Some Thoughts About Power BI

By now you’ll probably have seen the Power BI announcement from Microsoft. It’s an important one, and if you haven’t seen it I suggest you take a look at the official announcements and website here:

Andrew Brust also has a good summary of the news here:

There’s no point me repeating what’s already been said, so I thought I’d post my initial reaction to it:

  • Proper Mobile BI! HTML 5 Power View! It works on iPads too! Hurray! At-bloody-last! The mobile BI solution will allow you to find, interact with and share “Excel and Power View content”, so I guess that includes Excel worksheets (with PivotTables, slicers etc) as well as Power View reports (a close look at the screenshots in the blog posts above back this up).
  • Making Power BI available only via Office 365 is going to be a very controversial strategy in the MS BI partner community. To be clear: as far as I understand it, Data Explorer (now Power Query), GeoFlow (now Power Map), mobile BI and all of the cool stuff that’s just been announced is only going to be available through Power BI, and therefore Office 365. Unfortunately the biggest companies, with the biggest BI budgets, are often the ones who are slowest to upgrade to the latest versions of Office and a lot of cases this won’t change just because someone wants to see their reports on an iPad. Where IT department inertia, worries about data privacy and company politics mean that Office 365 is not an option, Microsoft will lose out to the pure-play BI vendors who offer standalone solutions.
  • If you look at this from a different point of view, though, some of the things that I (as a BI Pro) feel least comfortable about in Microsoft’s BI strategy are also its greatest strengths. The way I see it, MS is not treating self-service BI as a solution in its own right, but selling self-service BI as a feature of Office. This makes a lot of sense from Microsoft’s point of view – it’s building on the fact that Excel is the tool of choice for data analysis for 99% of users. What I think is going to happen as a result of this is that, rather than partners selling BI as a standalone solution as in the past, we’re going to be talking to people who have already got Office 2013 or Office 365 and are looking to make the most of the BI features that come as part of that. The MS BI partner community is going to have to adjust to this because I doubt MS is going to change this strategy soon.
  • The same can be said of the Office 365-only strategy. If Microsoft is going to be successful with its cloud-first strategy then it’s going to have to prioritise cloud functionality over on-prem functionality. I think MS is doing the right thing with its cloud-first strategy, so therefore, even though I’m going to find it painful when I have to deal with customers that won’t or can’t move to Office 365, I can understand why MS is making Power BI Office 365 only. Beyond the hype (MS says that 1 in 4 of its customers is already on Office 365), it does seem like the uptake of Office 365 is quite strong, especially in SMBs, so hopefully there will be a large potential customer base.
  • I’ve been presenting sessions on the Excel 2013 BI stack at various user groups and conferences over the last few months and it’s gone down very well indeed. A lot of people have come up to me after seeing my session and said that they had been looking at QlikView and Tableau for BI, and would now consider Office 2013 as another alternative. The BI functionality on its own is pretty good, and good enough for a lot of customers even if it isn’t as mature as some of the competing offerings; the fact that the BI functionality comes baked into Office is the killer. While it may be expensive to upgrade to Office 2013/Office 365 this is a cost that many businesses will be considering anyway regardless of their BI requirements; you also have to compare this with the cost of QlikView and Tableau licenses and remember that not every user will need the most expensive SKUs of Office 2013.
  • The ability to refresh data in Excel workbooks deployed to Sharepoint Online, even when the data sources are on-prem, is a key feature and one that I’ve been waiting for. I wonder what the performance will be like?
  • For anyone of a certain age, the first reaction to the news of the natural language querying capability is two words: English Query. I haven’t played with it so I can’t pass judgement, but it’s going to have to be pretty impressive if anyone is going to use it for more than just sales demos. We shall see…
  • I am quite curious about the enterprise data search capabilities. Leaving aside the ability to query them in natural language, the ability to search for data across the enterprise will be useful. I think this is what happened to Project Barcelona.
  • Similarly, it seems as though this search capability is going to be significantly expanded on the public internet. At the moment, in Data Explorer Power Query we’ve seen the ability to query Wikipedia for data. Being able to query many other public data in the same way will be very powerful. There are a number of sites like Quandl that already make public datasets very easy to find and download, and the new search and query capabilities could leapfrog them.
  • No announcement on pricing has been made as yet. Please, please be ridiculously cheap!
  • We don’t have a date for the preview yet, but if you sign up here you’ll be notified when it’s available. It’s meant to be coming “later this summer”.

UPDATE: Some more things to add…

  • Something I didn’t pick up on at the time, but which emerged on Twitter later, is that PowerPivot has had a name change: it’s now Power Pivot with a space, to make it consistent with PowerV View and so on. This might seem minor, but for those of us who write books and have to sweat these details, it’s quite important!
  • I sense I’ve hurt a few feelings at MS with my comments on the natural language query. Let me be clear about my position here: I’ve not played with it, so I can’t pass judgement yet. I can imagine that natural language search for data will work well, but I will be very, very impressed if natural language query works well enough to be used on real data by real users. Real data is dirty and complex and user expectations will be very high and easily dashed. My guess is that the main issue will be that users can’t distinguish between what is a query and what is a calculation, and while the product can probably do queries well (eg “Show me the sales of widgets this year”) it may struggle with calculations (eg “Show me the customer churn by month this year”). But as I said, we shall see.

Finally, and as always, I reread this post this morning and worried that I sound too negative when in fact I’m very positive overall. To summarize:

  • The fact this is is all in Office and specifically Excel = the killer feature.
  • Mobile BI = good, even if it’s very late.
  • Power Query = very, very, very good indeed. I love it already and I think it’s going to be as big, if not bigger than Power Pivot. Power BI is worth buying for this alone.
  • Office 365 requirement = a problem for some customers, maybe, but understandable from Microsoft’s point of view.
  • Cloud requirement = again, a problem for some, but understandable and a big advantage for SMEs who can’t afford the cost of hardware and time to configure Sharepoint on-prem. The ability to refresh in the cloud from on-prem data sources is the key feature here.
  • Power Map = OK. Useful for customers who need geographic analysis, but it’s main use is that it’s great for demos (and this should not be underestimated – all products need some wow).
  • Power View goes HTML5 = relief. The Silverlight dependency undermined its credibility no end.
  • Natural language search for data sources = potentially very useful.
  • Natural language query of those data sources = see above. I remain to be convinced.
  • Data stewardship features = I haven’t seen enough of these to be able to comment.

More blog posts worth reading on this subject:

UPDATE #2: even more things to add…!

You can see the video of Amir’s demo from WPC here:

Some more details (which should be accurate) from a friend of mine at the conference:

  • The Power View standalone app is still Silverlight based, it’s only the mobile app that uses HTML5
  • Power Query queries can be shared between users via BI Sites, but the execution of these queries always takes place in desktop Excel. Queries will appear in searches when they’re published to a BI Site.
  • Excel workbooks connected to on-prem SSAS (Tabular and Multidimensional) will also be refreshable from a BI Site
  • Natural Language queries (what I think is being called “Q&A”) will also work against SSAS Tabular models. The Categorization property that’s in the Advanced tab in the PowerPivot window, and also in SSDT, is partly used to help Q&A do this.
  • External users can be given access to reports in BI Sites.
  • There will be a “Data Steward Portal” which will help you monitor who is doing what on your BI Site.
  • No comment on when this will arrive in Sharepoint on-prem. My feeling is that MS have no plans to do this at all, or maybe will only do it if a lot of people complain…?

51 responses

    • I’m not sure. I very strongly suspect that SSAS in Azure does mean what we’ve already got though – the ability to publish, interact with and refresh PowerPivot models in Sharepoint Online requires some kind of SSAS-in-the-cloud in the background to make this possible, so that could be what MS were promising when they talked about SSAS in Azure.

    • Chris, good posting with lot of good insights. I am interested in exploring Power Map / BI visualization web enabled with some kind of .net front end and also touch enabled to deliver it management.

      Instead of desktop Excel, which we will use for prototyping, it will be great to deliver it over the web?

      Touch enabled cross platform mobile will be great …

  1. Pingback: Power BI announced for Office 365 | Rich's Business Intelligence Blog

  2. Hei, Chris. Q&A is not an English Query:) Perhaps you could get into the TAP program and play with it.

    • I will get on the TAP and I promise I will blog about it! I really do want it to work and be cool, but knowing what I know about real world data, users and their queries, it’s going to have to be pretty damned cool for it to be any use at all. If a user can type a query and only find what they want in 20% if cases, no-one will use it at all. It will have to have a hit rate of >90% for that to happen.

      • One other thought: this is also a marketing failure. If you do a reveal like this without running a private beta beforehand, and make ambitious claims, you have to be prepared for a cynical reaction. Compare this with Power Map: most BI Pros don’t think it’s going to be very useful (unlike Power Query) but because we’d all played with it before it was announced at the BA Conference, we knew its strengths and weaknesses already and so the reaction was more tempered.

      • I was one of the unbelievers before:) I hope I’m not disclosing too much by saying that today we have much much higher relevance rate than 20% and still have work to do to reach >90%. There are multiple factors affecting accuracy of the results of course and we need to get lots of feedback to tune the system, but it’s getting better everyday.

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  7. Great post Chris. I would like to reference it in my own internal work blog. Your second point rings so true with us. We have been in the throws of a 2007 to 2010 upgrade forever. We are now pushing for the jump right to 2013. Seems like Office 365 is a distant dream, but perhaps that will be what sets us apart. Thanks for the thoughts.

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  10. Hasn’t Microsoft committed to Power BI on SharePoint?

    From the Office 365 blog “Customers using the Excel 2013 application can create BI reports with features like PowerPivot and Power View. We provide the option to either utilize their on premise SharePoint and SQL Server BI infrastructure, or they may choose the Power BI for Office 365 service for publishing and sharing their reports.”

    Also will this bring Power View access for Multidimensional?

      • Thus far Power View for Multidimensional only works in SharePoint and not in Excel. This scenario is far more important then on the SharePoint side.

        I’m not sure why the Power BI itself wouldn’t work on premise as Power Map and Power Query are client side products. I would assume that these will continue to be installable on enterprise professional pro downloads. Maybe I’m missing something but if I can put excel reports on SharePoint and install the client side controls why would I need Office 365.

      • Power View in Excel working with Multidimensional is unconnected with Power BI, as far as I know. I don’t know when it will be available though.

        Technically speaking, I don’t know of any reason why all the Power BI functionality couldn’t be made to work without Office 365. However I don’t think this is a technical decision – it’s a decision designed to get more people to move over to Office 365.

    • Hi Chris. I am not a BI consultant, but I have worked as a controller for SMBs for many years. In your fourth bullet point above regarding the Office 365-only strategy, you lament the fact that you “have to deal with customers that won’t or can’t move to Office 365.” My response would be that in most cases the money is available, businesses just need a compelling reason to upgrade. I think Microsoft is giving them some very good reasons to upgrade. I have a subscription to Office 365 that costs $12/month. Not sure if this is what most businesses pay for the product – it may be less – but I doubt that it’s more. Come on, $12/month? Seems like a pittance to get these capabilities.

      Perhaps there are some valid reasons for customers not being able to upgrade, but cost should not be one of them, at least for the core group of power users who will actually use the BI features.

      • Hi Arthur, as far as Office upgrades go money is usually only one of many reasons that organisations postpone them. More often it’s issues like compatibility with third party Excel addins and between different versions; the amount of retraining that users need (especially if they have only ever used an older, per-ribbon version); and the vast amount of time, effort and hassle for an already over stretched IT department. In general, the larger the organisation the bigger these problems and the more likely they are to be on older versions of Office – SMBs tend to be far more agile in this respect.

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  12. Well, the simple fact that this is cloud only will mean my organisation will never use it.
    Nothing else to say really.

  13. Great article,
    after seeing Amir’s video I found this blog and I truly think it is a must read for everyone dealing with Power Pivot.Is it ok if I share this site on linkedin?

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  16. We have just started exploring Power BI. The desktop access only is limiting, hope someday MS will provide a web option as well.

    We are able to visualize a chosen measure at the City/Zip level on a map. But when we try to show the actual location of entities (say buildings) with Lat/Long, the map does not show anything?

    How can we visualize at the actual Lat/Long location level?

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  18. Hi Chris
    Is there any looping examples in the Data explorer tutorial? I woukd like to pick up an ID from an ID column and extract facebook data based on each ID and append all data into a table. Any tips on this will be appreciated.

    • As far as I know, the only looping possible in Power Query (as Data Explorer is now called) is the looping that happens over rows in a table. My guess is that you’d need to do something like this:
      1) Create a function that goes to Facebook and fetches all the data you need for a single ID
      2) Call this function on every row of a table of IDs inside a new column; this will give you column of table values
      3) You should then be able to expand and merge all of these tables very easily by clicking on the double-down-arrow icon at the top of the column

    • Are you asking whether an Excel spreadsheet that contains a PivotTable connected to a Tabular model can be refreshed from a Power BI site? If so, the answer is no.

  19. Hi! Do you have some tutorial (step by step) about Microsoft’s BI? And above all about the new features about the abearance of this new BI?

  20. I am trying to use Power BI but stuck up in issue: there are 80 million records exist in single table having 8-10 columns. I try to load this data using Power Query but able to load only 2.5 million.
    I am using 64 bit machine with 32 GB RAM. I am having following queries:
    1) Is there any restriction on Number of Records. if not then what’s the solution to above problem.
    2) What’s the Excel file Size limit for Power BI.
    3) For Natural language query/reporting, end user need to know specific keywords or Column names.

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