What is Power BI

Level: Beginners

This is the third in my “what is” series having previously blogged about “What is Power Pivot” and “What is Power Query”.  This topic is the hardest of the three to give a straight answer, however it is also the most important to understand (as I will explain below).

Why Power BI is so Important

Microsoft Power BI is the single most important thing to happen in the data analytics market since the introduction of Microsoft Excel 30 years ago.  The reasons it is so important include:

  1. It is a Microsoft product, and it is a strategic priority for the company.
  2. It is built on the heritage of two of the most mature and best BI products available – SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and Microsoft Excel.  SSAS is Microsoft’s enterprise strength reporting tool that many companies use for their full scale (and expensive) business intelligence reporting projects.
  3. Despite the heritage from SSAS and Excel, Power BI is actually being built/rebuilt using the latest technologies including HTML 5.0, cloud computing, column store databases and modern smart phone mobile apps.
  4. Microsoft is listening to the community to determine what it builds and delivers next.  Let me state that again – Microsoft is listening and delivering!
  5. Microsoft has opened up the visualisation layer to open source contributions via the custom visuals gallery, so there is (and will continue to be) be lots of community added value.  Read about that in my blog here.

Gartner has recognised the trend towards self service business intelligence and also Microsoft’s leading position in this space.  You can look at the 2016 report on this topic here if you are interested.

Why it is Hard to Explain What Power BI is

Microsoft is known for its great products, however it doesn’t always have a great record when it comes to naming products.  The naming of Power BI products has been confusing to say the least.  I wont spend time going back through all the confusing history but instead I will provide my spin (below) on the least confusing way to consider Power BI products today.  I first covered this framework in my blog about the best training for Business Analysts.

So, What is Power BI?

Power BI is a suite of Power BI branded products plus an extended family of umbrella products that collectively change the way people use and analyse data.  All Power BI products (regardless of which group they are in) have all the attributes of a robust enterprise strength BI solution but in addition they all have best in class self service BI capabilities What this means to the average business analyst is that you don’t need to run to IT every time you need something done hence avoiding the normal time, cost, and money conflicts that so often prevent success.

If you want to learn to be a Power BI Ninja, you will need to learn skills in all of the following areas:

  • Extract and Load your data ready for analysis – you use Power Query for this.
  • Enhance the data you have loaded (using Power Query) with relationships and calculations (measures) that can be used to show and find business insights – you use Power Pivot for this.
  • Create reports that bring out the insights from the data, and allow users to easily interact with the data – you use Power BI Desktop for this
  • Distribute the reports  and Dashboards to those that need it – you use Power BI Service and Power BI Mobile for this.

Power BI Branded Products

There are 3 Power BI branded products.

Power BI Service

Power BI ServiceThis is the cloud solution that makes sharing live business analytics a snap.  Need to share a 250MB report – no problem!  It is possible to share small or large reports and dashboards internally within your organisation, externally with third parties, and also share non sensitive information publicly over the web (as I have done with this demo).

The Power BI Service has a completely new visualisation front end built from scratch. The capabilities are still relatively immature however the pace of improvement is stunning, and the addition of the Open Source visualisation tools discussed earlier make it a sure bet.

The service can store your data online, and/or connect to your data in the cloud via Azure (or similar), and/or it can connect to your in house data via a Power BI Gateway.

Power BI Desktop

This is the free Power BI authoring tool that allows you to quickly and easily analyse your data and find insights directly on your PC. The general process is to connect to your data, reshape the data if needed, load the data into the tool, then build striking visualisations that help you analyse your business.  You then can save the workbook (just like you do in Excel), distribute the file for free to other people (eg email, place on a network drive) or better still – publish the file directly to the Power BI Service with just a couple of clicks.  Once the analysis is loaded to the Power BI Service, it is easy to share with others.

You should author your Power BI reports in Desktop over Service, as you can backup your Desktop files but you can’t backup your Service reports.

Power BI Mobile

Power BI MobileThis is the free mobile tool that allows you to consume any of the reports that are available to you in the Power BI Service.  There are versions for all the major tablets and smart phones.  This software is also fairly new and still being enhanced.  It is not perfect, but it is good enough to get started and it will only get better from here.

Power BI Umbrella Products

There is a suite of underlying “products” and technologies that support the Power BI branded products.  These umbrella products covered below are the supporting technologies sitting behind Microsoft’s Self Service BI Strategy (and also Enterprise BI in some cases).

Power Pivot

Power PivotPower Pivot is a data modelling tool.  It allows you to take tables of data, create relationships between those tables so they work together (without VLOOKUP!), and then enhance the data model so that it includes specific calculations that turn your raw data into useful business insights.  This work has historically been done by the IT department, however it can now be done by competent business users using the language of Power Pivot – DAX (Data Analysis Expressions).

Power Pivot is available in Excel 2010+, SSAS 2012+, and Power BI Desktop/Service.  It is the same technology across all of these products.  If you learn it once, you can use the same skills across all of these products.  You can read more about Power Pivot here.

Power Query

Power QueryPower Query is a data acquisition and transformation tool.  It helps business users grab data from anywhere it resides, then cleanse, reshape and prepare the data ready for the analytics work to come – no IT guru needed any more. Power Query is a user interface driven tool that makes is easy for anyone to manage and load data, however it is supported by a powerful programming language that makes it super powerful.  You can read more about Power Query here.

If you want a comprehensive lesson on how to use Power Query, checkout my training course here http://xbi.com.au/pqt

Power Query is available in Excel 2010+ and Power BI Desktop/Service.  It  (annoyingly) has been renamed “Get & Transform” in Excel 2016 and “Get Data” in Power BI Desktop.  What were they thinking?

 

What is the right way to learn Power BI?

There are lots of different learning styles, but here are the best resources I know of for learning these tools.

Live Training

Reading Books

I keep an up to date recommended reading list in my knowledge base here.  As well as information about books, I keep a list of great websites to learn from down the bottom of the page.

Online Learning

There are lots of online resources to learn. Some of the best I have found are:

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Comments

  1. “Create reports and dashboards that bring out the insights from the data, and allow users to easily interact with the data – you use Power BI Desktop for this”

    Hi Matt,

    I have only ever been able to create Dashboards in the Power BI service.
    Is the ability to create Dashboards in Power BI Desktop available now? Or is it something that is coming down the track?

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