Microsoft Power BI
Power BI is a cloud-based analytics and BI tool designed for business users to access and combine different data sources for data discovery, visualization and interactive dashboards. It was first released as a cloud-only product by Microsoft in 2015. Power BI comes with built-in data preparation and many innovative features and functions such as natural language query and machine-learning-driven ‘Quick Insights’ for automated discovery.
Microsoft is the world’s largest software company. Founded in 1975 and headquartered in Redmond, it has become a household name, primarily due to its Windows operating system and Office suite. Aside from these products, Microsoft has a vast range of enterprise software and cloud offerings including its own database, browser, various servers and ERP solutions. In recent years, Microsoft has focused its business on Azure, a cloud-based solution. Microsoft Azure now offers a wide range of products and services, which increasingly outperform on-premises offerings (e.g., for AI and machine learning).
Compared to the huge business the company does in different markets, its analytics and BI front end revenues are relatively small. Nevertheless, Microsoft is a strong presence in the market and its offering complements existing solutions and drives cloud revenues. In the past, the vendor spread its analytics and BI capabilities across the Office, SharePoint and SQL Server product lines, providing tools for formatted reporting, analysis and dashboards.
Microsoft has been a provider of BI and data management products for a long time. The vendor started with its SQL Server offering, which many companies used to build a central data warehouse. Today, an increasing number of customers rely on Azure Synapse Analytics to build modern data warehouses or other Azure-based offerings.
Microsoft is concentrating its development on the cloud as the main deployment option for its portfolio as requirements and technology in analytics and BI have evolved. Today the vendor’s analytics and BI offering is largely organized around and optimized for its Azure cloud. Additionally, the Azure cloud infrastructure can be used by Microsoft’s technology partners to power their offerings.
In July 2015, Microsoft launched a new generation of its Power BI product line consisting of Microsoft Power BI Desktop (a full client for dashboards and analysis) and Power BI Service (a web service for content publishing and sharing). In 2017, Power BI Report Server was released to enable the on-premises distribution of Power BI content.
Power BI is firmly targeted at business users. It is equipped with connectors to a broad number of data sources. Power BI supports building dashboards using predefined visualizations as well as integrating custom visualizations. The vendor provides APIs to integrate Power BI visualizations in custom applications with Power BI embedded. Further innovative features in Power BI include natural language queries (NLQ) and Quick Insights, which automatically analyzes data sets for patterns and outliers and provides the user with appropriate visualizations based on relevant findings. The related insight feature retrieves information about patterns in the data behind a specific visualization or dashboard object.
Power BI is a front end for building dashboards and mobile applications using data from various sources. It has extensive functions for data preparation in the Power Query Editor module. It offers two distinct connection types: direct (live) access to existing data sources (e.g., for SQL Server, SAP HANA) and cached access (import) via tabular model data sets. Reports, dashboards and analyses can be created using either connection type. Since 2021, Composite Models offer the possibility to combine multiple live and imported data sources. Live queries do not support the product’s complete functionality for data preparation and analysis (e.g., Quick Insights). Like many competitors, Microsoft enhances the capabilities for live queries to make better use of the increasingly popular cloud data warehouses.
Data preparation and model creation can only take place in the full client (Power BI Desktop). To build data sets, users create dimensions, calculated fields and measures, KPIs, hierarchies and other business metadata. For advanced calculations, the Excel-like DAX language is used, which makes data preparation more complicated compared to some rival products. Data from multiple sources can be combined into a single data set. A common semantic layer spanning all data sets is not available. Data sets can be shared and reused via Power BI Service. The service also allows users to load data from multiple sources to create new data sets, but without further enhancement and enrichment.
Power BI includes more than 100 connectors for various data sources, such as relational and multidimensional databases including SQL Server, Azure SQL Database, Analysis Services, Oracle, IBM DB2, SAP HANA, Amazon Redshift, Teradata and Snowflake. It also offers connectivity to other databases and services via ODBC, OLE DB or OData. Furthermore, the product can natively connect to big data systems such as SPARK, HDFS and Impala but also to on-premises or cloud-based business applications including Salesforce, Marketo, MicroStrategy and Microsoft Dynamics. For the latter group, an increasing number of content packs are available that can serve as templates to quickly build analytics solutions on top of these applications.
Besides its predefined features, Power BI has a set of APIs based on the REST protocol. Customers can use these to build custom visualizations and integrate them into the solution. Power BI also allows visualizations to be embedded in individual applications. These capabilities are often used to leverage advanced analytics functions missing in the product such as clustering and smoothed forecasts.
Reports, visualizations and data sets can be published using Power BI Service. The web client for Power BI Service is the main front end for information consumers. They use the service to access and work with published content and to collaborate with other users. They can also connect to reports and dashboards via mobile apps (Power BI for Mobile) for iOS and Android.
Power BI helps business users to access content or create and share their own dashboards and visualizations. Power BI Desktop includes capabilities for building visualizations, dashboards, data preparation and data modeling. Data can be transformed, cleansed and enhanced to create a data set out of multiple data sources. Microsoft assists users in preparing their data with features such as ‘Column from Examples’, which recognizes patterns and creates the required scripts from examples entered by the user.
Business users can create dashboards in many ways. Firstly, they can be built in Power BI Desktop where data preparation is available if content is created from scratch. Users can also create new dashboards using the Power BI Service web client based on data already made available. Both options allow the use of imported data sets, live data or composite models. Power BI dashboards can be shared with other users through Power BI Service or embedded in other applications. It is also possible to embed Power BI visuals directly in PowerPoint using add-ins for Office. Basic printing features are built into the platform, but Power BI is primarily built to deliver interactive visualizations on screen.
To improve the support for print reports, paginated reports have been introduced to Power BI. This allows customers to create, print and share paginated reports in Power BI. These reports have long been the standard reporting format in SQL Server Reporting Services. They are created with Power BI Report Builder and can be published through Power BI Service or Power BI on-premises. Unlike Power BI dashboards, paginated reports are not based on a shared data model. Users must create embedded data sources and data sets in the report itself.
Power BI supports many visualization types such as range, scatter, donut, polar, treemap, sunburst, gauges, KPI, maps and more. In addition, Power BI offers a developer platform for custom visuals. These visualizations can be published to a visualization gallery to make them available to other users. The possibility to use Charticulator for producing individually designed Power BI visuals has seen lots of interest from customers wanting to improve the way they present and communicate data and insights. To analyze data sets quickly, natural language queries can be used to effortlessly produce meaningful visualizations with the Q&A feature.
User & Use Cases
Power BI customers use their tool mostly for consuming standardized content such as dashboards (82 percent) and reports (80 percent). At 59 percent, usage of data analysis is lower than with comparable visual analysis and self-service tools, showing that Power BI could attract more users to engage in analysis rather than viewing predefined content. Tableau, Qlik and SAP are currently Power BI’s main competitors, all of whom have a vision of empowering business users through intuitive and attractive tools.
Power BI has clearly made its way from being a departmental tool to an enterprise information platform. The mean number of users is above average and many large and middle-sized companies use the software.
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