On Friday, James Phillips, Microsoft VP of Business Intelligence, announced the general availability of the new Power BI Business Analytics Service will be July 24th. Also referred to as “Power BI 2.0”, the new service will eventually replace the 1.0 Power BI extension to Office 365. In a nutshell, this means that data transformations, data modeling, dashboard visualization and report design can be performed in the free Power BI Designer stand-alone application rather than requiring you to license Excel 2013 ProPlus and/or Office 365. A Power BI online subscription is free and advanced features are about $10 per month per user. Models and reports created using the Excel add-ins can still be published to the Power BI hosted service but Excel is no longer a requirement. Read the complete announcement here.
There are many fine points to the Power BI equation that will be important factors for companies considering the adoption of Power BI. Interest in the industry is very high and I’ve had several conversations lately with business leaders from companies who want to learn more and and are considering using Power BI to empower analysts and business users instead of relying on traditional IT solution design. To clear the muddy water, here are some popular questions and answers:
To use Power BI, are we required to put our data in the cloud?
Technically, Yes; but maybe not. To use all of the latest features of Power BI, including Q&A natural language queries, new visuals, sharing published reports and dashboards; you will need to publish the queries, models & reports you author with the Power BI Designer or Excel 2013 ProPlus add-ins to the cloud-based service at PowerBI.com. The content is secured and encrypted but this is the biggest blocking point for many large businesses who, either for regulatory reasons or just out of fear for losing control of their important data or intellectual property. For other companies who have learned to trust cloud services, this is no big deal. Heck, just about all of us move sensitive data over the Internet every day but it’s still a hang-up for a lot of big companies.
What options are there to use Power BI features on-premises?
Quite a few, actually. Most of the features of Power BI were originally created as add-ins for Excel. This isn’t to say that the features in Excel are the same as the latest Power BI service… they’re not but most are either the same or very similar. To use the more recent versions of Power Query, Power Pivot and Power View, you’ll need Office 2013 ProPlus and you should be using the 64 bit flavor rather than 32 bit. This is also a bit of a hang-up in big companies who don’t upgrade software very quickly. I’ve found that even in big, stodging businesses, getting the right version of Office installed isn’t impossible if you can make a case for the business value it brings. If compatibility with old Excel add-ins is a concern, you can use a virtual machine or install new Office on a second computer.
Once you’re using Excel 2013 to author models and reports, you have a few options to share Power Pivot data models, Power View reports and Excel reports with other team members:1. Excel, Power Pivot and Power View integrate with SharePoint 2013 Enterprise edition. This isn’t cheap or real easy to setup but it will allow many users to share and manage content. The latest Power BI cloud features won’t always be supported but we can likely expect occasional updates.
2. Just stick the Excel file on a shared folder so others running the right Excel version can open and view it. This isn’t exactly a collaborative solution but will work with a small group and zero additional effort.
3. Suck it up and use the cloud. This is where everything is going. Microsoft’s directive for all their products is “cloud-first, mobile-first” and most of their competitors are now doing the same – including the major BI vendors. For most companies, adopting the cloud isn’t really a security or regulatory problem so much but it requires a shift in business culture and accepting new options and different challenges.
4. Wait for the on-prem version. Microsoft has promised that most new capabilities introduced in the cloud will eventually make it into installed editions of their software. We probably won’t see on-prem parity with Power BI real soon but individual features will most likely be migrated when they can.
What is the real cost of Power BI?
When Microsoft says Power BI is “free”, they mean it – really. According to the pricing information here, at no cost, users can manage 1 GB of compressed data. That’s actually a lot. There are other factors and limitations that won’t affect casual data analysts with moderate needs. Having a development and demo sandbox with no expiration date is pretty cool. For about $10/month, users can collaborate with team members, manage and integrate larger sets of data. That’s pretty cheap.
Can we integrate Power BI with on-prem data and IT systems?
Yes. The Power BI REST API lets you programmatically push data into a published model at-will rather than scheduling data refresh or requiring users to do it manually.
The SSAS connector allows report and dashboard visuals to query an on-premises instance of SSAS Tabular rather than pushing the model into the cloud.
The Data Management Gateway allows a data model to refresh data from your on-premises SQL Server databases at scheduled intervals.
Data models can be scheduled to refresh once-per-day for users with the free Power BI subscription and up to once-per-hour with the Pro ($10) subscription.
How does Power BI measure up to competing services like Tabeau and Qlik?
In my opinion, Microsoft is the underdog with the best integration story but they have lost ground to make up. The article from Martin Heller below is a great comparison of features & capabilities. In the past few years, Microsoft has taken it’s BI and reporting platform in all kinds of crazy, confusing directions and have created several interesting but disconnected products. Under new leadership and vision, they’re moving quickly toward a new goal and I’m encouraged by what I see. Power BI development is moving faster than other products at Microsoft can keep-up with (part of the reason they disconnected Power BI from Excel). We’re seeing features added to Power BI just about every month.
As a rule, don’t ever bet on what might be but do pay attention to how quickly Power BI has progressed in the past few months – and what they’re likely accomplish in the near-term future with this product.
How can I see what features are coming, what others are asking for and how can I voice my opinion about new Power BI features?
A new Power BI Community site is managed and monitored by the Power BI leadership and development team. Check out http://community.powerbi.com/
Here are a few good articles & posts related to the new Power BI offering:
Self-service BI review: Tabeau vs Clik Sense vs Power BI – Martin Heller, Computer World
- Announcing Power BI general availability coming July 24th – The official Microsoft Power BI blog
- Power BI Workshops at PASS Global Summit – October 26, Sacramento SQL Saturday – July 24