An in-depth look at Microsoft's BI and Analytics Products

Sep 28, 2016 8:47:36 PM / by David Hickman

The purpose of Business Intelligence (BI) is to take fast moving operational data, clean it, enrich it, and model it for fast, logical and insightful analysis. When implemented correctly, BI can help decision makers get to the right data at the right time.

What could go wrong?

abundant_data.jpegBusinesses are deluged by tremendous volumes of data, and are just beginning to understand the tools to access and make use of the data at scale. The marketplace is filled with niche tools pieced together in an attempt to deliver a full solution. 

We decided to take an in depth look at modern business intelligence (BI), which is growing and changing quickly. We’ll start with Microsoft’s offerings, from Office 365 on one end of the spectrum to Cortana Analytics Suite on the other.


Part 1: Data Exploration and Visualization

Self-service data preparation tools are exploding in popularity due to the shift toward business user-generated data discovery tools that reduce time to analyze data. Microsoft Power BI, for example, gives enterprises the ability to connect to and discover insight from multiple data sources – some of which may be disparate from a wide range of sources.  

What is Power BI?

Power BI is a suite of business analytics tools used to analyze data and share insights. Power BI dashboards provide a 360-degree view for business users with their most important metrics in one place, updated in real time, and available on all of their devices. With one click, users can explore the data behind their dashboard using intuitive tools that make finding answers easy.

Creating a dashboard is simple thanks to over 50 connections to popular business applications, complete with pre-built dashboards crafted by experts that help you get up and running quickly. Data and reports can be accessed from anywhere with the Power BI Mobile apps, which update automatically with any changes to your data.

Data analysts use Power BI Desktop’s  feature-rich data mashup and report authoring tool to combine data from disparate data sources, files, and web services with visual tools,  where data quality and formatting issues can be fixed automatically 

With the Power BI service, you can publish reports securely to share with your organization and setup automatic data refreshes so everyone has the latest information. 

Power BI can unify all of your organization’s data, whether in the cloud or on-premises. Additionally, using the Power BI gateways, you can securely connect on-premise SQL Server databases, and many other data sources to your same dashboards. 

What is Power BI Embedded?

Power BI Embedded is a new Azure service that provides fully interactive and always-up-to-date data visualizations in customer-facing apps, without the time and expense of having to build them from the ground up.  Developers can choose from Power BI’s out-of-the box visuals, or build custom ones to meet their application’s unique needs:

  • Extend Power BI with content packs and custom visuals. Give your users instant insights with Power BI content packs. Create customized solutions that enable millions of users to analyze your app’s data in seconds from within Power BI.
  • Create custom visual experiences that meet your users’ needs and match your app’s design. Get started quickly with Microsoft’s open-sourced, production-quality visualization code in GitHub.
  • Connect to Power BI within your app. Embedded’s powerful REST APIs enable users to easily pull tiles, dashboards, and reports directly into your app, make changes, and then push data back into Power BI, all without ever leaving your application. Pricing if very affordable for this service as well starting out with free use and migrating up to a $.05 session cost (a session is approximately 1 hour of use).

Power BI’s new and updated features

Power BI’s new features focus on 3 things:

  1. Enterprise readiness: Role level security for cloud models means that users can now better understand their overall Power BI usage, and author and manage a single dashboard with customized reports which show only the data that the user has been provisioned to see.    The row-level security filter may come through the PowerBI Service, or through a pass-through parameter feature if this security model is stored in the underlying data set.
  2. Deepened integration with Excel: Also now Generally Available is the ability to pin from Excel. This enables access to data that was loaded and modeled in Power PI, and means that insights can be taken directly from the Excel desktop to Power BI Dashboard.
  3. Intelligent data exploration: As part of the new features a new natural Q & A language interface will also be available to make the service easier to use. New Query capabilities that help users find data and create visuals on the fly can now be used with direct query.

7 reason Menlo is betting on Power BI

  1. Power BI is a part of the Microsoft Data Platform that allows you to implement versatile solutions and use Power BI as a presentation layer. You can:
  • Implement a dashboard from real-time, IOT data streams. Azure Stream Analytics and IoT integrates with Power BI.
  • Show reports on the desktop from natural questions. Cortana lets you do it by typing questions or accessing via voice commands..
  • Implement smart reports with predicted results. Power BI can integrate with Azure Machine Learning
  • Publish SSRS and Excel reports. Expect this strength to increase as Cortana Analytics Suite and prepackaged solutions evolve.
  1. Power BI Desktop is free, Power BI Mobile apps are free, Power BI Service is mostly free. If you need the Power BI Pro features, Power BI is packaged with the Office 365 E5 plan. 
  1. Power BI is a cloud service, allowing Microsoft to push out new features much faster than other Business Intelligence Platforms. Power BI Service is updated on a weekly basis while Power BI Desktop is on a monthly release cadence.
  1. Content packs and Get Data: Basic data analytics needs can be met in Power BI without modeling. For example, if the user is interested in analyzing data from Salesforce, they can use the Salesforce content pack and get predefined reports and dashboards. The user can also create their own reports from the dataset included in the content pack. 
  1. Productivity features: Power BI has several features that resonate very well with business users. Q&A allows users to ask natural questions, such as “sales last year by country”. Power BI interprets the question and shows the most suitable visualization which the user can change if needed.  
  1. Data shaping and transformations: Source data is rarely clean. Excel Power Query and Power BI Desktop queries allow the data analysts to perform a variety of basic and advanced data transformations.
  1. Sophisticated data models: Power BI offers much more advanced modeling experience where a data analyst can build a self-service model on a par with semantic models implemented by BI pros. Powerful programming language with Data Analysis Expressions (DAX) allows for greater transformation and modeling.   Additionally, integration with R will help with more complex correlation analysis and other statiscial modeling.

Menlo Technologies is using Power BI to leverage our Twitter Account for Marketing purposes.

   Menlo Technologies on     AWS and Azure Read the interview

 Next in the series:

Mobile BI with SQL Server 2016

Topics: Power BI, Microsoft, Modern Business Intelligence

David Hickman

Written by David Hickman

David Hickman is Menlo's VP of Global Engineering and Delivery. He has more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry, guiding cross-functional teams in the design and launch of complex technology and infrastructure solutions to meet global business, logistics, and financial needs.

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