Microsoft released its latest version of its business intelligence software in preview mode in late 2014. It created Power BI as a software as a service (SaaS)-based business intelligence and analytics platform that lets business users directly connect, analyze and gain insight from their business data. Half a million people signed up for a preview of Power BI preceding its July 2015 general release.  

A Brief History of Power BI

Microsoft's business intelligence efforts started back in the early 2000s, when Microsoft started creating the business intelligence tool that was released in SharePoint 2010. Two years later, Microsoft introduced a tabular database model in SQL Server to enhance business intelligence processes. 

Microsoft also introduced capabilities in Excel, such as Power Pivot and Power View, capable of performing impressive data analyses. 

Power BI brought these tools from Excel and SharePoint into a cloud-based platform that lets regular end users — not just technical experts or data analysts — start creating visualizations and sharing them with other people. While those tools worked well individually, they lacked integration and were difficult to deploy.

Azure, Machine Learning, Azure HDInsight and Stream Analytics lie at the core of the current platform. 

Power BI Components

The Power BI tool itself is made of three major components:

  • Power BI Service: a cloud-based solution hosted on Microsoft servers that lets users build and visualize data insights and share and collaborate on dashboards
  • Power BI Desktop: a companion tool that allows advanced users to create more complex data models and transformations
  • Connector Framework: a way to integrate Power BI with dozens of prebuilt content packs that let you work with existing SaaS or cloud-based solutions, including Quickbooks, Salesforce, Google Analytics and APIs for integration with line of business applications.

Power BI Advantages

Microsoft's relatively recent emergence as a leader in the business intelligence market is largely due to three factors:

  1. A completely cloud-based platform: The release of Power BI marks the first time that Microsoft released an entirely cloud-based business intelligence platform.
  2. Unbound from legacy technology: The previous iterations of Power BI were very reliant on Excel and SharePoint, but the latest release moved away from this dependency. Power BI now includes connectors to common SaaS platforms and an on-premises database with a gateway to connect to those systems.
  3. End-user focus: You don't need technical resources to design, implement and visualize content with Power BI. An end user with proper training and a little knowledge of Excel can easily create dashboards and visualizations.

When research firm Gartner reviewed the BI landscape in 2014, one of the few bright spots it noted in an otherwise bleak report was the rapid growth Microsoft had made in the 12 months preceding. Interesting to note that of the five vendors the report highlighted, Microsoft is the only that remains in the leaders quadrant today.

Learning Opportunities

Power BI Capabilities

Traditional business intelligence solutions were complex to build, requiring expertise in different technologies such as SQL, Excel and SharePoint. Power BI removes any requirements for previous training on ETL (extract-transform-load) technologies.

Unconnected systems still plague most businesses, including CRM, financial and project management systems. Power BI allows you to integrate content from various data sources into a single dashboard that gives you metrics and insight into the health and performance of your business. You can also access these dashboards from anywhere and with any device, whether it's your tablet, phone or laptop.  

With the release of the new Power BI, Microsoft has provided an enterprise-grade platform that competes with other solutions like Tableau and Qlik

Traditionally, Microsoft has chosen to release new versions of its products every few years but with Power BI we see one of the first implementations of Microsoft's strategy of rapid monthly releases and cloud- and mobile-first policy. 

With a continued cadence of releases, we can expect to see Microsoft build on the momentum it has already created with Power BI.

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