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How SharePoint 2013 analytics enables real-time decision making

SharePoint 2013 analytics capabilities have better access to data in the hands of enterprise decision makers.

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In pooling raw data for crunching, SharePoint 2013 has made huge strides.

By bundling data warehousing and related services into SQL Server 2005 for free, Microsoft enabled thousands of businesses to explore business intelligence; embedding Performance Point, its business intelligence (BI) presentation suite, into SharePoint 2010 brought decision makers that much closer to the analytics that could change a company's fortunes. And with SharePoint 2013, analytics have come closer to approximating real-time reporting.

"Give me some information, and I'll make a decision," a former Humana executive once told me. "Give me more information, and I'll make a better decision." As analytics has grown more mature, it has changed management culture. Executives are now asking, "What can I do to be better informed, and what's the cost of doing that?"

For decision makers, the challenge has been threefold:

  1. How can I use what I know to stay competitive?
  2. How do I sift through data to arrive at what I need to know?
  3. How do I bring this information forward in a way that clearly informs me and my peers?

None of these questions is easy to answer, and answers can be company-specific, not universal.

The competitive use of knowledge gleaned from data is known as business analytics, and that's beyond the scope of SharePoint. But getting to the data has gotten easier. Closing the gap involves several factors: defining what to search for and accessing it rapidly and accurately; staging data from many sources in a single processing domain; and building out an automated presentation layer for easy access to and distribution of the results.

Off-the-shelf data, crunchable data

Searching documentation in the content management system can now be done throughout a company's departments, with no-access boundaries between site collections, peripheral storage and even New Technology File System file shares included.

These new capabilities offer a leg up in terms of ease of access. But global security must be configured to favor the queries of this type of documentation search, and that can differ among managers; the global terms and types must be refined (frequently, in all likelihood) to continuously optimize results. And with SharePoint's e-discovery feature, all this functionality is available even across multiple farms.

In pooling raw data for crunching, SharePoint 2013 has made huge strides. When it comes to true analytics, the improved functionality provides real-time access to data from multiple sources on multiple platforms via OData support in Business Connectivity Services. The Open Data Protocol allows SharePoint to exploit a range of Web protocols (HTTP, JSON, etc.) for query and update operations, making the data integration process more protocol-agnostic than it's been. In addition, the growing ubiquity of Windows Communication Foundation for data transport within the enterprise frees SharePoint from the limitations of HTTP protocol within custom BI applications. That’s good news for dashboarding and other decision support systems all around. There's a learning curve, but it's mercifully less than the old way.

Real-time analytics

Over the past few years, a major barrier to ad hoc analytics was the lack of any bridge between the analytics that can be done at one's desk (primarily with Excel) and analytics that can handle big data (primarily expensive third-party software or hard-to-develop in-house processes. Why is that so? Because neither SharePoint nor Excel could handle the memory and storage required to crunch that much data.

That's no longer the case. SharePoint 2013 allows Excel Services to consume as much RAM as necessary to perform large operations, making the memory limitations a matter of physical infrastructure. If your hardware is lacking, it will require some investment, though. The piece that does this is called the In-Memory BI Engine, and it allows for analysis of millions of rows of data. While the 2 GB size limitation on SharePoint object storage persists (that's a SQL Server limitation), it seldom matters if the memory problem is solved: Analytical results tend to be small. It's the crunching that consumes serious resources. As a cautionary note, scale up servers ahead of time.

Delivering BI results

Getting refined intelligence delivered is less complex in SharePoint 2013, owing to several new features. Dashboards, once developed, can be readily copied (along with their dependencies) across site collections, and even between servers. Users can directly manage PerformancePoint filters, which improves response time on BI queries. And PerformancePoint services now supports the Safari browser, bringing SharePoint BI to the iPad.

It still falls to managers and decision makers to apply these new tools in the ways that make the most sense for their enterprise. But the time and effort required to enable this kind of decision support in SharePoint is now greatly reduced.

This was first published in October 2013

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