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Microsoft, beta testers tout SQL Server 2008 R2 PowerPivot

The company’s new database release aims to free up information for non-DBAs while also enforcing compliance.

Key among Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 mandates is to make data analysis easier and more powerful for non-database experts.

The database, which will be available worldwide May 13 (and to TechNet and MSDN subscribers ten days earlier) sports the new PowerPivot tool that can tap into multiple (and non-SQL Server) data sources and run analyses on huge data sets.

Microsoft execs and a handful of beta testers lauded the new capability on a conference call Wednesday.

PowerPivot is a big deal, said Lee Blackstone, CEO of Blackstone & Cullen Inc., an Alpharetta, Ga., database specialist who does a lot of SQL Server work.  “It’s a game changer in that it can analyze over 100 million rows of data in memory.”

One Blackstone & Cullen customer is a very large school system.  “We finished a data warehouse with all of their student data -- a ton of data -- and with PowerPivot we can load all that data onto a netbook,” Blackstone said.

Previous versions of SQL Server let users pump SQL Server data into Excel and run an analysis, but PowerPivot will now let them mix and match data from Oracle, Teradata and Sybase, all within the same business model. That is important because many accounts, indeed nearly all large accounts, run Oracle or other non-Microsoft databases in addition to SQL Server.

One of the Microsoft reference accounts on the call said opening up business intelligence to non-database professionals is key.

“There’s a gap between IT pros and business workers. With the new R2 pivot, they can create their own BI reports without IT involvement,” said Ayad Shammout, lead technical DBA with Boston-based CareGroup Healthcare System.

At the same time, IT has to be careful that users only have access to data they’re authorized to see.

With PowerPivot and SharePoint, we have collaboration for users and we meet IT needs for managing compliance and data protection.

Ayad Shammout, lead technical DBA with CareGroup Healthcare System

Shammout characterized SQL Server’s BI as self-managing in that IT can allow users to tap the information they can legitimately see and analyze but also assure that HIPAA and other compliance regulations are respected. 

“Our IT staff can now track the usage of reports, conduct audits and monitor performance. With PowerPivot and SharePoint, we have collaboration for users and we meet IT needs for managing compliance and data protection,” Shammout said.

PowerPivot requires the use of Office 2010 (for Excel 2010), SharePoint 2010 and the latest database.

There is also a more centralized management function in this release that manages multiple instances both locally and remotely, Blackstone said.

“Our four DBAs will spend less  time going to individual servers of the centralized management of policies and features, and our end users will have their environments improved with self-service BI,” said  Ron Van Zanten, directing officer for BI at Premier BankCard LLC.

Microsoft is positioning this release as a way to woo even big corporations away from Oracle databases.

“Our data warehouses today scale to the needs of very large data warehouses, but the new version will take us to hundreds of terabytes. Customers can buy one solution to manage in a consistent environment that lets them have a large single version of truth with surrounding data marts and all the reporting tools from one vendor,” said Ted Kummert, senior vice president of Microsoft’s platform division.

Still, it’s extremely difficult to wean people off of one database for another.  “Almost all of our customers are mixed environments. We see mostly SQL Server and Oracle and to a lesser extent DB2 in IBM mainframe shops,” Blackstone said.

The recession has forced companies to get the most out of the technology they have, so no one is ready to rip out one database for another. “Databases are core. What most people have done is cut staff and continue to run what database they have. It’s very hard  to train someone on something new,” Blackstone said.

What Microsoft has going for it is that most of the information workers in many companies already know Excel and SharePoint. 

SQL Server 2008 R2 debuts 20 months after the last release, so customers with Software Assurance on SQL Server 2008 get it as part of their maintenance contract at no additional charge.

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