Microsoft Power BI – A new stone in the game

In BIGDATAPUMP, we have had two main BI visualization tool families in most active use in our customer projects: Qlik products and Tableau. However, also Microsoft’s Power BI started to look really promising, and in February it ranked really well in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence and Analytics Platforms. Learning more of Power BI was a quick and straight forward process, and we have used it in some customer projects.

A quick glance at the product

Power BI contains two main parts for basic users:

Power BI Desktop for local report development and usage, and

PowerBI.com website, which works as a server.

 

Develop

A dashboard can be done from scratch in PowerBI.com, but the desktop application provides much more options and is more user friendly environment for development process. Desktop application has really capable data editing options provided by PowerQuery.

The desktop application works like Qlik Sense or Tableau: A self-service tool, on which you can create data connections, build reports and logics. Desktop files can be shared as any regular files.

 

Publish, Read and Share

One way to publish reports is to publish them through desktop application to PowerBI.com.  Reports which are in PowerBI.com, can be accessed via Internet from anywhere by logging in with Microsoft credentials. To access reports and dashboards, user can choose between usage of web-view or mobile applications.

The Web view is located at Powerbi.com, and the view for basic report user consists of two main parts: dashboards-view and reports-view. In user's point of view, dashboard-view is most suitable for outlining the current state of the issue. From the report, user can pin all relevant elements to dashboard-level. Hence the dashboard is a combination of elements, which are pinned from one or multiple reports.

Created dashboards can be shared through PowerBI.com. Access is defined by email-addresses, and the recipient receives a link from which (s)he can click to open the web view where the report is located.

 

Licensing

Power BI is offered as a free product for usage. However, free license has limitations compared to Power BI Pro, which has a small monthly fee. Comparison of free and purchased license capabilities can be read here. In our experience, the major advantages of purchased license are data refresh capabilities, usage of data from direct query datasets, data gateways and group workspaces.

The best capabilities of Power BI

The best capabilities of Power BI in our opinion are:

  • Good integration possibilities to Azure and other data sources
  • Possibility to create brand-like appearance to dashboards by using Power BI Desktop (Extensibility with web-based development gives even more possibilities)
  • Low threshold for new customers: Microsoft’s brand is familiar to the most people, and Power BI’s starting expenses are really low compared to few other BI vendors. A lot can be done even with the free version of Power BI.
  • If Office 365 account is already in use in the organization, creation of separate users for BI environment is not necessary, because Power BI uses Office 365 account credentials that can be managed through Office 365 admin center.
  • As you may guess, Power BI works well with Microsoft Office tools.
  • Power BI has admirably frequent update schedule
  • Possibility to create user groups and use row-level security in PowerBI.com
  • Power BI has good cooperation capabilities inside PowerBI.com website, and dashboards can be easily shared to other users and readers
  • One of the best thing in Power BI, is its support for mobile devices. Microsoft provides mobile applications for iOS, Android and Windows phones for free. PowerBI.com also has quite mobile friendly responsive design. iOS and Android applications even have well offline capabilities.

A few things to improve

  • Data refresh can be easily adjusted in PowerBI.com (refresh for example in every hour). The refresh schedule possibilities vary based on used data sources.  In some cases, we have encountered some limitations as we would have needed more scheduling possibilities and options to use.
  • Real-time data can only be achieved by using Azure streaming capabilities, or by using custom REST API. Even more effortless real-time data capabilities would be a great way to stand out from other BI vendors.
  • It would be great to have more visualization types available by default. Also adjustment possibilities of basic visualizations are quite limited.
  • On the other hand, Microsoft has great charts as custom visualizations shared in Power BI’s website. New Power BI ideas can be shared and voted in Power BI’s forums.  
  • Every now and then we encounter some bugs in PowerBI.com website and in the desktop application. As a new product, Power BI isn’t as stabile product as for example Tableau or Qlik.

Power BI’s project usage capabilities

One of our success stories is analytics automation project which contained solution architecture development and implementation in cooperation with our sensor partner.

The target of the project was to automate collection of a bioenergy provider’s current and future production and consumption data for one facility. One of our goals was to develop a scorecard that is easily customized to fit customer’s needs and it should be exploitable in other facilities as well.

Overall, the project closed with great results and the developed dashboard provides a user-friendly visual interface for customer to analyze data in. Project’s database development and implementation was made with Microsoft Azure and the dashboard framework and visual appearance was achieved by using Microsoft Power BI.

If you need a reporting service for your company’s internal use, Power BI is a great tool to consider. For report development for external users in your own environment, Power BI embedded is a tool that is worth checking out.

We will gladly share more of our thoughts and experiences about the product and how it performs in project usage!

Final thoughts

Power BI is a great addition to the business intelligence toolkit, and even more options can be offered to the customers based on their needs. Power BI, as a tool, has developed a great deal from the early versions thanks to the monthly updates and Microsoft’s active product development. 

We will look forward to how the BI products develop in the future, and how fierce competition it will be among them. Power BI’s monthly update will be out in a few days, and also Qlik Sense is publishing the newest version 3.0 soon. Also Tableau has some major news: Tableau 10 beta is being tested, and the final version that looks really promising, has a “Coming soon” status on.  

We are living really exciting and inspirational times!