Microsoft's new service, Power BI, provides a way to analyze data and present the results in a visually appealing way, without the bother of consulting an enterprise business intelligence software package.
"We're making it easier for the user to interact with the data without having to go back to IT," said Eron Kelly, Microsoft corporate vice president and director SQL Server marketing.
Microsoft introduced the service last July, as a preview. On Monday, the service became generally available.
Power BI is a new set of features for Microsoft's Office 365, a Microsoft-hosted set of Microsoft Office tools and applications. Power BI is not available as part of the Microsoft Office software package, and the company has given no indication when, or if, it would be available as part of the on-premises software package.
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Microsoft is pitching Power BI as a self-service BI suite, one that does not require the expertise of an organization's business analyst or IT staff. "The end user can interact with the data directly, yet IT can still curate the data to ensure that end-users are accessing the right data," Kelly said.
The service works by running workbooks created by users in a hosted version of Microsoft SQL Server. "In effect, this is real-time in-memory analysis," Kelly said.
Although primarily acting as an interface for Excel, Power BI can also import a dataset from internal files, from a catalog of data sources maintained by Microsoft, or from the Web. Data sources can be periodically refreshed as the source data is updated.
Using the Q&A interface, the user can query the data, posing natural language. The Power Query tool provides a set of filtering and merging capabilities.
This image shows a view of a user asking a question of a sample dataset through the natural language query capability in Power BI called Q&A.
Query results can be formatted in a number of graphically appealing ways. Using Power Map, for instance, Geocoded data can be rendered on a map provided by Microsoft Bing Maps. The service can even render the mapped data in three dimensions, showing not only the province of the data, but also its intensity as compared to data clustered in other locations.
Results can be pushed back to Microsoft Excel or, in the cases with geographic data, exported to a movie file, where it can be replayed by others.
As an example, Kelly demonstrated how to use Power BI to parse data offered by New York that catalogs the non-emergency "311" phone calls the city gets. The data can be divided up into calls by ZIP code, calls by complaint type, by location, or by time of day.
The location-specific data can be placed on a map to show New York's "hot spots," Kelly said. Dividing up the data by complaint can show where the worst landlords are located, judging by the number of complaints from specific addresses concerning the lack of heat during the winter months.
Parsing the data in other ways provides other insights as well. In Staten Island, garbage and street infrastructure are an ongoing issues, while in Brooklyn heating and construction noise are the main complaints.
Some users have already found value in Power BI, according to Microsoft.
Global cosmetics manufacturer Revlon, for instance, has found Power BI to be a credible alternative to Oracle Hyperion, the BI tool the company has traditionally used. Revlon had each country's office submit a report to the head office, the material from which was then reorganized into sections for each brand manager. Traditionally, this compilation would take two days. Power BI offers the ability for the brand managers to compile the data themselves on the fly.
"It has empowered the end users to be a lot closer to the results of the business," Kelly said.
The formal release of Power BI also brings with it a number of new capabilities. It can connect to a number of new data formats, including blob storage and table storage in the Microsoft Windows Azure cloud service, as well as data in Microsoft Active Directory and Microsoft Exchange.
Microsoft has also expanded its catalog of public data for Power BI users. It now includes Wikipedia data as well as financial data from Dun & Bradstreet.
Power BI is part of the Office 365 ProPlus service, which costs US$52 per user per month. Organizations that have licensed copies of Office can purchase Power BI and SharePoint online for an additional $40 per user per month. Users of the Office 365 Enterprise E3/E4 packages using a promotion that goes until June would pay $20 per user per month for the additional Power BI capabilities. It will be $33 per user per month after June.
The amount of data that can be stored depends on the Office 365 allotment, which is now 25GB per user. Workbooks are limited to 250GB in size each.
One in four Microsoft Office users are now using Office 365 in some capacity, according to the company.