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Thoughts On The Power BI Announcements At The MS Data Insights Summit

I’m not at the Microsoft Data Insights Summit, unfortunately, but I watched the live stream of the keynote today and was duly overwhelmed by the new features announced. I’m not going to summarise what was said because there’s already a post on the official Power BI blog that does that here:

https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/blog//over-5-million-subscribers-are-embracing-power-bi-for-modern-business-intelligence/

…but I wanted to pick out a two topics for more in-depth discussion.

Query Power BI Datasets from Excel

For me, by far, the biggest announcement made today was that by the end of this month we’ll be able to connect an Excel PivotTable up to a Power BI dataset and query it as if it was an Analysis Services cube or a local Power Pivot Data Model. In my opinion this a true killer feature. For the last few years my customers have asked me when MS was going to release SSAS in the cloud and I’ve always replied that Power BI is SSAS in the cloud – it’s just tightly coupled with a front-end right now. That makes things simple in some ways but it also causes problems:

  • You have to build your data model and reports all in the same file, which is a pain because when you want to update one you need to deploy both
  • Other report authors who want to use your model for their reports need to get hold of your .pbix file and edit it
  • Everyone has to use Power BI to build reports on data stored in Power BI

This move solves these problems. It makes manageability much easier: you can build a Data Model, publish it, then you and other developers can build reports on it separately. What’s more it means that all those users who prefer to use Excel, either because it’s the tool they are most comfortable with or because it’s the best option for building the reports they want to build (Excel has a lot of great functionality that Power BI reports don’t have right now and will probably never have), to build reports can do so without having to copy the data into Excel.

Even better, as Amir hinted, this isn’t going to just work with just Excel. If this works the way I assume it works you’ll be able to use all the other MDX-capable front-end tools out there, like SSRS or Pyramid, to query your Power BI data, meaning that you have even more choices for consuming data held in Power BI.

SandDance: A symbol of how MS is finally exploiting all of its assets

SandDance is undoubtedly a cool data visualisation tool and will be great for creating ‘wow’ demos. It’s also not, as the hype is suggesting, something new – I saw it on the Microsoft Research site at least two years ago. What is really important about SandDance is that it shows off another area that Microsoft has got right with Power BI: it has created a platform that other developers both inside and outside Microsoft has build on top of. In this case Microsoft Research had some eye-catching data visualisation technology but not something that made sense as a standalone tool (yes, I know it is actually available as a standalone tool but let’s face it, it wouldn’t make sense as a commercial product). Integrate this data visualisation technology with Power BI, though, and suddenly you’re part of a much richer product that is commercially viable. SandDance gets the chance to be used for real-world purposes by a lot more users; Power BI gets another great bit of functionality; it’s a win-win.

The ‘build a platform’ strategy is classic Microsoft. It’s the story of Windows. It has some disadvantages in that the different pieces might not always fit together as smoothly as it should (compare and contrast with Tableau, which could be seen as the Apple of the data visualisation world) but it gets useful, specialised features out there very quickly. Microsoft has a wealth of great technology scattered across its different divisions that, historically, it has struggled to bring together coherently, but it looks like Power BI is managing to buck the trend. The integration with Azure Stream Analytics and Azure SQL DW that exist today, the integration Power Apps that was demoed in the keynote, the use of machine learning in Quick Insights and the integration with Azure ML that I also saw mentioned on Twitter today, are other examples of this happening.

Microsoft also has a strong partner community in the BI space that did good business building solutions on the SQL Server BI stack; Power BI v1 did not offer the same opportunities and was neglected by partners as a result but Power BI today offers partners a lot more opportunities and so the they are back out there building and selling on Microsoft’s behalf again. It’s happening in the Custom Visuals Gallery , it’s happening with the Power BI API and apps like Power BI Tiles ,  and it’s going to happen in a lot of other ways in the future too.

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