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Is Microsoft Power BI a Game Changer?

  
  
  
  

At its 2013 Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) Microsoft made its latest Business Intelligence (BI) product introduction, Power BI. 

Adding more BI functionality to the Excel 2013 client application is certainly anticipated. We’ve already seen enterprise features previously delivered in Microsoft’s server-based products re-envisioned as self-service, Excel features. The addition of Power Query and Power Map to Excel marks continued progress toward completing the BI tool set within Excel.

But Power BI takes Microsoft's popular Excel-based self-service BI features to a whole new level by reconnecting these features to enteprise BI/DW data and adding a compelling search and data exploration experience.  It's truly innovative, and will potentially redefine self-service Business Intelligence.

What is Power BI?

The key functionality delivered by Power BI includes a number of integrated components; all stitched together using Office 365:

Power Pivot.  Power Pivot provides end-user accessible, in-memory data modeling for large data sets. Power Pivot was introduced as an add-in to Excel 2010, and since has been fully integrated as an out-of-the-box feature in Excel 2013.  

Power View. Power View is a complimentary technology to Power Pivot, enabling advanced visualizations for data models created in Power Pivot. Power View delivers interactive visualizations, including animated visuals and maps powered by Bing Maps. Originally Power View was available only as a SharePoint feature, but has since been integrated directly into Excel 2013.

Power Map. Power Map, previously known by the development name GeoFlow, is an add-in to Excel 2013 that provides still more compelling Bing Map powered visualizations, extending Power View’s capabilities with 3D map visualizations.

Mobile BI Viewer. Microsoft announced (but has not fully detailed) native mobile viewing applications for visualizations created in Power View and published to Power BI sites. The mobile components will meet the growing requirement to deliver BI visualizations to tablet devices.

Power Query. Power Query, previously known by the development name Data Explorer, is an add-in to Excel 2013 that provides a more fluid, open data discovery environment than is provided by Power Pivot alone.  Despite its unexciting name, we believe Power Query, together with its catalog and on-premises data integration, will do more to enable innovative self-service BI solutions than any end-user technology we’ve seen to-date.

Data Management Gateway. While the publishing and consumption experience for Power BI is in the cloud, Microsoft has recognized that much of the underlying data users will explore will still be on premises.  Power BI's architecture includes a Data Management Gateway facility to allow users to discover, explore and incorporate on premises data within the cloud publishing infrastructure.

Q&A. Q&A is the most Exciting of all the end-user technologies announced at WPC—by far. Just as Google’s search engine fundamentally changed the way the world discovers and interacts with content on the Internet, Q&A will completely change how users discover and navigate their organization’s rapidly growing, yet often abstruse, mountain of data. 

Hybrid Architecture

Power BI will be delivered as a hybrid of on-premise and cloud components.  Consistent with Microsoft’s Office-centric BI strategy, data modeling and solution authoring will be done using Excel 2013 on Windows desktops. Publishing will be done using Office 365’s SharePoint service—requiring end-users to have only a web browser (or a tablet device for native mobile apps).

This hybrid architecture is a huge win with BI content authors who are comfortable with Excel and value the advanced functionality only a full-up desktop application delivers. But it may be less welcomed by organizations that standardize on “web browser only” architectures, or those that need to deliver full functionality to non-Windows users.

Is a cloud-only product a good idea?

Most controversial will be the decision to deliver Power BI exclusively via Microsoft’s Cloud Office platform, Office 365.  Few would argue that cloud platforms are an accepted macro trend in corporate IT—case in point enterprise adoption of Salesforce.com, Google Docs, AWS, Dynamics CRM, Windows Azure, and Office 365.  As detailed in Microsoft’s most recent quarterly earnings report, cloud-delivered solutions are growing much faster than its traditional products.

Yet every cloud provider offering a cloud alternative to on-premises software initially encounters resistance from business customers more accustomed to solutions deployed within their own computing environments. Power BI will have its skeptics.

Power BI will be a quick win with customers who need “big company BI” without the capital investment and complexity that accompanies it. Other customers will initially resist moving their BI systems to Microsoft’s cloud for a variety of reasons. 

While Power BI’s SaaS strategy will postpone adoption for some customers, it’s the right one for Microsoft and its customers. Why?

  • Reduced Complexity. Power BI will be compelling primarily because of the array of integrated functionality it provides. Provisioning such a comprehensive system on-premises would take most customers weeks or months. As with Office 365 and Windows Azure, Power BI instances will deploy in days, not weeks, and future infrastructure upgrades will be left to Microsoft, freeing in-house resources to worry only about the application layer.
  • Pace of Evolution. The BI/Data Analytics space is rapidly changing. Mobility, Big Data and traditional Business Intelligence are quickly merging to create a new kind of insight & analytics landscape.  Cloud-based systems can iterate and improve faster than traditional on-premises alternatives.  Ultimately, adopting a cloud-deployed system will benefit customers by providing more modern, up-to-date systems that keep up with their evolving BI/Analytics needs.
  • Broadened Adoption. By removing the need to make large up-front infrastructure investments, Power BI will make the decision to use the technology much easier for more customers--ultimately broadening adoption of advanced BI capabilities. 

How will Power BI change the game? 

Through its data catalog and Data Management Gateway, Power BI merges centralized DW/BI strategies with cloud data sources and self-service tools like no other platform has yet been able to do. And as a SaaS solution, all of its functionality packaged so that any organization can easily implement and use it.  In short, Power BI has the potential to accelerate the adoption curve and make advanced BI Analytics as common as Excel itself.

Power BI brings game-changing capabilities to all BI system stakeholders:

  • End Users. End-users have long wanted the ability to easily access and analyze data.  Q&A’s natural language query and intelligent visualization engine will do more to encourage every employee to use information as a basis for decisions. 
  • BI Analysts. Power Pivot gave power users the ability to build efficient data models over large data volumes, but that information needed to “fit” into clean data models.  Power Query’s data transformation and flexibility further empower analysts to build their own end-to-end solutions quickly.
  • IT & Data Stewards. Self-service BI has always been a push-pull topic.  Everyone wants users to have the tools and information they need to make good decisions.  Yet proper governance, security and auditing is often seen as a road-block to progress by power users.  The data catalog underlying Power BI is exciting because it promotes self-service and governance simultaneously.

Not every organization will move quickly to adopt Power BI. For some, it will represent too much strategic change too quickly.  For others there may truly be regulatory or other reasons that preclude consideration of cloud-based systems. 

But for many organizations, establishing an affordable and robust BI platform has been challenging and cost-prohibitive.  Power BI may be the solution that finally makes advanced BI as simple to use as a search engine, and as broadly adopted.

At BlueGranite, we assist business and technology leaders interested in crafting Self-Service Analytics and Reporting strategies. Our flexible approaches can support the initiative by targeting a wide range of supporting activities, from building data repositories specifically crafted for Power Pivot use, to end user training, mentoring, and adoption programs. Be sure to contact us if you are in the process of deciding which flavor of Self-Service Analytics is most appropriate for your organization. 

Learn more about BlueGranite's BI Workshop featuring Microsoft Excel and Power Pivot