "turn on" the service one day and you're up and running. Sort of.
  • You don't need to worry about outfitting the right kind of server with tons of memory, storage and processors -- the service provider handles it.
  • You don't need to know a thing about building a BI system, because it's already built. You're buying a more-or-less "prepackaged" solution, in much the same way that you probably bought your accounting and customer relationship management (CRM) software.
  • You will often be looking at a smaller -- possibly zero -- capital investment. Instead, you simply pay monthly or annual service fees based on your usage of the SQL Server BI system in the cloud.

That last bit is where you need to be careful: How is usage metered, and what will you pay for it? Some providers charge based on the number of users who will be utilizing the BI system; others charge based on how much data you're storing, while still others use some combination of these and possibly other factors. The cost factor is always the big warning point in a SaaS system, because it isn't always as straightforward as the host-it-yourself solutions we're all used to.

Another point of caution -- or at least an area you need to learn -- concerns the fact that BI systems, by definition, need to integrate pretty tightly with your data center, something SaaS solutions haven't typically needed to do. 

A cloud-based CRM system, for example, may not need to integrate with any of your other back-end systems (although more of them are gaining the ability to do so). A BI system, by contrast, is useless if it can't access a wide range of your existing corporate data.

Today, cloud BI providers often achieve this integration by requiring some infrastructure to be deployed in your data center -- often in the form of agents that collect data from your existing systems. 

Some BI providers are capable of collecting data from cloud-based storage, such as Windows Azure or Amazon's EC2/S3 infrastructure, but not many companies are storing their back-end data (things like sales figures and financials) in the cloud -- at least not yet. 

Some providers require you to do a traditional extract, transform and load (ETL) cycle to upload your data to their servers for analysis; others enable your live data to be connected to the BI system through agents, connectors and other software components.

How your data gets to the cloud is the big question, and it's the main area where today's cloud BI vendors differentiate themselves. Make sure you focus on that area when evaluating systems, along with the more obvious user functionality like dashboards, reports, scorecards and the like.

About the author
Don Jones is a co-founder of Concentrated Technology LLC, the author of more than 30 books on IT and a speaker at technical conferences worldwide. He can be reached through his website at

Next Steps

Get the top 5 buying criteria for SQL Server BI systems

Learn how SQL Server BI applications behave in the cloud

Find out how SQL Azure fits in the cloud

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Nice overview for those that may be considering it.