If you haven’t at least experimented with Microsoft’s business intelligence visualization tool Power BI yet, now there are no excuses left.

Microsoft made many announcements during its Convergence conference in Atlanta this morning. They included news that the preview of Power BI is now being released worldwide to 140 markets.

What Is It?

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Power BI is a browser-based data visualization portal capable of connecting with corporate data using secured accounts, either on-premise or through select cloud-based vendors.

It works with Microsoft's own Dynamics CRM as well as third-party vendors such as Workday, Google Analytics, Salesforce and Twilio, the platform for building cloud-based apps around customer VoIP and SMS messaging.

Based in Microsoft’s Azure cloud, Power BI assimilates streams of data. It produces animated time-series graphs in multiple styles and presents them on-screen in seconds, all without the use of database queries.

Microsoft first released this preview edition of Power BI last January.

Its long-term objective for Power BI, the company has stated, is to connect with multiple data sources simultaneously.

Those sources include not only online analytical processing (OLAP) data cubes and Teradata warehouses. They also include shop-floor devices connected to the Internet of Things.

Actionable Data

The Power BI Designer tool is also free. It helps data specialists adapt custom charts over and above those that Power BI produces automatically, using data from all these sources.

Customers then may be inspired to become subscribers (at $9.99 per user per month), so that they can analyze device data in comparison with cloud-based sales performance data, for instance.

Such comparisons could help businesses estimate the relative efficiency of production practices — to see how shop floor efficiencies directly translate into revenue.

“I don’t care if you’re a consumer products company, an industrial manufacturer, if you’re making thermostats, cars — everything that’s being made now is squirting data out,” said James Phillips, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for data experiences, in an interview with me last January. “And if you’ve got a hundred million cars spraying data, you don’t stick that in a relational database. You just don’t. The operational system that’s required to support that use case is very different.”

The Little Cube in the Sky

Relational databases were designed over the last four decades, argued Philips, to be transactional in nature, in order to match the business systems of the twentieth century — systems that were largely geared for accounting.

Since the advent of cloud technologies, he noted, systems designed to be closed off to customers have had to change. They had to open themselves up to customers, especially with queries from mobile devices.

“You’re talking now not to your hundred thousand employees with software, but to your millions, maybe even a billion, customers. And those systems put a tremendous amount of pressure on the operational databases that sit behind them. Relational technology, for those use cases, was being stretched to the limit.”

That limit was reached one day by Microsoft itself, and pointed out by CEO Satya Nadella. As Phillips told me, Nadella made a gentle request for what he called a “little real-time cube in the sky” — a perpetual source of company intelligence that follows him around wherever he goes, or that certainly seems to.

At that time, Power BI had already been a company project, but as a visualization extension for Excel rather than a dashboard for Azure.

Nadella’s request led to Power BI becoming retooled as a data portal, though the Designer tool remains capable of producing reports in Excel format.

Crowded Trenches

Power BI enters a crowded market for business intelligence (BI) tools, where Tableau, MicroStrategy and Pentaho are already well entrenched, but where competitors such as Qlik have already made waves.

The sudden demand for BI tools may derive from the recent explosion in big data storage, coupled with the relative lack of visibility and control over all that data. BI is often marketed to company CMOs and CIOs as automatically informational — plug it in, turn it on and things start to make sense.

Two out of three isn’t good in this case, as companies have found themselves making amateur correlations of data streams whose direct connections with one another may be questionable. One real-world example is an organization that compared departmental electricity consumption with workplace morale levels, in an effort to determine how much energy conservation can be tolerated without sacrificing employee motivation.

Competitors in the BI field such as IBM have maintained that such experiments are testament for the need for more and better data scientists in the workplace. But Microsoft’s Phillips believes that if the BI tool is doing its job properly, one need not elevate oneself to the role of scientist to be able to utilize it.

The third generation of BI tools, said Phillips, “is not about smart data scientists. It’s about effortlessly connecting users with their data and then empowering them and the people who support them with the tools to go deeper, when and how they want to.”

Although earlier versions of Power BI relied on Microsoft’s proprietary Silverlight display runtime, the current edition is based in HTML5 for support on all devices. A separate Power BI app is available for Windows 8, 8.1 and Windows RT devices.