I’ve noticed an interesting convergence of themes at the TechEd North America 2010 conference in New Orleans. The TechEd sessions here are combined with the Microsoft BI conference, sometimes held separately. So what does a conference for a bunch of infrastructure and developer geeks have in common with one for information workers and the IT analysts who support them? Quite a lot, it turns out.

A big IT infrastructure theme this week is the cloud. Some attendees wring their hands and worry for the future of on-premises IT – one discussion group tackled the question “IT Going to the Cloud: Are We Crazy?”. But a consensus may be developing around the idea of commoditizing certain parts of the infrastructure. For example, can a typical business gain a competitive advantage by provisioning, managing, monitoring, patching, and upgrading its basic messaging infrastructure? In today’s competitive climate, businesses that need their IT people to work on strategic projects may decide they can’t afford the opportunity costs of maintaining commodity on-premises infrastructure workloads.

Assuming that the cloud providers and hosters can satisfy customer demands for availability, reliability, affordability, compatibility with on-premises systems, regulatory compliance, and so on, business will probably move standard workloads to the cloud in greater numbers. Does that mean the on-premises IT and their consultants and partners will be out of a job? I don’t think so, but the job descriptions might have to change. For example, attention previously paid to administering an on-premises messaging workload might have to be redirected – maybe to a new kind of identity and access workload that spans a web of on-premises and cloud applications. Or perhaps to strategic projects like…business intelligence.

The well-attended BI sessions here focus on strategies and tools that IT departments, even small ones, can use when trying to provide business users with the actionable data, metrics, reports, and performance scorecards they demand. This kind of strategic work takes a lot of time and partnership between IT and business groups, and a healthy amount of infrastructure. Ted Kummert of the Microsoft Business Platform Division talked in his BI keynote on Tuesday about the long-standing “fairy tale” that businesses can get the data and analytics that they want, delivered in the form they want it (often in an Excel workbook), while IT successfully manages an end-to-end infrastructure that assures data integrity, availability, and security. John Hagerty of Gartner talked about “unleashing” a long-frustrated business user fed up with traditional IT processes. The present state for many businesses is a report treadmill for the overburdened IT department, assuming they can even get to the strategic work, along with lots of unmanaged Excel workbooks that business users put into the wild.

With improved tools from Microsoft and other vendors, delivering an end-to-end solution for “managed self-service BI” seems more likely to succeed, especially in an analytical business culture supported by the right IT infrastructure and staff. On the managed side, BI reporting and analytical services span SQL Server 2008 R2 and Excel 2010, with SharePoint Server 2010 and PerformancePoint Services in the middle. For self-service, information workers can use the new PowerPivot Excel add-in for ad hoc analysis and on-the-fly data cube development by combining data from multiple data sources, whether managed or not. A SharePoint infrastructure (either on-premises or in the cloud) administered by IT provides the context for sharing and managing all the BI artifacts.

What do you think? Will moving some infrastructure to the cloud give IT pros the opportunity to deliver more business value in areas like BI? I think it’s possible.

--Dan Lepow

This posting is provided "AS IS" with no warranties, and confers no rights.