There has been another flurry of Power BI announcements in the last few days in preparation for RTM on July 24th; you can read about them here if you haven’t already. There’s no point me repeating them all, but in amongst the major features announced there was one thing that I thought was worth highlighting and which could easily get overlooked. It is that by RTM the Power BI Desktop app will be able to connect direct to SSAS Tabular – that’s to say, you will be able to use it as a client tool for SSAS Tabular in the same way you can use Excel and any number of third party products.
The Power BI Desktop app was previously known as the Power BI Designer – the name change was a wise move, because it is in fact a full featured desktop BI tool in itself, and not just a ‘designer’ for the cloud based Power BI service. It is a free download and you can use it without any kind of Power BI subscription at all. Therefore even if you are a traditional corporate BI shop that uses SSAS Tabular and you aren’t interested in any kind of self-service BI at all, you could use it just as a client for SSAS and forget about its other capabilities.
Why would you want to do this though? More specifically, why use Power BI Desktop rather than Excel, which is of course the default client tool for SSAS? I’m a big fan of using Excel in combinations with SSAS (pretty much everything Rob Collie says here about Excel and Power Pivot also applies to Excel and SSAS – for the vast majority of users, for real work, Excel will always be the tool of choice for anything data related), but its data visualisation capabilities fall well short of the competition. While you can do some impressive things in Excel, it generally requires a lot of effort on the part of the user to build a dashboard or report that looks good. On the other hand, with Power BI Desktop it’s much easier to create something visually arresting quickly, and with the new open-source data visualisation strategy it seems like we’ll be able to use lots of really cool charts and visualisations in the future. Therefore:
- Showing off the capabilities of Power BI Desktop will make selling a SSAS Tabular-based solution much easier, because those visualisations will make a much better first impression on users, even if they do end up using Excel for most of their work.
- Less capable users, or those without existing Excel skills, will appreciate the simplicity of Power BI Desktop compared to Excel as a client tool.
- Some users will need those advanced data visualisation capabilities if they are building reports and dashboards for other people – especially if those people expect to see something flashy and beautiful rather than a typically unexciting, practical Excel report.
- If your users are stuck on Excel 2007 (or an earlier version) and aren’t likely to upgrade soon, giving them the Power BI Desktop app instead will give them access to a modern BI tool. Excel 2007 is an OK client for SSAS but is missing some features, notably slicers, that Excel 2010 and 2013 have and that are also present in Power BI Desktop.
- Similarly, if your users are expecting to do a mixture of corporate BI using SSAS Tabular as a data source, and self-service BI, but face the usual problems with Excel versions, editions and bitness that prevent them from using the power-add-ins in Excel, then standardising on Power BI Desktop instead could make sense.
- If you do have a Power BI subscription and can work with the requirements for setting up direct connection from PowerBI.com to an on-prem SSAS Tabular instance, then publishing from Power BI Desktop to PowerBI.com will be very easy. If you need to see reports and dashboards in a browser or on a mobile device, it could be a more attractive option than going down the Excel->SharePoint/Excel Services or Excel->OneDrive->PowerBI.com route.
In short, I don’t see Power BI Desktop as a replacement for Excel as a SSAS Tabular client tool but as a useful companion to it.
The last question that needs to be asked here is: what does this mean for third party SSAS client tool vendors like Pyramid Analytics and XLCubed? I don’t think these companies have too much to worry about, to be honest. These vendors have been competing with a less feature-rich, but effectively free, Microsoft option for a long time now. While Power BI Desktop erodes their advantage to a certain extent, they have a lot of other features besides visualisations that Microsoft will never probably provide and which justify their price. Besides that, the fact that Power BI doesn’t support direct connections to SSAS Multidimensional (yet…? ever…?) excludes at least 80% of the SSAS installations out there.