What is it about version 2.0? Perhaps when software reaches version 2.0 it seems to have gained some maturity and respectability, but is still young enough to be filled with excitement and energy. In any case, Microsoft’s Power BI Version 2.0, announced for general availability July 24, is generating considerable excitement within the community of Microsoft BI users, and rightfully so.
Power BI is the maturing of the visualization and reporting tool sets that began with Power View. However, Power BI is not limited to either Sharepoint or Excel. Power BI is a collection of tools; the two primary focus points are the Power BI Desktop, which you can download from Microsoft, and the Power BI service, which you can sign up for. (We’ll have more to say about that shortly.) Installation of the Power BI Desktop requires .NET 4.5 and Internet Explorer 10.0 or greater.
The Power BI Desktop application is substantially more than an upsized Excel Power View. It incorporates its own xVelocity engine (I guess we now just say “data model”). This enables the Power BI Desktop to access virtually all data sources. It can maintain an active connection with an SSAS tabular mode server, but data sources like SQL Server, Excel workbooks, and even CSV files can be easily read and used to build a data model.
In fact, this process is now even easier. In products like Power Pivot and the SQL Server Data Tools (SSDT), relationships among SQL Server tables imported at the same time will be recognized, but if you add another table later you must define the relationships yourself. In contrast, if you add an SQL Server table to an existing Power BI data model, any relationships to other tables already loaded will be recognized and created automatically. The user interface for creating a report is virtually identical to that of the Excel Power View Add-In; the user need only select data files and filters from the menu on the right. Once a Power BI report has been created, the report and data model are saved in a file quite analogous to an Excel workbook file. You can share the file with any colleagues that have installed the Power BI Desktop. In addition, reports created with the desktop application can be uploaded either to Microsoft’s Power BI website or the servers of Microsoft’s strategic partner Pyramid Analytics.
Microsoft’s Power BI website provides free service for analysts, developers, and small businesses that can live with space and bandwidth limitations. Not surprisingly, enterprise-scale service involves a fee. When loading a report to the Power BI website we discover yet another advantage of the data model. A Power BI report that maintains an open connection to SSAS tabular mode cannot be uploaded unless the uploaded report can connect as well (and it very likely cannot). But a Power BI report containing its own data model can be uploaded with ease, either from the desktop application or from the website’s interface. Perhaps more importantly, once you upload a Power BI report with a data model, it is not only the report which becomes available to your colleagues. The data model in an individual report becomes a data source that can be used via the browser interface to create completely new reports and dashboards.
While the graphics of the original Power View were nice, I was uncomfortable having to restrict myself to such a small finite set. Microsoft has taken a different tack with the release of Power BI. The source code for the graphical widgets is available on GitHub, and any developer who wishes can study them and then use the API to create his or her own custom visualizations. The available code was created with the D3 library, one of my personal favorites, but developers are not limited to using D3 and can use many other tools, including SVG.
The combination of ease-of-use and professional power makes Power BI an excellent addition to the business intelligence toolbox maintained by any organization.