My big intro to BI & analytics vendor MicroStrategy

MicroStrategy CEO boasts of digital badges and openness, customers talk self-service analytics and reporting

My big introduction to BI & analytics vendor MicroStrategy
Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

MicroStrategy, a veteran of the business intelligence and analytics market that is currently littered with so many startups, has plenty to boast about and isn’t shy about doing it.

Its revenue comes in at more than half a billion dollars, the company is profitable, and it serves giant customers like eBay and the U.S. Postal Service. A competitor of vendors such as SAP and Tableau, MicroStrategy gushes over how Gartner analysts rate it. And according to globetrotting CEO and Co-Founder Michael Saylor, Version 10 of MicroStrategy's flagship product is “the most powerful software ever released” -- so much so that a customer could feel secure including "a nuclear order of battle into an [encrypted and geolocked] application, put it on an iPad and hand it to the President of the United States."


At the Tysons Corner, Va.-based company’s MicroStrategy Symposium this week in Framingham, Mass., Saylor kicked things off with an update on the new Version 10.4 of the software, then turned things over to what company execs referred to as “the stars of the show” – MicroStrategy customers. Beyond MicroStrategy employees and partners, the event was attended mainly by IT and line-of-business professionals, and organizers were good enough to invite me as well. While this isn't a side of the business I cover closely, the event was right down the road from our office, so why not take a break from the Pokemon Go media storm and check out this company that has managed to thrive and survive since 1989?

MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor Bob Brown/NetworkWorld

MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor swore allegiance to open source architectures to address scale and flexibility needs of enterprise IT shops

During Saylor’s presentation, he said four out of 10 customers have upgraded to MicroStrategy 10 since it rolled out last year, and that 10,000 downloads of the desktop version have been registered as the company expands beyond web-based tools.

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Customers have been enthusiastic about building big sophisticated data cubes in RAM, exploiting new types of data sources, and working with D3.js and R to build new apps, says Saylor, noting that the company’s analytics are backed by security, mobility and data modeling technologies that ensure apps can be deployed across an enterprise and provide “insights, action and access.” He adds that apps built using MicroStrategy tools fit with traditional enterprise resources such as OLAP databases, LDAP directories and mobile device management systems as well as with new open source architectures, such as Apache Spark and Kafka.

Saylor was also big on digital badges, what he described as a new document type that can be downloaded to your phone and serve as an ID (i.e., student, employee or customer credential) for unlocking computers, VPNs, websites and even physical access controllers, such as for elevators and parking lot doors. Retailers, banks and hospitals might be among the sorts of MicroStrategy customers that could take advantage of badges, for identifying VIP customers, providing an alternative to ATM cards and providing faster emergency service.

MicroStrategy customers speak

While digital badges never came up during a customer panel that followed Saylor's talk (he told me the product is still pretty new), these BI and analytics experts had plenty to say about other topics.

Mike Kowalsky, business informatics lead at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says demand for analytics help among employees at his organization has been on the rise, especially since a new e-health system was rolled out and his team held a road show to spread the word about BI. "My managers were worried that we were soliciting too much demand because the backlog was really growing," he said.

Virginia Coburn, a manager at Boston Children's Hospital's Enterprise Reporting Group, was feeling Kowalsky's backlog pain. "My group is responsible for not only developing and gathering demand for dashboards and reports, but promoting a self-service environment as much as possible because we can't keep up with our demand," she said.

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The emphasis on analytics to date, she said, has been patient care-focused (though marketing and finance applications are also possibilities down the road). Having a structured electronic medical records system in place has allowed Coburn's group to provide tools for clinicians to analyze large volumes of data, which gives them better visibility into outcomes, readmission rates and more. As a beta user of MicroStrategy 10, Children's has been able to encourage self-service usage in part through a more streamlined end user requirements process that limits going back-and-forth with lots of sample data, only to find that real data mucks up the works. One initial hesitation Children's had in going with MicroStrategy was a fear of finding staff knowledgable in the software, but Coburn credits the company with making its tools easier to use over the years for not just members of the reporting group, but for all sorts of end users.

Kowalsky says it's not unique to healthcare that people across an organization don't always realize enterprise-level analytics now exist. "When we start to gain efficiencies like this, some lightbulbs start to go off in executives' heads and they say, "Let's stop doing these decentralized operations of building your own data warehouses. Let's leverage the enterprise version that we're already paying for anyway... Why don't we do that and allocate some of the other operational expenses to cure cancer'," he said.

(As an aside, MicroStrategy sales director and panel moderator Claire Carpenter relayed how tough a negotiator Kowalsky is, "when he tells me every penny they spend on MicroStrategy is a penny not spent curing cancer.")

Like Coburn's team, Kowalsky's has encouraged more self-service analytics use among employees. "We were using self-service in Version 9 on top of an architected presentation layer," he said. "In Version 10, we're staging the information, enabling the ability to connect to that data store and now people who are more savvy than they were a few years ago are able to go out and build their own analytics... So self-service is really taking off for us."

Todd Plank, global BI manager at Saint-Gobain Abrasives, said his organization has been using MicroStrategy for 10 years, and while it uses the software for traditional sales and financial reporting, it also employs analytics for tracking customer service (its version of patient care, so to speak), including for distributors of its materials.

"We leverage data we receive from our customers, such as point-of-sale data, that helps us to understand who is actually using our products, not just who we're selling them to," he said. More glamorously, as a sponsor of the US Olympic luge team, Saint-Gobain uses analytics software to help the sledders figure out how materials might work best to improve their runs.

Like the others, Plank says self-service capabilities are key, even if that means his group provides an initial dashboard that departments can then tweak for their needs.

One clever technique employed by Saint-Gobain to spread the word across the organization of what's available for analytics and BI tools has been to publish a series of TED-like talks internally. And naturally, I imagine, those can be accessed in a self-service manner.

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