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Microsoft’s Power BI: a peek at the future?

So, have you heard about Power BI yet? 
The whiz-bang new cloud-centric BI front end tool from Microsoft? 
Well, this video from the 2013 WPC breaks down the story — in a very entertaining manner…

 So, having watched, let’s assume we all remember Mariah’s chart-toppers and instead review the greatest hits of the Power BI offering:

  • It’s aimed at Excel users on Office 365/SharePoint Online  – so it is purely cloud-based
  • It contains 4 Excel-based tools:
    • PowerPivot – the old favorite xVelocity-based in-memory database that we’ve known since SQL Server 2008 R2
    • PowerView – another tool that has been around — one recently enhanced with the ability to use classic Analysis Services cubes as data sources
    • Power Map – a renaming of the recently-previewed GeoFlow tool, which can create sophisticated 3D geographic visualizations
    • Power Query – another rebranding, this time of the Data Explorer data discovery and import tool
  • SharePoint Online users will be able to create and publish reports into specialized Power BI sites, which will render in HTML 5
  • There will be a touch-optimized mobile app for Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 users with specialized viewing of these sites (similar to the recently released Windows 8 SharePoint Newsfeed Viewer app).

So, there’s a lot in there.  As the product hasn’t even reached preview, it’s hard to provide much insight into how it will all really work.  But what strikes me about this offering as much as the interesting collection of functionality is what it says about the future of BI in the Microsoft stack. 
 Here’s a few conclusions we can draw about Microsoft’s BI vision:

  • They are betting heavier all the time on their cloud offerings.  In this case, we’re specifically talking about Office 365 and the cloud-based version of SharePoint, SharePoint Online.  I know that Microsoft has seen pretty serious sales of O365 licenses, and SPOnline is also gaining traction.  I believe the introduction of a cloud-first offering like Power BI indicates that Microsoft only sees this trend increasing.
  • Excel is once and for all the official “endgame” for SQL Server BI.  This might elicit a big “duh” from some of you given the self-service BI trend in the SQL Server story, but for many folks the lack of a coherent front-end plan or any real happy ending for the Microsoft BI “story” has a been a fairly major gap.  The fake answer, when asked thus far, has been “SharePoint”.  But the reality is, it’s hard to sell a SharePoint implementation just to cleanly display SQL Server BI results.  So, for better or for worse, Power BI represents at least a succinct answer about the user-facing portion of the Microsoft BI stack: “EXCEL!”   And I will say this: while some organizations won’t use SharePoint, pretty much EVERYONE uses Excel.  Not to mention that the reporting results delivered by pretty much every other vendor’s BI back-ends wind up in Excel on an end-user’s desktop.   So when a desktop-friendly version of Power BI sees daylight, there is an opportunity for major traction for end-to-end Microsoft BI that was not there before.
  • Finally, Mobile BI.  I have heard the question asked by developers for at least 3 years, and now businesses are expecting it, too:  How can I see this stuff on my phone/tablet?  Well, the “mobile app” planned for release (which one assumes will be for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, at least) should FINALLY be the answer to that.   Wondering about iPad users?  From what information has been released, it seems that MS intends to rely on SharePoint Online to serve them via Power BI sites — which will be rendered using HTML 5.

I have personally registered for the Power BI preview, and can’t wait to get a look at it. 
If you’re in a big hurry, you can already see PowerPivot and PowerView in action on the desktop if you have Excel 2010 or 2013.  Just download and/or activate the add-ins via the Excel “Options” menu. 
And you can now download a preview of both Power Query and Power Map here.

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Andrew Tegethoff

Andy leads Perficient's Microsoft BI team. He has 16 years of IT and software experience with a primary focus on Enterprise Information Management solutions using the Microsoft Data Platform.

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