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Microsoft Cloud BI: SharePoint in the Cloud

Previously, we addressed the specifics of data services in Azure, and what paths might be valid for SQL Server BI.   Today, we’ll look at delivering data to users — the “last mile” of Microsoft’s cloud BI story — via SharePoint.
Whenever you talk about delivery of Microsoft BI, the first point of discussion is logically SharePoint.  It is the platform of choice for delivering Microsoft BI because of it integration capability with the SQL Server BI stack.  It’s almost like they were made for each other…  😉     Integrated SQL Server Reporting Services, PerformancePoint Services, PowerPivot and Power View, Excel Services, Visio Services — a full spectrum of both IT-created and self-service BI capabilities are available in SharePoint. 
Until recently, a SharePoint BI implementation by definition was an on-premise solution.   But with the advent of Azure VMs, a cloud-based option has emerged that potentially offers significant infrastructure cost savings and even improved availability.   SharePoint can run in an Azure VM, which can be virtually networked to other co-located Azure VMs.  Say, some that are running SQL Server BI stack components, for instance.  So a virtual SharePoint farm is possible with Azure VMs.  A SharePoint 2013/SQL Server 2012/2014 BI solution can be deployed completely in the cloud — which can potentially save significantly on hardware and maintenance costs. 
On the PaaS front, Microsoft’s Office 365 and SharePoint Online services are also gaining adoption daily, and can serve as a front-end for BI solutions deployed either in the cloud or on-premise.   These offerings provide a robust Office implementation, including Outlook, Excel, and very functional SharePoint, for 1 to 100,000 employees — all hosted in the Cloud.  But please note that only certain editions of Office 365 and SharePoint Online provide SharePoint BI functionality.  Also be aware that PerformancePoint Services is not offered in any SharePoint Online edition.  Still, the next chapter in the Microsoft BI delivery story also starts with SharePoint Online and Office 365.   And that chapter is called “Power BI.”
Power BI is a cloud-based suite BI tools that will be offered through Excel 365.  These tools include:

  • PowerPivot (the xVelocity-based in-memory database)
  • PowerView (PowerPivot’s RS client companion and reporting tool)
  • Power Map (AKA “GeoFlow”, which can create sophisticated 3D geographic visualizations of data)
  • and
  • Power Query (AKA “Data Explorer”, a data discovery and import tool – almost like an ETL wizard). 

Each of these tools exists now, but the SharePoint Online part is where things get interesting.  With Power BI, SharePoint Online users can create and publish reports built using the tools listed above into specialized sites which will render the reports in HTML 5.   This means that mobile device users of all stripes will be able to view and interact with Power BI reports.   So iOS and Android users won’t be left out, and Windows 8 and Windows Phone users will get an app specifically for working with Power BI content.
SharePoint remains the Microsoft-endorsed front end for the SQL Server BI stack.  On-Premise and Cloud-based options provide a choice of paths, and significant BI capabilities continue to be a major feature of the SharePoint platform.  Next time, we’ll take a look at some practical architectures for Microsoft BI in the cloud, including purely cloud-based and Hybrid solutions.

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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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