Today we are excited to share our first in a series of posts from guest attendees at PASS Summit 2011.  Our first post is from UK-based Microsoft MVP Chris Webb. Chris is an independent consultant and trainer specializing in Analysis Services and is the owner of Crossjoin Consulting.  In addition, Chris is also an active blogger on BI-related topics.  Read more on his blog here.

I go to a lot of SQL Server conferences around the world (and help organise one in the UK – SQLBits), but the high point of the year is always the trip to Seattle for the PASS Summit. It’s the biggest; it’s where Microsoft makes all its major SQL Server-related announcements; it’s the one place I get to meet all of my SQL Server friends and colleagues from around the world; the technical content is second-to-none; and it’s a great excuse for a week of partying. I was particularly looking forward to this year’s conference because it was the last before the release of SQL Server Denali and it did not disappoint.

Ted Kummert’s keynote on day one was when all the big BI-related announcements were made. There were two new names announced: Denali will be known as SQL Server 2012, and Project Crescent, the cool new data visualisation tool, will be known as Power View. We also found out that Microsoft is to release its own distribution of Hadoop, available as an on-premises solution and in the cloud, and have forged a partnership with HortonWorks to do so;  the idea of an easy-to-configure, packaged solution complete with integration into the rest of the Microsoft BI stack will I think be compelling to many customers who have so far been suspicious of the ‘big data’ movement. There was a first glimpse of a new cloud-based data integration tool from SQL Azure Labs called Data Explorer, which allows you to mash-up data from a variety of different sources including SQL Azure, Excel spreadsheets, text files and Access and serve it up in a PowerPivot-friendly format. Finally we had Amir Netz – newly promoted to the prestigious role of Technical Fellow, which is a big boost for the visibility of BI at Microsoft – demoing Power View on a variety of mobile platforms including Windows Mobile and (gasp!) Android and iPad, even if the latter two are not going  to be supported for a while yet. There’s a good blog post discussing the roadmap for this here. In the last year or so Microsoft has been taking some flak for not having a visible mobile BI strategy and this should go some way to answering the critics.

The keynote on day two was a quieter affair with much less in the way of cool new stuff being shown: a new appliance, more about the Parallel Data Warehouse roadmap, and the news that Project Juneau (and this includes BI Development Studio now) will be known as SQL Server Data Tools. Day three’s keynote was reserved for the now-traditional lecture from Dr David DeWitt, the closest thing that Microsoft have to a geek pin-up. It was not a traditional keynote in any sense, lacking any flashy demos and woo-hooing, but he held the room in thrall for the whole of his talk on the basics of Hadoop and where it fits in the wider universe of data management solutions and databases. If you’ve ever wondered what Hadoop actually is and how it works, I can’t recommend his talk enough – you can watch it on demand here – and anything that slows the flow of tweets coming from a room containing several thousand SQL Server pros in down to a trickle has got to be worth some of your time.

Of course the PASS Summit is much more than just the keynotes. I saw some great BI-related presentations including ones from Cathy Dumas on the new Analysis Services Tabular model, and Olivier Matrat and Cindy Song on building reports in Power View. Power View was, for me, the stand-out of the conference: I’ve seen a lot of demos of it over the past year or so but it seems like the hard work put in by the development team over the last few months has really paid off: it’s gone from being one of those products that looks quite cool but which you’d probably wait until the next version until you actually used, to being a serious contender in the already highly-competitive data visualisation space. Data Explorer is also very exciting, and the details that are emerging at Tim Mallalieu’s blog show that, far from being a toy, it will be a serious self-service ETL tool.

All in all I had a great time at the Summit even if I’ve only just managed to recover from it. I’m also feeling very positive about the future of Microsoft BI: now I’ve got a better idea of what’s coming in the next year or two, I can see that Microsoft is going to continue to grow in stature as a BI vendor. And I can’t wait to get my hands on all this cool new stuff!