Power BI – What Is It, And Why Does It Matter?

Power BI for Office365 was first shown to the public last week at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference. Power BI is in my opinion, the most significance advance that Microsoft has made in the area of Business Intelligence in the cloud, and it significantly advances their offering in personal Business Intelligence. I’ve been evangelizing Microsoft’s recent personal and team BI features for some time now, and this announcement builds on that momentum. The demonstration raised a lot of eyebrows, and showed off some of the great strides that Microsoft has made in this space. One little gem in there that was easy to miss was the fact that we got our first glimpse at the HTML 5 version of PowerView – at least the renderer. It also raised a number of questions as to how it works and what will be necessary to get it working optimally. I had the opportunity to speak with a project manager and managed to answer a few of these questions. This post is attempt to explain what this product is all about.

Overview

Firstly, if you haven’t already seen it, you need to see the demonstration that was done by Amir Netz during the Day 1 keynote. It’s really one of the most compelling demos that I’ve ever seen. I include it below.

Amir Netz Announces Power BI at WPC 2013

 

Microsoft has provided a web page to describe the product and let you sign up for a preview. It also contains links to download some of the constituent parts, but it doesn’t necessarily do a great job of explaining exactly what you’re signing up for, or what these downloads are for.

To start with, Power BI requires Excel 2013. This is because all of the constituent components rely on the xVelocity (PowerPivot) engine that is included with Excel 2013. Make no mistake, as far as Microsoft is concerned, the future of multi-dimensional analysis is with the xVelocity in-memory engine. This engine isn’t new – it’s what powers Power Pivot (note the space between the words Power and Pivot… that’s also new).

The “Power” branding I think is encouraging as well. The business intelligence offerings from marketing have been confusing to say the least. Check out this handy “quick reference guide” if you don’t quite understand what I mean. There’s a very large assortment of tools that come from two different product groups (even after the reorg) and it can be difficult and confusing to navigate. Marketing hasn’t made this any easier in the past, but the consistent “Power” prefix I think goes some way to remedying this.

Power BI itself is the culmination of several different projects – Data Explorer, GeoFlow, BI Sites, and work in the mobility space. The first two of these have been in the public for a little while now, and were given their release names this week – Power Query, and Power Maps respectively. In addition, Power Query reached its General Availability milestone, making it acceptable for production use. The BI Sites project has been a very well-kept secret, and last week was the first time that it has been seen in public. Finally apps were shown for both Windows 8 and iOS that should go a long way to address the deficiencies in the mobile space. Unfortunately, nothing was said about Android or Windows Phone, but I have to think that they’re not far off.

Given that there are several components to Power BI, I think that it’s worth outlining each one and how it will be used. To start with, Power Query can be used to discover, acquire and transform source data and load it into an xVelocity based data model in Excel. It can also register the data connections through a “data steward” service that will reside in Office 365 – this will allow for tenant wide discoverability of the data. Power Pivot will then be used as necessary to modify the model, create calculated measures, format columns, etc. Data analysis can then be performed in Excel, using pivot tables, charts and/or Power View. In addition Power Map can be used to visualize geospatial data on a rotatable, zoomable 3D map. Once ready, the workbook will be published to an Office 365 document library, where a BI site will find it. BI sites can then be used to perform natural (English) language queries on the data, add to the mobile applications, and to schedule data refreshes whether the data is public or private. Finally, the mobile apps can be used to consume the reports from the BI Site.

Power Query

Power Query went into general release last week along with the Power BI announcement, and you can download it here. It has been available in preview form as project “Data Explorer”. It’s an add in to Excel 2010 or 2013 that gives it Extract, Transform and Load (ETL) capabilities. I like to call it the personal version of SQL Server Integration Services, in the same way that Power Pivot is the personal version of Analysis Services, and Power View (to a lesser extent) is the personal version of Reporting Services.

As you might expect, it can pull data from a wide variety of sources. Web pages can be parsed, and tables scraped to provide tabular data. The usual suspects are all supported (SQL Server, Oracle DB2, etc.), as well as any OData feed, Azure Data Market, SharePoint lists, Hadoop and HDInsight, Active Directory, and Facebook. One of the more interesting data sources is a folder (not a file). If you point Power Query at a folder, it will merge the data from all of the files in that folder into a single result. Refreshes will pick up any new files as new data. I can see some real uses here for log files. Yes, the files do all need to be the same schema.

The killer feature for discovery here is the online search. In preview, online search gave you access to all of the Wikipedia data that has been expressed in tables. Now however, you not only have access to more public data sources, but you can publish your own data sources (on premises or otherwise) to a catalogue that resides in Office 365. Below is a screen shot from Amir’s demo.

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Clicking on Online Search in the ribbon brings up the window on the right, where you can enter a search term, in this case “Microsoft Azure Datacenters”. You are then presented with a list of candidates, both public and private. Hovering over one of them will give you a preview of the data to be returned, and when satisfied, you can select Add to Worksheet, or if you would like to transform the data click Filter and shape, where you can modify data types, flatten relational data, merge or split fields, etc. Despite the “Add to  Worksheet” button name, the data can be loaded into the worksheet itself, the back end data model, or both. This distinction is  very important when working with very large data sets ( i.e. > 1million rows).

You can also see from the result set that the data is coming not only from Wikipedia sources, but from the Azure Data Market, and from On premises data sources. What the demo didn’t make clear was how those data sources get into the catalogue. Power Query is the answer here as well. When BI Sites are implemented in Office 365, Power Query will expose some additional UI elements. that will let you publish the query and transform that you have built into the enterprise catalogue. In fact, when you look closely at Amir’s demo screen, you will see these elements.

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These don’t show up on a standard Power Query install

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The transformation capabilities of Power Query are really quite impressive, but a detailed description is beyond the scope of this post. They can be seen in the version available for download. As an aside, models built with Power Pivot can be moved directly into Analysis Services. Given the relationship that I mentioned above between Power Query and Integration Services, I wonder if it’s on the roadmap to allow Power Queries to be brought in to SSIS. On the surface, it would seem to make sense, at least from where I’m standing.

Power Map

Power Map is the other component that’s available today, although as of this writing, it’s still in preview form. You can download it from here. Unlike Power Query, Power Map requires Excel 2013 – it won’t run on 2010 at all. Power Map has been available since last fall in the form of a preview as code name “Geo Flow”. It didn’t make it to the main stage in the announcement, but it’s a pretty impressive piece of technology.

What Power Map does is allow you to take a data model built with Excel and/or Power Pivot, and plot the data on the surface of a 3D map. The map can then be rotated and zoomed, and animations created around different views or time dimensions of the data. It wasn’t shown at the announcement last week, but below is a Power Map visualization of Hurricane Sandy data.

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This was put together simply by plotting the location of the measurements, the pressure on one layer as a heat map, and the wind speed on another layer as columns. Storm category was used as the category to color the columns appropriately.

There are a number of limitations to Power Map currently, the big one is that it doesn’t yet work at all in SharePoint – it’s Excel only (and not Excel Web App). Given that fact, it’s really just a sort of one off visualization/presentation tool, no matter how cool it is. However, we did just see our first glimpse of an HTML 5 Power View viewer… could an HTML 5 Power Map viewer be far behind?

BI Sites

To my mind, BI Sites is the most exciting part of Power BI. Here is where we find the most significant advances yet in both Microsoft’s mobile and cloud BI strategy. Until now, the cloud strategy was hampered completely by the inability to keep data refreshed automatically, and mobile devices could settle only for mobile web approaches. With BI sites, we see not only a great first step into these areas, but a solid infrastructure to expand upon. Unfortunately, at the point of this writing, it’s not available. You can however sign up for the preview program here.

BI Sites is a SharePoint App, pure and simple. This fact was not even mentioned during the announcement, but I feel that it’s vitally important to understanding how it works, and what its limitations are. Once created, the app reads Excel content from your Office 365 tenant, and provides a great number of features. Let’s quickly run through a few of these features.

Data Refresh

The Achilles heel of using Office 365, at least for me, has been the inability to schedule data refreshes. The latest 2013 wave brought support for interacting with PowerPivot enabled workbooks, which was great, but data refreshes had to be done manually, and the results re-uploaded. On premises, PowerPivot for SharePoint can be used to perform this function, but PowerPivot for SharePoint is not available in Office 365. Since the data can exist both on premises, or in the public, how does a cloud based service refresh data from inside your firewall?

The answer is that you will install a service, a sort of “data gateway” somewhere in your environment. This gateway will manage the refresh of all the on premises data sources and push updates out to Office 365, NOT the other way around. This will not require any firewall configuration, and will not depend on App Fabric, or any other relatively complex infrastructure.

Once configured, the automatic refresh each individual workbook can be configured separately, as can be seen below.

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Report Gallery

One of the things that you notice when you enable PowerPivot for SharePoint is a new library template, the “PowerPivot Gallery”. When you use this template, you will notice that you get a completely different UI for the library that is Silverlight based, and gives you previews, and access to data refresh capabilities. This is again absent in Office 365 due to the lack of PowerPivot for SharePoint. However BI Sites, gives you the same functionality, in a (presumably) HTML 5 based experience.

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HTML 5

Power View is a self-service analytical reporting tool that was first introduced in SQL Server 2012 Reporting Services, and subsequently added to Excel 2013. It allows users to quickly analyze data from an embedded model, and is supported within SharePoint. It’s a great tool to get answers very quickly, but one of the concerns with it is the fact that is built with Silverlight. This limits is use, particularly in the mobile space, as Silverlight is not supported on iOS, Anroid, or (surprisingly) Windows Phone.

BI Sites show us the first version of a PowerView renderer based on HTML 5, which should work on all devices. When the workbooks are opened through the report gallery, you will see the Power View reports, but they are rendered in HTML 5. I suspect that we’ll continue to see Silverlight being used in the designer in Excel, but the rendering through BI Sites is done with HTML5, which opens up the world of mobile.

Data Catalogue

I hesitate to include this in this section, as it could just as easily be included in the Power Query section, but since it required the BI Sites capability in Office 365, I include it here. The Data Catalogue is that service that allows you to register data sources from Power Query. The catalogue lives in Office 365, and is managed from there.  Data sources in the catalogue can be discovered by Power Query users through the “Online Search” button.

The catalogue also supports features that help support the natural language features of BI Sites. These features are unclear to me at this point, but I will be sure to expand upon them once I get my hands on it.

Finally, to be sure, “Data Catalogue” is what I’m calling it in the absence of any official nomenclature from Microsoft.

Natural (English) Language Query

Natural language query was a very well kept secret. I had no idea that it was being developed until I saw it on stage. Natural language query allows a user to interrogate a data source almost as if they were performing a full text search. Based on their query, Power BI selects an appropriate visualization to display the results.

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As you can see above, 1 shows that we’re interrogating a data model contained in the “Sales Reporting and …” workbook. 2 shows the query entered by the user in relatively plain English (no Select statements!), and 3 shows how Power BI has interpreted the natural language query. Finally, it determined that a tabular display was the best visualization to use for this result. However, many are available, and it uses the visualizations available to HTML 5 PowerView to display them. Number 4 shows other visualizations that may be relevant to the result set, and all you need to do is to select them to see them.

A few more results can be seen below.

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New Visualizations

Any user of Power View will be familiar with the visualizations shown above. However, the one that brought the biggest applause at the announcement was the “king of the hill” visualization. This shows you a “winner” and “contenders” over a period of time, based upon a defined criteria. When applied to pop music over time, it looks something like this.

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To get the full effect of this, I highly recommend watching the video starting at about 9 minutes in. Of course, this is a highly specific case, and I have to think that more interesting visualizations are on the way.

Limitations

As with most products, Microsoft giveth and Microsoft taketh away. Without having my hands on the full product, I have no hope of coming up with anything like a comprehensive list of limitations, but there are two that jump to mind immediately.

Power BI is limited to Office 365 only. That’s right, there will be no on premises version of this, at least not at launch. From a technical standpoint, I can’t see any reason why this must be, apart from either resourcing limitations within Microsoft, or strategic direction (or a combination of both). It remains to be seen whether Power BI is a “cloud first” product, or a “cloud only” product. Time will tell. In the meantime, those organizations that are still leery of cloud computing may miss out, but there is still a lot of goodness in the on premises offerings.

BI Sites is a SharePoint App, not a container. The workbooks themselves are still stored within document libraries in SharePoint. the default file size limit for Excel Services is 10 MB, and for SharePoint itself is 50 MB. It’s unclear to me if BI Sites relies on Excel Services (I assume that it does), and if so, your data models have a hard constraint of 10 MB. Even if Excel Services is not the bottleneck, they won’t be any larger than 50 MB. That is simply too small for some models, and will leave them out in the cold. I was told at WPC by a Product Manager that this is changing, but specifics are currently unavailable.

Mobile Apps

The final component (that is still unavailable) of Power BI is a collection of Mobile BI apps. Reports are selected in various BI sites and flagged for mobile use. Once flagged, they appear in the mobile apps and can be interacted with directly.

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As an aside, I borrowed the above image from the Office 365 technology blog. Anyone that has attended my BI presentations in the past year will be familiar with the first data set in the app, a topic near and dear to my heart.

Apps were initially announced for Windows 8 and for iOS. No mention was made of Android or Windows Phone (?!?!), but I have to think that that isn’t far behind. Blackberry? I have no idea, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

To finalize, I’m very excited about several of the new capabilities that Power BI brings, and the doors that it now opens. It’s another big step in moving Business Intelligence from the realm of the data gurus, and into the hands of those that can actually benefit from it. Once it is available to play with it, I intend to focus on it more thoroughly.

3 thoughts on “Power BI – What Is It, And Why Does It Matter?

  1. Pingback: Power BI for Office 365 | James Serra's Blog

  2. Pingback: Why “Power BI” is a Big Deal - SQL Server - SQL Server - Toad World

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