“At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi Bee-I. At last we will have shared intelligence.”
A secret long kept, finally revealed
It’s a recurring theme – I see it in my training/consulting practice, in my inbox, in the survey results, and at events:
“We LOVE PowerPivot. It’s a perfect fit for our analysis and reporting needs. But our company has not yet adopted SharePoint, and we don’t have the in-house expertise to stand up and support PowerPivot for SharePoint. We just want the simple beauty of PowerPivot, we want it now, and it’s frustrating that we can’t have the full system yet.”
I hear you. That is precisely where we found ourselves when I joined Pivotstream. The lack of a “turnkey” solution to that problem meant we had to go build it ourselves. And our core business has been running on our internet-based PowerPivot infrastructure since last summer.
But now, one year and two hosting providers later, we are finally able to share what we’ve built with the community.
A Long, Long Time Ago, In a Conference Room Far, Far Away…
OK, it was February, in San Antonio. John Casey and I were at Rackspace headquarters for two full days to pitch an idea: that an all-in-one, customized-to-your-needs, zero-hassle PowerPivot for SharePoint infrastructure would be a very valuable thing to the world at large.
We’d chosen Rackspace based partly on their reputation for support, but primarily because they had the most SharePoint expertise in the hosting business. SharePoint, after all, is probably the most complicated part of running a PowerPivot server farm. We were already moving our own server farm over to Rackspace at that point, but now we were pitching them on a partnership.
It’s a dicey proposition, walking into someone else’s offices knowing that you have to start from scratch. We planned to cover the dynamics of the BI market, past and present, Excel’s place in it, Microsoft’s first-ever total alignment on a strategy, and why PowerPivot was going to change the world. That’s a tall order for anyone to digest or believe in a short two days, no matter how fervently I believed in the message myself.
I underestimated them. They understood perfectly. We ended up meeting with 10-12 members of their leadership team over those two days, transitioning from “here’s a cool idea” to “here’s how we can execute.”
Keeping this a secret has been the longest three months of my life. I am stoked that the waiting is over.
Want the short version?
Being that this is a blog – my blog, specifically – and that I love telling stories, my aim here is to describe how we got here – motivations, steps along the way, etc.
But if you just want to get to the “meat” of this, and/or request more information, go ahead and visit HostedPowerPivot.com:
Ok, back to the story.
I’m pretty sure we could not have done this HostedPowerPivot thing with anyone else, although I did not fully understand that going in.
We’ve been running our core PowerPivot platform in a Rackspace data center for four months, and the level of support we get from them is night and day different from what we had in our last data center. They advertise “fanatical support,” and I’m a believer now.
As fantastic as that is, though, the word “support” doesn’t capture what continually impresses me. I keep coming back to the human element – the real people on the other end who are acting like human beings and not cogs in a machine. I’m not accustomed to big established companies, especially infrastructure companies, maintaining a nimble, entrepreneurial vibe, but that’s what I’ve found here.
For instance, does this sound like “support” to you?
Me: “Hey Rackspace, we’ve found some unexpected PowerPivot performance results on this hardware set. We’re now running some tests on every hardware platform we’ve got.”
Rackspace: “Are there some other hardware options we can try out for you? We’ve got access to a bunch of stuff here you know.”
Me: “YES. You’d need to install PowerPivot and run a bunch of tests on each machine, do you have time for that?”
Rackspace: “No problem. Send us the instructions and we’ll try it on 10 different machine types.”
Rackspace: “OK, here’s a detailed spreadsheet of our results. Three test runs for each unique config, reported separately and then averaged.”
Me: “Did you say spreadsheet? I think I’m in love. We’ll correlate that with our other results.”
Me: “OK based on all results, the best query performance would be achieved on a non-standard config, one with the following properties… is that machine something that can be built out in your datacenters as THE standard PowerPivot server?”
Rackspace: “Hmmm… we’ll look into it and get back to you.”
Rackspace: “Yes, we have approval to build that out. Should we order one up for testing purposes? We’ll have to have some new equipment delivered from the hardware vendor, might take a few days.”
Me: “Yes please.”
Rackspace: “Test machine racked and running. And uh, I think you will be pleased. It’s blowing the socks off of everything else we tested!”
Me: “I love it when a plan comes together. Gentlemen, we have ourselves a PowerPivot server.”
Thanks guys. Too many of you to name specifically, but you know who you are
Step 1: Register Domain. Step 2: Submerge in PowerPivot for a year
True story: Jeff Elderton, our CEO at Pivotstream, registered the domain HostedPowerPivot.com before we even decided I was going to sign on. It’s been in our plans from the beginning. But before we could credibly do such a thing, we first had to apply the technology ourselves, for our own core business. We dug into that while PowerPivot was still in beta, as our sole focus.
Along the way we had to solve all of the common problems everyone will hit. We’ve written software to plug the gaps and provide a professional aesthetic. We know how to “capacity plan” specifically for PowerPivot. We’ve even figured out that certain hardware configurations can dramatically outperform the most commonly-used server configs. We learned a lot more than we expected to.
All of that was expensive and time-consuming of course. But it was absolutely worth it. The things we deliver to our customers simply were not possible before PowerPivot.
Today, I’m pretty sure no one in the world runs a PowerPivot infrastructure of the depth and breadth of what we run at Pivotstream. Our entire core business (subscription analytics for dozens of clients) runs on our PowerPivot infrastructure. There’s no substitute for just doing something – I learned much more about PowerPivot from the outside, as an adopter, than I did as an insider, working on the team at MS. That was surprising, although it makes sense in hindsight.
I’m really happy to see it all come full circle. At his core, Amir Netz describes himself as an inventor. I like that, I think it fits him quite well. I’m similar in some ways, but it’s not like I will ever come up with something like the VertiPaq engine, so “Inventor” would be an overly generous description of me. I like to think of myself as a creator. I love creating useful things. I love filling voids. And this one has had me jazzed for a very long time.
1997: Alabama 20, Vanderbilt 0
There’s one more story I’d like to tell, and it’s a bit of a cliffhanger because it deserves its own post. Like so many other things around this blog, it all comes back to football: there’s a connection between us hooking up with Rackspace, and the 1997 Alabama routine thrashing of Vanderbilt.
Just one of those fun little wrinkles in life.