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Microsoft Power BI removes barriers to data insights

Microsoft Power BI can help businesses visualize company data and keep abreast of trends, but does it address the traditional analytic pain points of cost and complexity?

Companies of all kinds have come to recognize the importance of business intelligence (BI) and data analytics to decision making.

Business intelligence involves analyzing data and trends, with the goal of providing actionable insight for decision makers.

While BI offers the possibility of gaining insight and efficiency, the technology is still coming into its own in trying to provide offerings that are cost-effective, user-friendly and less hampered by data silos.

The recently upgraded Microsoft Power BI business intelligence tool, which is part of Microsoft's Office 365 productivity suite, takes aim at some of these pain points. But even with Power BI, there are signs that the business intelligence roadmap is still shaking out, especially when it comes to on-premises versus cloud usage.

Some background

A few years ago, corporate IT underwent the big data revolution, which basically focused on the potential benefits that could be realized by gleaning insights from torrents of structured and unstructured data, either internally or on the Web. Although big data fell prey to hype, some positives emerged from the trend as well.

Perhaps the best thing was the understanding that organizational data has real value. By looking across an organization's various data sources (even those that were previously considered unimportant), it is possible to gain greater insight about trends that permeate the organization. This understanding, and recognition of the potential business value, led to the creation of better data analytic tools, such as Microsoft's Power BI.

Enter Power BI

Designed to help users gain insight from data, Microsoft Power BI offers a variety of data visualization and query tools.

Designed to help users gain insight from data, Microsoft Power BI offers a variety of data visualization and query tools.

As capable as Power BI is, however, it is going through something of an identity crisis. Microsoft has experimented with offering Power BI capabilities to customers in a variety of ways. Microsoft Power BI is a key selling point of Office 365, but some Power BI functionality also resides in Microsoft Excel. This overlap has created confusion, as Microsoft's customers wonder which flavor of Power BI they should use and what features and capabilities are available in each.

Microsoft is pushing customers to use Power BI in the cloud, with the company even renaming some Excel data analytic features in an apparent effort to reduce confusion.

Analytic challenges

It's often possible to gain insight about meaningful business trends by examining data from multiple sources. Today, organizations have unprecedented data available, but it's also more widely scattered than ever before. It's not uncommon for an enterprise to have a mix of on-premises, cloud-based applications and even public databases. Cloud-based data analytics can connect these data sources wherever they reside.

Another advantage of Power BI in Office 365 is that cloud-based solutions are easily accessible from anywhere. Users can access reports from their corporate desktop, or from their smartphones, or from just about any other device or location.

Historically, there have been two major deterrents against the use of data analytic: cost and complexity. Microsoft seems to have solved both problems with Power BI.

Organizations that have relatively modest data analytic needs can use Power BI for free. This version has a 1 GB data limit and can analyze up to 10,000 rows of data per hour. There is a paid version for organizations requiring larger-scale data analytics.

Complexity is probably the biggest problem that has plagued data analytic efforts. In the case of Power BI, however, Microsoft has created a simple point-and-click interface for accessing data sources and setting up reports. A user can even perform natural-language queries by asking things such as, "How many units did we sell in Dallas last month?"

You can see what the Microsoft Power BI interface looks like in Figure 1.

Power BI interface
Figure 1. Power BI can leverage a number of different data sources.

As you can see, a user can import or connect both file data and databases. Microsoft naturally supports the use of data sources such as Excel worksheets and SQL Server databases, but it is also possible to tie Power BI into non-Microsoft data sources, such as Salesforce CRM databases, through the use of content packs. You can see some of the available content packs in Figure 2.

Power BI content packs
Figure 2. Microsoft provides content packs for connecting to various data sources.

Those organizations wishing to import file data also have a number of options. File data can be local, but Microsoft also supports the use of OneDrive or OneDrive for Business.

Microsoft Power BI is still in its infancy, though, and some experts argue that other data visualization tools are faster and offer more diverse visualization options. Tableau, for example, offers more complex data analysis and varied visualization options. It also can combine with data sources, like geomapping. Power BI is best for simple visualizations or shops that are all Microsoft.

Another disadvantage with data analytics in general is that you have to know what data is available to you, where that data is located and how to connect to it. More important, you have to know what you are looking for. Not all data represents meaningful business trends. For example, an organization could conceivably mine its data and discover that last December most of their sales came from people whose first initial is L. While this might be business intelligence in the strictest sense of the definition, the resulting statistic does nothing to provide any meaningful and actionable insight to the business. Business intelligence software like Microsoft Power BI allows organizations to discover business trends, but those who are performing the analysis also need to have some idea of what they are looking for.


Microsoft Power BI has removed much of the cost and complexity of data analytics, allowing users to connect to data sources of their choosing and build their own custom dashboards based on the queries that they find to be the most useful. There are other data analytic solutions available that are potentially faster and more diverse in their capabilities, but those who are curious about data analytics can use the free version of Power BI to get a feel for the software's strengths and weaknesses.

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