What is Microsoft Power BI?
One of the tools within the Microsoft Power Platform, Power BI is a business intelligence service that delivers business analytics data through interactive visualizations. It has a user-friendly interface that provides an opportunity for even inexperienced developers to create their own reports and dashboards.
Power BI’s Excel Roots
Power BI’s roots are based on much of the popular functionality found in Excel, and it shares many of Excel’s foundational elements. In fact, many regular Excel users do not know their favorite go-to spreadsheet tool already includes powerful business intelligence features like PowerQuery (for pulling data from sources and loading it into a data model), PowerPivot (for data-modeling) and more. These Excel tools are also included in Power BI where they have undergone further development. For example, Power BI uses the same syntax for developing calculation functions in Excel. The functions language in Power BI is called DAX (or Data Analysis Expressions.) Also, Excel’s PowerView tool for creating visuals is similar in functionality to the visual analytics that are the centerpiece of Power BI.
This begs the question, if Excel is in so many ways comparable to Power BI, why would Microsoft want to offer the audience of general business users two seemingly similar tools for Business Intelligence? There are several reasons, and the most prominent is development trajectory. Since Excel is by far the most utilized spreadsheet and data tool in the world (with over 1 billion instances in use), deploying broad functionality updates runs the risk of creating a bug or issues on a massive scale. Accordingly, any updates that are made to Excel are done through lengthy release cycles and are subject to rigorous change management processes.
Data Visualization and Dashboards
Power BI is specifically designed to share and create data visualizations and dashboards for business intelligence. Since Power BI has a substantially smaller reach than Excel, its release cadence is much faster than Excel’s, providing Microsoft with the ability to enhance and add on to functionality about once a month.
Centralized Source for Data Insights
Power BI is also a cloud-based centralized source for data insights. This is favorable compared to other popular data tools like Excel, since Excel files can float around an organization across various drives and emails. Excel is not a centralized analysis platform, even though it can be cloud-based, since there are no workspaces and places to view updated reports. Power BI is simple and powerful in that everyone can work from the same workspace and see the most important elements relevant to them based on their positions. This helps reduce silos that are problematic in so many organizations.
Core Components and Features of Power BI
Power BI has core functionality that makes it uniquely effective as a unifying tool:
Connecting to Data Sources: Power BI can connect to many data sources and has ready-made connectors to a wide array of sources like:
- Azure Synapse
- Azure Cosmos
Once the data is extracted from the connected source, it can be transformed (changing the data’s format, removing duplicative data, etc.), and then loaded into a data model.
Data Model: The data modeling component of Power BI is used in place of “VLOOKUPS” in Excel and other cumbersome tools that Excel uses to link data from different tables. Power BI’s data modeling feature includes a graphical user interface to show your tables and how they are connected (called an ERD or entity relationship diagram.) This feature provides users with the ability to move tables and create relationships using drag and drop functionality.
Measures and Calculated Attributes: Power BI enables users to easily apply functions to data. This is useful when analyzing data and performing functions such as averaging, statistical analysis, linear regression, aggregation, and the like. With functions and calculated attributes, users can also create measures that display the relationships between different columns such as ratios and variances.
Chart and Graphs: Leading business intelligence tools such as Power BI make data easier for business users to consume and interpret through visualizations and dashboards. Power BI provides a core set of 37 templates (and a marketplace with an additional 350+ free templates developed by the Power BI community) that allow users to cross-filter visuals and tabular data with a simple click, all within the same dashboard.
Power BI Analytics: Power BI also has advanced analytical capabilities. These include visual analytics for forecasting, machine learning integration, and R integration for heavy statistical analysis.
Beyond these common functions, Power BI has some key differentiators and benefits, including:
- Exceptionally low cost
- Monthly development release cycle
- Tight Excel integration and familiar functionality for Excel users
- Open-source visualizations
- Seamless integration with Office 365, Azure, and the rest of the Microsoft stack