Last night I attended an IAPA presentation on basic forecasting concepts and the tools used, presented by the ever interesting Eugene Dubossarsky (of Presciient, an analytics consultancy). I will skip over the forecasting content as for the Microsoft BI community, the interesting part is which tool he used for most basic forecasting activities. It was Excel. Then, when he needed to do more advanced work, he used – Excel. Only when he needed to do trickier stuff with larger amounts of data did he pull in a more heavyweight tool – Access.
That’s right – the office suite covers the majority of forecaster’s needs. SQL Server and Analysis Services didn’t get a look in until the really heavyweight analytics processes began. For his purposes however, Eugene much prefers R, an open source stats program that is free, very powerful and now a serious competitor to SAS – much to their annoyance. Microsoft are rumoured to be talking to the people behind R, and an acquisition would make sense for both sides – R is not user friendly, which Microsoft could provide help with – and adding the capabilities of R would allow Microsoft to take a slug at SAS’s BI market.
So, this shows that most users still aren’t fully aware of, let alone using Excel’s capabilites – otherwise they wouldn’t be paying analytics consultants to to use it for them. Microsoft are always pushing Excel further, so now i’ll cover two features of Excel that the power users may not be aware of. It’s easy to forget sometimes that the 2007 Office suite wasn’t just a new, pretty interface – it also added huge BI capabilities.
The Data Mining Add-In for Excel (download for SQL Server 2008 or 2005)
This Add-In allows you to leverage the Data Mining capabilities of Analysis Services through Excel. It allows you to use Excel as the front end for creating and working with Data Mining models that exist on your server. However what really makes it interesting for Excel users is that it allows you to perform Data Mining on your spreadsheet data.
There is a Virtual Lab here explaining and demonstrating their use.
This feature is slated for the next release of Excel, and is an in-memory tool for analysing large amounts of data in an OLAP style, but without all the fiddly data modelling normally required. It is a clear slug at other players in the in-Memory market, such as QlikTech. The models created will also be able to be ported back to SSAS with minimum effort as well. For more details read this commentary from the OLAP Report.
Microsoft has one of the most powerful BI Tools in the world in Excel, users just need to be made aware!