12th Blog Birthday

Today is the 12th anniversary of the first post on this blog, and as in previous years I’m going to use this as an opportunity to sum up my thoughts over what’s been going on in my corner of the Microsoft BI world in the last twelve months.

Power BI

I think it’s fair to say that 2016 was the year that Power BI became the big commercial success that many of us hoped it would be. After the achingly slow uptake of Power Pivot and the failure of the original Office 365 Power BI it’s great to see Microsoft BI with a hit on its hands. Many of my existing customers have started using it alongside the rest of the SQL Server BI stack, especially SSAS, because it’s much easier to build reports and share them via the browser or mobile devices than with SSRS or Excel. I’ve also started working with new type of customer, one that I’ve never worked with before: small and medium organisations (including many not-for-profits) who have Office 365 but no existing BI solution, the kind of organisation that does not have the money or resources for a SQL Server BI solution or indeed any other kind of traditional BI solution. This, I believe, is where the real opportunity for Power BI lies and where the majority of the new growth will come from.

Apart from my own customers, there’s plenty of other evidence for the success of Power BI. The energy of the Power BI community, on forums and at user groups, is amazing – and once again, the people that I meet at user groups are completely different to the crowd you get at a normal SQL Server user group. The analysts love it too: for example, Microsoft is now in the Leaders section of the Gartner Magic Quadrant. There’s also the fact that competitors like Tableau have started attacking Power BI in their marketing, so I guess they must consider it a major threat.

Why has it been such a success? The underlying technology is great, but then again the technology was always great. The pace of change is incredible and it’s good to see Microsoft throwing its vast resources behind a product with some potential, rather than another Zune or Windows phone. There’s still some catching up to do but at this rate any existing gaps will have been closed by the end of 2017. The willingness to listen to customer feedback and act on it is refreshing. The Excel/Power Query/Power Pivot and SSAS crossover adds a angle that the competition doesn’t have. Finally, the licensing is almost perfect: it’s simple (compared to the usual thousands of SKUs that Microsoft usually comes up with) and cheap/free, although organisations with thousands of users who all need Pro subscriptions find the costs escalate rapidly; I’d like to see special deals for large numbers of users, and some recognition that many users who need to see Pro-level reports don’t need to create reports using these features. I know Microsoft has already heard this from a lot of people, though, and has taken it on board.

Probably the only criticism that I can make that Microsoft doesn’t seem to be actively addressing is the fact that the data visualisation functionality is relatively weak. If you know what you’re doing and you have the patience, you can create good-looking reports. For people like me who have minimal artistic talent and limited patience the experience of building reports can be frustrating. There are some features like small multiples that I can’t believe are still not implemented in the core product, and nothing to help users to follow good data visualisation practice. R visuals and custom visuals help fill the gap (I was quite impressed by this one by Business Solution Group, for example, which isn’t available in the gallery) but really Microsoft need to put some more thought into this area.

Analysis Services

There’s been a lot of good news in the world of Analysis Services this year too. SSAS Tabular 2016 dealt with a lot of the shortcomings that dogged it in 2012 and 2014: a much faster and less buggy development experience; many-to-many relationships supported using bi-directional cross filtering; and powerful new DAX functions and features like variables. SSAS Tabular v.next promises even more great new features such as the integration of the M language. These changes and the fact it’s now available in Standard Edition mean that Tabular should be the default choice over Multidimensional for almost all new SSAS projects.

Sadly, it looks like the neglect of Multidimensional will continue for the foreseeable future. I stopped being angry about this a long time ago and I understand that Microsoft need to concentrate their resources on SSAS Tabular and Power BI, but a lot of Multidimensional customers are now wondering where they stand. Either Microsoft needs to show some commitment to Multidimensional by adding new features – it wouldn’t take much to make a difference – or add features to Tabular that make it possible for more Multidimensional users to migrate over to it, for example equivalents to Scope statements or calculated members on non-Measures dimensions.

Last of all, Azure SSAS opens up a lot of exciting new possibilities for both on-prem SSAS users as well as Power BI users. Kasper does a great job of summing them up here and I won’t repeat what he has to say; once again I’m seeing a lot of interest from my customers and I’m sure I’ll be helping a few to migrate to the cloud very soon. The pricing seems a bit excessive at the moment, even when you take into account the ability to pause servers, and I hope it changes before RTM. Also it’s SSAS Tabular only at this stage but support for Multidimensional is by far the top-voted request on the feedback forum, with more than five times as many votes as the next highest request, so maybe this will be Microsoft’s opportunity to show some love to the Multidimensional world?

13 thoughts on “12th Blog Birthday

  1. Chris

    thanks for everything, your blog is really helpful,
    I am just little intrigued that you did not spoke about self service offering from Microsoft, I am referring to die hard self service, no server,nothing, just individual personal laptop, do you think Microsoft will ever position Power Bi desktop as solution by providing printing for example or it is out of question as it is potentially a competition to Excel/Access, or maybe we are just a niche market !!!!

    happy new year.

    • I don’t think it will ever do this (although I may be wrong). The way I see it, Power BI Desktop is just a report design tool. You use it to build reports that are then viewed in the browser or on mobile devices; you don’t give reports to users to view in Power BI Desktop. If that’s the case, adding features like printing to Power BI Desktop doesn’t make sense.

  2. Chris

    thanks, fair enough, but don’t you think Microsoft has client tool issue, for example for Azure SSAS, Excel is not really an option for all cases, no interactive fancy charts, Power BI desktop is throttled, the only option i see is third party software the like of tableau, or am I missing something ?

    • What about PowerBI.com? It can already act as a client for SSAS and Azure SSAS, works on any platform that has a browser, and has the printing functionality you need. The missing piece here is the “Get Data”/Power Query functionality that is available only in Power BI Desktop and not (yet?) in the browser.

      Of course you have to pay for a Pro subscription to connect to on-prem data sources from PowerBI.com but MS has to make its money somewhere.

  3. in my particular use case, i wished if we had something like a paid Power BI desktop Professional, something that serve a small department use, anything that require the IT department is not an option.

    I know that there are third parties offers like tableau and qlik, but honestly once you use PowerQuery and dax, you can not use anything else 🙂

    in my industry, Construction, we are slow to embrace new technology, I don’t know why, but definitely there are opportunities for self service BI, after all MS access is still very popular with us.

    sorry for the depressing tone 😦

      • Hi will

        the main two features in PowerBI.Com and Missing in the “pro” are

        1- printing.

        2- Analyze in Excel:

        it is possible to do it now, but using some workarounds, it will be nice that Microsoft clarify what they mean by third party in the license agreement, my understanding is that Excel is not a third party as it is a product of Microsoft, we don’t want official support, all we need is an official statement saying something like “it is not supported but you can do it at your own risk as long as it is in the same computer and only Microsoft product are allowed to access the PowerBI desktop Local SSAS server”

        – Now the Critical feature for a “pro” version will be the capability to generate a password protected pbix file, any PowerBI desktop user can open the file, but they can see only the reports not the data model, only a pro user with the correct password can unlock the file, so at least we can use pbix as a way to securely share reports.

        that’s all, you can make it as a subscription product, I think there is a market for that, all those “Power” Excel/Access/Proclarity/Tableau/Qlik users that want a pure self service solution, and can not use the cloud nor SSAS server

        I really appreciate that your replied to my comment, and I hope you guys listen to us.

  4. Hi Chirs, when you say “Tabular should be the default choice over Multidimensional for almost all new SSAS projects” can you explain why? Do you have some post on this? All the material I have read since tabular has been released I’m still left wondering why would I need to use it. We have been using MD for years and years, users are happy, our developers know MD, we can achieve almost everthing we want with MD. With regards to DEV time and query performance which are supposed to be benifits of tabular, i noticed no real difference in the small test I made when rebuilding one of our simple MD cubes in Tabular…coming from the MD world I really dont get the hype about this. What am I missing? In your opinion in the future (e.g. SQL2022/2024) you think both MD and Tabular will still exist?

    • I don’t have a post on this, so I agree I need to explain why I said this. First, notice that I said on all *new* projects. In your case, since you have a mature installation of SSAS and your devs have all the relevant skills, there’s no need to abandon SSAS MD right now. MD will exist for many years to come and be supported. However, I don’t expect it to ever get any more new features, whereas is getting lots of new features. So today if you are starting a new project and MD and Tabular can both deliver what you need for your first release (and I think that, today, around 80% of SSAS projects could be handled equally well by MD or Tabular), which do you choose? Obviously you will choose Tabular because that’s the platform that will get new features in the future.

  5. thanks for your reply. so I take from your reply, we should think about tabular for new projects, not because it’s better than MD right now (especially if we can achieve the same in both technologies), but because it’s going to be more supported in releases to come and will eventually surpass MD in terms of features and support… so why not adopt tabular earlier than later

  6. As you point out, Chris, adding Calculated Members (on non-measures dimensions) to Tabular would be a huge in putting it more on a par with MD. Adding Scope statements would be the icing on the cake.

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