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2/10/2014
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Microsoft Debuts Cloud-Based Power BI

Microsoft takes a new stab at broad data access and self-service business intelligence through Office 365 and Excel.

Microsoft is thinking big with Monday's release of Power BI, a cloud-based suite of data access, data management, and data analysis tools delivered through its cloud-based Office 365 platform and tied, inevitably, to its ubiquitous Excel spreadsheet.

Available in beta release since last summer, Power BI delivers new Power Query and Power Map capabilities for exploring, combining, and analyzing data through Microsoft's cloud-based Office 365. This cloud-based platform is where IT types can expose corporate data sources, trusting that Office 365 has all the access rights and privileges locked down. But the cloud also offers access to a wide world of public data sources, including an Azure data market and Bing maps for geospatial analysis.

Power BI's cloud connection simplifies access to a world of data sources, according to Microsoft. Users can conduct their analyses in Excel, using now-familiar plugin capabilities such as PowerPivot (for fast in-memory analysis across vast data sets) and Power View (for visual data analysis). Once new charts, graphs, dashboards, and other visualizations and analyses are completed, they can be published on new BI Sites on Office 365, where organizations can foster broad, cloud-based collaboration with the assurance of having pre-established access and security controls for that environment.

[Want the scoop on Microsoft's latest C-Suite power move? Read Nadella, Gates: Right Team For Microsoft?]

Power BI is Microsoft's latest attempt at democratizing business intelligence -- something it has been attempting for more than 10 years with Microsoft Business Intelligence, which is the combination of Microsoft SQL Server, SharePoint, and Excel. This software is more broadly deployed than any discrete business intelligence suite, but that doesn't mean it's easy to use. Organizations not only need to keep up with the latest versions of SQL Server, SharePoint, and Excel (and its various plugins), but they also must keep up with end-user requests for access to data and, inevitably, data integrations, reports, and analyses that are too difficult, despite Microsoft's "self-service" tools.

"With Power BI, you don't have to do anything [on the backend], because Microsoft has done it for you," Cindi Howson, an independent analyst at BI Scorecard, told us. "Users can connect to on-premises data sources with a logon, and you don't have to have a central IT person create a metadata layer."

Power BI is aimed at making Office 365 a richer, more enterprise-compelling environment than the Google Apps Suite, on the one hand, and as easy a self-service option as the fast-growing Tableau Software on the other, according to Howson. She cites features such as Power Q&A, a new natural-language query function.

A Power Map data visualization powered by Bing mapping information.
A Power Map data visualization powered by Bing mapping information.

"It's more than just the ability to ask questions in English [instead of SQL], because it actually comes back with an interactive visualization," Howson said. "If I ask for 'top skiers in the Olympics,' it will suggest 'by country,' but it will also offer tabbed options to show other dimensions or to view the data on a [Bing] map."

Power Query gives users a powerful tool in which users can explore, clean up, and integrate data from internal sources, such as SQL Server and HD Insight, Microsoft's on-premises or Azure-based Hadoop offering, as well as desktop and external sources. The downside, according to Howson, is that there are overlaps with the PowerPivot and Power View interfaces. What's more, the freedom to model data as you like in Power Query needs to be balanced against the risk of inconsistent uses of data. "If users are doing all these one-off models, companies shouldn't be assuming that that replaces an enterprise semantic model, which ensures reusability and consistency."

Freedom and corporate control have long had a yin-yang relationship where business intelligence is concerned, but Microsoft is counting on the appeal of both to the hundreds of thousands of organizations said to be using Office 365. There have been plenty of cloud-based BI options to date, but few have caught on, because they presented "new island in the cloud" said Quentin Clark, corporate vice president of Microsoft's data platform group.

"People don't have to go and learn about how to use Office 365, and they don't have to ask IT to provision it," he said. "They don't have to copy and paste or expert and upload their data. Microsoft is there on-premises and in the cloud, and we can auto provision and bring users into this world without having to leave the existing data and infrastructure behind."

Power BI starts at $20 per user per month for an extension subscription for those already using Office 365. The top-of-the-line ProPlus offering is $54 per user per month and includes subscription-based licensing of the latest version of Excel with Power Query, Power Map, and data-visualization capabilities.

As web-based integration wins, it's dawning on enterprises that they need a more sophisticated API strategy. Find out how to get there. Also in this issue: 3 Techs That Depend On AI. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will be key to building exciting, compelling products and services.

Doug Henschen is Executive Editor of InformationWeek, where he covers the intersection of enterprise applications with information management, business intelligence, big data and analytics. He previously served as editor in chief of Intelligent Enterprise, editor in chief of ... View Full Bio

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 12:40:19 PM
Power BI And?
Doug, do you envision most companies using this in concert with SharePoint -- or will this offer a way for many users to get the job done without SharePoint?
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 1:04:14 PM
Excel hell in the cloud?
BI evangelists have been warning us about "Excel hell" forever. So is this just going to be Excel hell in the cloud? Or is this a simpler way to do BI?
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 1:12:38 PM
BI Sites are akin to SharePoint Sites
SharePoint is part of the Office 365 experience, and BI Sites make use core SharePoint site-creation capabilities, but embedded within the confines of Power BI. That way you don't have to go off to a separate environment. These are Web-based collaboration spaces in the context of data analysis.

 
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 1:27:25 PM
Re: Excel hell in the cloud?
Corporate collaborators presumably start with controlled data from the corporate data warehouse, and there are ways to keep that data up-to-data after it's embedded in a data analysis. That said, Howson's warning in this story is that Power BI gives users the liberty to mashup data and create one-off data models that might drift from the single source of corporate truth. Microsoft has erred on the side of access and ease of use. Excel is always treated as Microsoft's ace in the hole, so like it or not, customers will have to live witht he consequences of that freedom, attempting to use IT controls and data update features to prevent multiple versions of the truth. 

The flip side for other tools is that they don't enjoy ubiquitous understanding and acceptance. And as Microsoft points out, the first thing many rivals build into third-party BI environments is tools for exporting and uploading data sets to Excel. Users inevitably want to take the analysis further.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2014 | 1:42:39 PM
Re: Excel hell in the cloud?
Not sure I completely understand the technical aspects of this. Most Corp databases sit behind a firewall/proxy server. As someone who makes frequent use of Excel as the presentation layer, connecting by ODBC (or something like that) to database, it is going to take some real work to get this to work across a proxy/firewall. And few Corps are willing to open ports/protocols to do stuff like this.

You'd have to create some kind of web service to return the data, and quite possibly put up reverse proxy to use the web service. You would not be fetching this data with simple ODBC connection string like you do internally.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 3:30:52 PM
Connectivity is covered
Any company that is used to working with Office 365 has already crossed the bridge of linking on-premises assets and data sources to the cloud. This starts with the move of Exchange and email to the cloud. Microsoft has a battery of common tools for managing both on-premises and Azure cloud-based capabilites. These include Microsoft System Center for administrative control and Active Directory for access control and security. In short, if they're working with Office 365 and Sharepoint Online, IT knows how to make a database and others assets accessible on Azure and through Power BI.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
2/10/2014 | 8:54:21 PM
Microsoft cloud offerings benefit existing customers....
Power BI illustrates Microsoft's problem in the cloud. It ties together three things that customers are already familiar with, Power Point, SQL Server and Excel. and opens avenues of collaboration. Those already knowledgeable in the Microsoft product line will benefit. Those who are not, will probably be happier with the tools they're using that originated in the cloud, such as Amazon's Red Shift, Amazon RDS and DynamoDB. Microsoft is carrying existing customers to the cloud. But can it lure new customers away from their existing cloud services? Not this way, I don't think.
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
2/11/2014 | 10:18:04 AM
Re: Connectivity is covered
Interesting statement, Doug. I am IT, I write extranet web applications, and it's not clear to me. I'm sure you can set something up to DUPLICATE your database to a cloud database so it can be accessed. But good luck taking your SAP system database running on private internal network and linking it to this. Someone has grossly oversimplified this to you, it is not trivial. If IT has ability to do all this, why pay rent when they can run their own BI solution on the resources they already have?

Using Sharepoint Online comes in many flavors. How many people are paying for the Enterprise version with all these advanced tools versus the basic Sharepoint you get with the free version? I couldn't even afford to BUY the Enterprise licenses for our inhouse install, much less pay lifetime rent in Sharepoint Online.

I suspect users of Office 365 and Sharepoint Online don't have sophisticated inhouse ERP systems to link to. I'd be interested in seeing an article from you guys on what exactly is going on out there in this world.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
2/11/2014 | 7:06:40 PM
Re: the realities of Power BI today
The story only discussed exposing corporate databases/source to Power BI environment. It did not discuss the blending of on-premises Microsoft BI systems/assets with Power BI in the cloud. The price difference between the Excel-inclusive ProPlus version of PowerBI and the non-Excel-inclusive (Standalone) versions of Power BI is $168, not $500. Finally, I'd point out that Cindi Howson, an analyst, was quoted withing this article as critical of the overlaps among the various interfaces. She also pointed out the lack of an enterprise data model.

Otherwise, you have lots of good questions here, though many are about the status of on-premises products from Microsoft, which this story did not cover. I'm going to ask Microsoft to respond to the specifics on Power BI capabilities on Power Pivot and Power View that you point out -- and perhaps they'll have more to say about your other comments.
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