Things change pretty fast in the business intelligence arena. Terms can change pretty fast, too. A little more than a year ago, many people used the phrase “Power BI” to refer to Excel Add-Ins of particular interest in BI, notably Power Pivot and Power Query. Now, the same phrase refers to a distinct and separate toolset. While Power BI enjoys a close working relationship with Excel, in many ways its reach if farther and wider.
The Power BI tools span a broad range, from individual analysts sitting at their workstations to multinational enterprises with requirements of the largest scale. Analysts working with Excel can publish dashboards on Power BI, and data mavens working with Power BI Desktop can make their visualizations available to workers throughout the enterprise.
Power BI Desktop is a free download that can be used to create sophisticated interactive data visualizations. The data engine within Power BI Desktop is virtually identical to that of Excel Power Pivot, and integrates the same functionality found in Excel Power Query, including the Power Query Formula Language colloquially known as “M”. Importing data into Power BI Desktop will seem very familiar to analysts with Power Pivot Experience.
In keeping with the new spirit of greater openness at Microsoft, the data visualization tools provided with Power BI are open-source, which means that users are not limited only to the visualizations provided with Power BI tools. Skilled developers can create their own custom visualizations, and many of those who have already done so have shared the fruits of their labor on the Web.
The interactive reports created with Power BI desktop are valuable in their own right, but Power BI desktop also serves as a development platform for the most powerful features of the Power BI Service.
Once completed, a Power BI Desktop file can be uploaded to Microsoft’s Power BI service and thus easily shared with others. The Power BI service provides additional reporting tools for generating reports and dashboards. Microsoft provides free accounts, limited to one gigabyte of data, for those who wish to explore Power BI before subscribing to Power BI Pro. In addition to permitting greater data volumes, Power BI Pro provides tools for collaboration not found in the free Power BI. These include the ability to publish organizational content packs for the management of data sharing and shared data queries.
If you already have an Excel Power Pivot workbook containing data you would like to use in Power BI, that workbook can be imported into Power BI as a data source.
For businesses that prefer the security and convenience of an in-house solution, Pyramid Analytics provides an on-premises server solution for the deployment of Power BI reports and dashboards.
When Power BI was first introduced, data was either integrated into the Power BI report or was available in the Azure cloud. In July 2016, Microsoft introduced an important new option for organizations wishing to keep their data in-house but also wishing to keep current the data in Power BI reports in the cloud. This new bridge between on-premises data and Power BI appears to be available only for 64-bit systems. (If you are serious about business intelligence you should have already left the 32-bit world behind you anyway).
The On-Premises Data Gateway installs easily and runs as a service, but it is a “one-way” service with the sole purpose of permitting Power BI to refresh data from data stores kept on-site; it cannot be used to download Power BI data.
In addition to the features you would expect, like a built-in tabular database supported by the xVelocity engine, Power BI is supported by an extensive system of BI- and data-related tools.
Power BI includes the ability to respond to questions posed in natural language. (This facility, called “Q&A” is currently available only for English.) Past attempts to implement such a tool have foundered, partly because of limited computing power at the time. Now, however, a developer who provides a carefully structured and named dataset can enable users to explore results simply be typing something like “show total sales for Quantico” rather than drag-and-drop filters or write a DAX formula.
Users who have licensed Power BI Pro can make use of “Organizational Content Packs”. Power BI makes it easy to share dashboards and reports with colleagues. Organization Content Packs take this a step further by enabling analysts and report writers to gather together not only dashboards and reports but also Excel workbooks and datasets. One on Power BI, these Content Packs will only be visible to appropriate team members. Unlike shared reports and dashboards, which can only be viewed, Content Packs can be copied as used as the starting point for further in-depth analysis.
It’s rumored that Cortana has a special place in her AI heart for Power BI. Analysts can make published datasets accessible to Cortana. Any user who is given Power BI account credentials can then enable Cortana in their Windows 10 workstation to access the data and employ Cortana’s aid to explore that data. Similar in spirit to Q&A, Cortana can provide answers from datasets, but Cortana goes beyond Q&A in several ways. Report writers and developers can create Power BI “answer pages” for Cortana, which will help guide both analysts and executives to the Power BI reports and data which most closely match their needs.
Corporations and organizations, both large and small, are gathering data at an ever-increasing rate, but many stumble on the very last step, bringing that data to the analysts, market researchers, and executives who turn that data into useful information. Power BI provides this “last-mile” solution for groups of any size. Furthermore, Power BI does not lock information workers into an analysis model that may become quickly outmoded as needs change. By providing a powerful and flexible solution for bringing interactive dashboards and reports to users and analysts, Power BI guarantees its continuing value in the constantly changing world of information.