Business intelligence provides a major focus for this year's Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) Conference in Neuss, Germany, from April 22 to 24, sponsored by SQL Server Magazine.

Windows IT Pro's sister title is sponsoring the PASS Conference at a time that SQL Server's Integration Services, Analysis Services and Reporting Services are coming to the fore. But although SQL Server itself plays a ubiquitous role in European businesses, such built-in BI capabilities still sometimes struggle for recognition.

Many reports on the European BI market see household names like Cognos and Business Objects mentioned again and again. Yet analysts and the IT media seem split over where Microsoft sits at the BI table. Some barely mention its involvement. Others, notably Gartner, hail the Redmond giant as a visionary market leader. Given that if you are a serious Windows-driven organisation you probably either actively use SQL Server or rely on applications that do, this seems a little odd.

"I think some of it is typically people maybe don’t think Microsoft can do it well because Microsoft have their fingers in a lot of pies like Office, operating systems, SQL Server, BizTalk Server and all of that," says Allan Mitchell part of a star speaker line-up at the PASS Conference that includes Microsoft BI guru Donald Farmer. "And I think there’s still a bit of the old 6.5, 6.0 mentality that SQL Server and all of its tools don’t scale, won’t scale and it won’t be big enough to take the job on.

"And a lot of people that I see also think that if you don’t pay a lot of money for something, it’s rubbish. Because I’ve seen people using Business Objects when Reporting Services would have done, but because Reporting Services comes with SQL Server 2005, then Business Objects has to be better, right? – because they’re paying an awful lot out in licensing fees."

However, SQL Server MVP Mitchell says this tide is changing rapidly as huge operators such as Barnes and Noble catch on to SQL Server's sophistication to manipulate multiple terabytes of data. His own consultancy Konesans now concentrates solely on BI.

"The product’s just far too big now for you to be able to say 'I am a god with SQL Server', because you can’t be and we’ve chosen to specialise in the BI stack, especially as Microsoft are playing such a big marketing push around it and we want to be in on that wave," he comments.

So are there huge swathes of users who are just waking up to the tools they are already sitting on? "I think they’re getting round to it but I think there’s not sufficient awareness of what you’ve actually got straight out of the box," he says.

"So I think some people don’t understand. I’ve had developers coming to me about Integration Services and think it’s just the import/export wizard but when you actually show them some of the other stuff they think it’s a different tool. Now that’s strange for me because I live and breathe this side of SQL Server and I just don’t get how you can have missed Microsoft pushing out all the stuff that they push out about business intelligence, about Gartner's four quadrants, about the BI reports and so on."

The momentum behind SQL Server-based BI can be seen in the increase in the number of seminars devoted to the subject over the years at the PASS show and others like it says Mitchell, who is also involved with the UK's SQL Bits conference in Manchester on March 28. Do events like this help the cause?

"I think they do," he says. "I guess the people who come to them are more the people who are perhaps already using SQL Server or already using the BI spec. But a lot of people don’t use SQL Server and we get a lot of people who come and think 'OK, so what are these guys talking about?'.

"So it might be: 'I’ve got a dashboard that I’ve got to build at work and they want me to go out and look at tools and I noticed that at this conference they’re going to be talking about all of these types of tools as well. I’m just going to go along, have a look and see what happens.'

"I think there are people who are curious as to what Microsoft has to offer and I think conferences like ours allow people a quick and easy way to come along and the people who speak are generally very good and know what they’re talking about. So it’s not like they’re going to go away with a bad experience, either."

For the full lowdown on the 2009 PASS SQL Server Users Conference and Expo, see the event's website.