What is Power BI and Why Should You Use it?
Power BI is Microsoft’s business intelligence product suite, giving users the ability to connect to various data sources and create interactive reports that give insight into the underlying data.
Power BI was initially conceptualized in late 2010 and made available under the codename “Project Crescent” in the following year. The platform was rebranded “Power BI” (BI standing for Business Intelligence) in 2013. Initially, the product was based on Excel’s Power Query, Power Pivot and Power View add-ins.
Today, Power BI is a suite of software apps and services for businesses to get to grips with what their data is saying. Those familiar with Excel will still find elements of Power BI to be familiar ground, but Power BI now offers an analysis and visualization solution that goes far beyond what Excel is capable of doing. The Power BI product suite consists of the following elements:
Last Updated May 2022
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- Power BI Desktop: Desktop Application to extract data, build data models, build dashboards and create reports
- Power BI Service: Online Software as a Service (SaaS) tool for developing & viewing dashboards and reports
- Power BI Report Server: A server for use in cases where enterprises wish to share dashboards and reports in-house, but keep this information behind a corporate firewall
- Power BI Marketplace: A marketplace where 3rd parties are able to build visualizations for users to use (sometimes for a fee) for specific applications.
- Power BI Mobile Apps: Apps for interacting with Power BI dashboards and reports on Android & iOS mobile devices as well as Windows.
- Over and above this, there are a few additional elements like Power BI Gateway, Power BI Embedded and Power BI API that provide for niche requirements.
Let’s delve into some of these elements in a bit more detail to understand the role each part plays.
Power BI Desktop
As the name suggests, Power BI Desktop is available for the desktop PC. This software is not currently available for Mac. The software is free but does have some minimum hardware & software requirements.
|Screenshot showing Power BI Desktop. Image from Microsoft’s Power BI Website.|
The Power BI Desktop software allows a user to connect to various types of data. It has built-in connectors to a great number of data sources. These include:
- Azure Databases
- ERP & CRM applications like Dynamics 365 & Salesforce
- Various other sources with generic connectors like JSON, ODBC Databases and XML
|A few of the connector options available in Power BI Desktop|
In broad terms, the process of using Power BI Desktop to perform data analysis is:
- Build a data model by connecting to one or more data sources, and create the relationships between these sources where appropriate.
- Enrich this data with new calculated columns and measures (using Power BI’s built-in formula language called Data Analysis Expressions or DAX).
- Build interactive reports using a variety of visualizations, tables, Pivot Tables, KPIs and other elements.
- Optionally, combine elements of various reports into interactive dashboards.
- Share the output with colleagues and/or customers.
The end result is an interactive report where a user can click on elements within the report to filter through the data and focus on information relevant to them. This makes the report come to life and deliver value for a wide range of needs.
|Power BI reports are interactive, allowing users to click on elements to filter and drill down. Image from Microsoft’s Power BI Blog.|
Power BI Service
The Power BI Service is an online (cloud-based) space for storing components of Power BI reports. It is also possible to actually build reports and dashboards in the online Power BI Service, albeit with limited functionality compared to using the Power BI Desktop service.
Image from Microsoft’s Power BI website.
When a user connects to the Power BI Service, they are presented with their workspaces. “My Workspaces” is typically used as a personal “scratch patch” for personal work.
Then there is the “Workspaces” area, where a user can create any number of workspaces dedicated to specific projects or areas, as their needs dictate. Any workspaces that are shared with the user will also be shown here.
Within each workspace, there are five sections:
- Reports: Reports consist of a number of visuals (graphs, tables, etc.) built using a single dataset.
- Dashboards: Dashboards consist of several visuals (graphs, tables, etc.) from one or several reports, each of which is built using a single dataset.
- Workbooks: Raw Excel workbooks can be uploaded to the Power BI service
- Datasets: A dataset is a collection of data that you connect to or import. A dataset can be used in one or several workspaces and can be shared with multiple users
- Dataflows: Dataflows help organizations to combine data acquired from different data sources. Dataflows are optional and are often used in complex or larger projects. They represent data prepared and staged for use by datasets. However, they can’t be used directly as a source for reporting.
Power BI Mobile Apps
For many users, it is critical to be able to view reports and dashboards via a mobile device. Power BI has this covered with Power BI Mobile Apps. The Power BI Mobile App is available on devices powered by Android, iOS & Microsoft. With the appropriate credentials, the user can log into the Power BI service account and interact with the reports, dashboards and other elements that are available.
|Using the Power BI App, users are able to browse the Power BI service and view reports & dashboards on their mobile devices. Image from Microsoft’s Power BI Website.|
Power BI Report Server
In certain cases, businesses may not wish to share data to the cloud-based Power BI Service, but may still want to share reports. In such cases, the Power BI Report Server is required as a repository for the reports and essentially takes the place of the Power BI Service behind a corporate firewall. The Power BI Report Server is part of Power BI Premium which is discussed in more detail in the section about licensing.
|Power BI Report server deployment in a typical corporate environment. Users outside the firewall require security credentials to access Power BI reports & dashboards.|
One of the major considerations when choosing a BI tool is the cost of implementation and licensing. Power BI licensing is considered affordable compared to many competing products in the market, particularly for smaller businesses that typically don’t require a Power BI Premium license.
|Power BI Pro License||Power BI Premium License|
|Choose this option if you need self-service BI. Power BI Pro provides:Self-service and modern BI in the cloudCollaboration, publishing, sharing, and ad-hoc analysisFully managed by Microsoft||Choose this option if you need advanced analytics, big data support, and on-premises and cloud reporting? Power BI Premium providesEnterprise BI, big data analytics, cloud and on-premises reportingAdvanced administration and deployment controlsDedicated cloud compute and storage resourcesAllows any user to consume Power BI content|
|$9.99 per user per month||$4,995 per month per dedicated cloud compute and storage resource with an annual subscription|
For a comprehensive & up-to-date breakdown of Power BI’s costs and licensing, please consult the Power BI documentation.
But isn’t Excel good enough?
This is a common retort when users realize the cost of a dedicated BI solution. For many companies, the first tool users turn to for BI is Microsoft Excel. Excel’s impressive power & flexibility means it can be used to do a fair degree of data analysis and visualization. But Excel is not a BI tool. Excel has some serious limitations when it comes to BI, including:
- Limited data integrity preservation as users can often manipulate backend data
- Limited access control meaning it’s hard to control who can see what
- Limited ability to handle large volumes of data. As data volumes increase, Excel becomes increasingly unstable
- Clumsy sharing options
- Limited advanced BI services
It is common that as these limitations become more problematic, users start looking for a dedicated, full-featured BI tool.
Why choose Power BI?
So far, we’ve learned a lot about the Power BI world. But if we consider why users might select Power BI, the following list may provide the answer:
- Power BI is integrated into the Microsoft Ecosystem
Power BI is part of the ubiquitous Office 365 suite of tools. Power BI works very well with Excel, Azure and Dynamics 365.
- Power BI is quick to learn
Power BI has an interface that shares a lot of similarities with Excel. The two products look similar and share some menu options which makes it easier to learn. Furthermore, DAX is similar to Excel’s formula language. This means users familiar with Excel formula syntax will find DAX reasonably easy to learn.
- Power BI is easy to use
Power BI is a tool that is easy to use, and non-technical users can produce useful insights using Power BI without having to write any code. And for those who wish to perform more advanced analysis, including running Python and R scripts, Power BI can accommodate this too.
- Power BI is secure
Power BI can set up granular security, including row-level access filters to ensure that users only see the data they are meant to see.
- Power BI is scalable
Power BI can be used from small businesses to large enterprise businesses so can handle a wide range of data volumes.
- Power BI is innovative & reliable
Microsoft has consistently moved up the ranks over the past decade in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for analytics and business intelligence platforms surveys and has been the segment leader in 3 consecutive years since 2017. Power BI is a key part of the Microsoft Business Intelligence ecosystem.
- Power BI can be cost-effective
For many businesses, the Power BI Pro license will be adequate for their needs. At $10 per month, this compares very well with the likes of Tableau ($70 for a creator license) or Cognos Analytics (also at $70 for a premium license) to give two competing product examples.
- Power BI is actively being developed
New facilities are constantly being added to Power BI, which keeps the platform at the cutting edge. Bringing machine learning enhancements and natural language interface options are but two examples of the recent improvements. Microsoft has also created a Power BI visuals marketplace where third-party vendors continuously develop visualizations and make these available to users.
Power (BI) to the people
Power BI has evolved over the past decade from a limited product set to a fully-fledged data analysis and visualization tool. Its strength is that it allows users to build powerful data reports without the need for hardcore data science skills. But equally, for those with more sophisticated skills, it can provide an effective space to explore more complex analysis with DAX, R, Python and advanced machine learning.
With the ubiquity of Microsoft’s Office tools, many users will be partially familiar with the interface which reduces the time users take to become proficient users. Additionally, the tool integrates into the overall Microsoft product portfolio including popular products like Azure, SQL & Excel.
Power BI competes effectively with the best business intelligence tools on the market. Power BI (along with the broader Microsoft Ecosystem) has evolved to the point of having no serious weaknesses and a number of outstanding features and this goes to explain the growth of the product in the market. This means that for anyone who wishes to learn a marketable skill, studying Power BI is an excellent place to start. A quick search on any jobs portal for Power BI developers will underscore this statement. Udemy has a wide range of courses covering Power BI catering for beginners to experts. If you’re looking for topics to upskill in, you could do a lot worse than studying Power BI.
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