Get ready for the most awesome data month ever to continue! Data discovery, cloud BI and big data are exploding areas of the market with new, wild and exciting announcements. To say things are getting interesting is an understatement! We now have a public Power BI Visuals Gallery filled with excellent content created by the Community for the Community. It is an absolutely beautiful sight! If you have not been following industry news, set aside a few hours to catch up on headlines from this year’s top events. Also don’t miss the PASS Summit 2015 keynote on October 28th. It is a lot of fun seeing and playing with all the bleeding-edge innovation around us right now. I literally feel like a kid in a data candy store.

NEW Power BI Visuals Gallery

Speaking of candy, I have successfully made it to day seven of my Alkaline diet “adaptation” (aka I am unwilling to cut Diet Mountain Dew out of my life). Broccoli soup is getting old but in the meantime I am indulging each evening in calorie-free, brain food. This week I have been treating myself by testing Power BI Desktop custom data visualizations. Thanks to the awesome Power BI competition entries, there is already an array of wonderful and useful custom data visualizations that any Power BI user can easily download, import and add to Power BI Desktop or PowerBI.com online.

Power BI Desktop Keeps Getting Better

Free Power BI Desktop (32-bit and 64-bit) is a unification of the former Excel analyst Power Tools (Power Pivot, Power Query and Power View) into one vastly improved, stand-alone, data discovery desktop application. Unlike the power predecessors, Power BI Desktop has no dependencies on Excel or Office.

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Reports created in Power BI Desktop can be optionally published and shared:

Since the December 2014 Preview, Power BI Desktop has come a loooooong way and gained notable market momentum that is already impacting other players in this niche. The July 24, 2015 GA release of Power BI 2.0 revealed a sleek Adobe-ish Creative Cloud app look with a modernized D3.js HTML5 visualization framework that is both mobile friendly and much faster to develop. The new architecture allows for in-memory or direct connect data sources, third-party open source custom data visualization contributions, plus many more significant improvements over the earlier versions. We are now seeing Power BI teams roll out additional data sources on a weekly basis that are included in massive Power BI Desktop monthly releases along with tons of other features. The pace of Power BI 2.0 development is unprecedented for the business intelligence teams at Microsoft. As a result, Power BI Desktop is swiftly blossoming into a fabulous and free weapon that data analysts will want to include in their analytics arsenal.

Hidden Beauty within Power BI Desktop

When business users look at the ever-growing sea of similar analytical data discovery tools like Power BI Desktop, SAP Lumira, Tableau, Qlik, Spotfire, or others, they often don’t take the time to see differences between them. To the untrained eye, these tools do appear to be similar – especially if you are only reviewing the end result. Vendor sales pitches also sound exactly the same – don’t need IT, really easy for anyone to use while being governed, fast results, and so on. Keep in mind that you can’t accurately decipher the depth, breadth or user experience difference in data discovery tools without trying them “hands-on” with your own data. While you may not need all the bells and whistles of a pricey tool, you will want a delightful, pleasant and productive user experience.

My Top 10 Favorite Power BI Desktop Features

As an avid enthusiast in this niche, here are my personal Top 10 favorite Power BI Desktop features. These are by no means all of the features. Just check out the latest monthly updates and you’ll see there are a bazillion more than I am choosing to highlight here.

1. Data Sources, Connectivity Choice and In-Memory Engine
Unlike many other data discovery tools and free versions of other popular data discovery offerings, free Power BI Desktop includes a huge array of on-premises and cloud data sources, structured and unstructured, with more added each month. Today you can connect and rapidly parallel load data in Excel, text, CSV, XML, folders, JSON, OData feeds, Web searches, SharePoint Lists, Access Databases, SQL Server, SQL Server Parallel Data Warehouse, Analysis Services OLAP, Active Directory, Microsoft Exchange, Google Analytics, QuickBooks, Salesforce Objects and Reports, Dynamics, Facebook, GitHub, ZenDesk, and other SaaS apps, Spark, HDInsight, Hive, Hadoop File (HDFS), Azure Marketplace, Azure Blob and Table Storage, Oracle, IBM DB2, MySQL Database, PostgreSQL, Sybase, Teradata, SAP Hana, Azure SQL Database, Azure SQL Data Warehouse and ODBC or third-party ODBC drivers for many other data source types including but not limited to SAP, Amazon Redshift, Cassandra, Couchbase and MongoDB. Note Analysis Services Multidimensional and SAP Hana were announced at PASS Summit.

Power BI Desktop is powered by a local, highly performant in-memory columnar data engine. With the newly updated architecture, we are also seeing the beginnings of optional “direct connect” data source connectivity in the recent on-premises Spark, SQL Server and Azure SQL database sources connector previews. This new “direct connect” choice option empowers users to explore small or large data sources right from their desktop with or without having to copy data.

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2. World-Class Data Preparation
Anyone that crunches data for a living knows that data prep is the hard part that takes up the most time and is often extremely tedious, unenjoyable work. Creating visuals is the easy part of analytical reporting. Power BI Desktop blows away most of the competition in this area. It has over 45 visual, point-and-click, data prep functions including but not limited to Dedup, Merge, Append, Group By, Transpose, Reverse Rows, Count Rows, Replace Values, Replace Errors, Fill, Pivot, Unpivot, Split, Format, Parse, Aggregate, Round, Logic, Statistics, Scientific, Trigonometry and the entire M language along with parameterized functions for advanced transformations and data loading functionality. Power BI Desktop data load and prep can be defined once, scheduled and automated eliminating redundant busy work.
data prep

3. Automatic Data Modeling for Anyone
FUN FACT! Power BI Desktop automatically creates a dimensional data model, auto-detects relationships and data types when a user connects to data sources and loads data. The user does not have to create a data model. After choosing a desired data source, a user can immediately begin visually dragging and dropping fields to create interactive reports. Let me repeat that key point. Users do not have to know anything about data modeling to use Power BI Desktop. I keep hearing incorrect information being told to naïve business users by Microsoft’s competitors. Niche player vendors built entire multi-billion dollar businesses on that old tune and want to convince you that Microsoft Power BI requires complex Analysis Services builds by IT pros. It is untrue. Don’t fall for that outdated, desperate competitive FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt).

4. Advanced Data Modeling / BI Semantic Model
For savvy data users, advanced data modeling is available and sets Power BI Desktop apart from the pack. Power BI Desktop supports multiple fact tables in a single model. It also handles 1:1 one-to-one, 1:N one-to-many and N:N many-to-many relationships via bidirectional cross filtering. Several tools in the data discovery market today are not capable of elegantly handling common multiple fact tables or many-to-many relationship scenarios. The visual data model diagramming tool in Power BI Desktop eases working with large, complex data models and blending a variety unrelated data sources. Unlike weaker data discovery tools that struggle blending or joining more than two data sources, Power BI Desktop shines brightly. Power BI Desktop does not require you to “flatten” your data to work with it. You can enjoy a true multidimensional BI Semantic Model design experience without having to limit data sources or dimensionality.Data Model

5. DAX Data Analysis Expressions
Another feature that analytics pros will appreciate is DAX Data Analysis Expressions. DAX is used to create new columns, attributes or measures. The rich DAX formula language includes libraries of incredible capabilities to perform computational gymnastic routines on your data or create powerful analytical data models. Power BI Desktop has DAX formulas with color-coded intellisense baked right into the exploratory user experience. DAX formulas can be as simple as a basic math or statistical equation or can be much more complex, multiple line time/space/set/logic type formulas with support for comments. Take a peek at the available and continually growing DAX library that includes over 200 functions, operators, and constructs, providing immense flexibility for just about any data analysis need.

New Calculated Tables enable even more powerful calculation scenarios by referencing various table functions within a formula or automatically generating time intelligence. Calculated tables are generally best for intermediate calculations or data you want stored as part of the model rather than calculated on the fly or as part of a query. If that was not enough computational power, during Cortana Analytics Workshop it was leaked that R integration would be coming soon to Power BI Desktop. (UPDATE: 11/20/2015 R is now in Power BI Desktop)

R in Power BI Desktop

6. Many Popular and Unlimited Custom Data Visualizations
In Power BI Desktop today there is Bar, Column, Area, Tiles, Combination, Doughnut, Funnel, Gauge, Line, Sparkline, Maps, Table, Matrix, Pie, Scatter, Bubble, Treemap, Trellis and Waterfall. The new Power BI Visuals Gallery is vastly expanding available data visualization types for Power BI Desktop users. Business users can easily download desired Power BI custom data visualizations (.pbiviz files) from the Gallery. These assets are created by the Community for the Community. With simple point-and-click import into in Power BI Desktop, users can enjoy an unlimited realm of custom data visualizations. Already we have seen astonishing, totally creative contest entries from elaborate airplane seating charts and building room usage background heatmaps to numerous animations and even a data fish task – who knew?!? The worldwide Power BI partner ecosystem has already been creating utilities and add ins for Power BI users. The data visualization possibilities in Power BI Desktop are endless.

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7. Granular Control of Chart Properties
By far the most warmly welcome features in the July 2015 GA version of Power BI Desktop were granular control of colors, axes, labels, legends, background colors, titles, fonts, and so on. Amazingly a lot of data discovery tools still do not have comparable capabilities and limit you. Many data discovery tools also still suffer from dreaded, ugly “BI boxy syndrome” and don’t support precise placement of charts. Power BI Desktop users can delight in finally having the fine grained control that they have always wanted.
Power BI Desktop

8. Images, Shapes and Rich Text
Although Power BI Desktop is typically used to create reports and interactive dashboards. It can also be used to author artistic data masterpieces and entertaining infographics. With images, shapes, rich text, hyperlink rendering, and unlimited data visualization support combined with a flexible canvas that allows for object overlapping, ordering or placement anywhere, users can unleash their creativity in Power BI Desktop.

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9. Import Excel Power Content
For business users who prefer Excel for data analysis and use the Excel power tools, Power BI Desktop can easily import that content. Power BI Desktop has a wizard for importing Power Query data load, prep and transformation steps, Power Pivot models retaining all relationships, DAX, and Power View reports into the Power BI Desktop file format. This allows them to share interactive Power BI Desktop reports with other users that may not even have Excel installed.

ImportExceltoPBI_1

10. Contextual Visualization, Page and Global Report Filters
Filters are fabulous for exploration and finding new insights in your data. Reports in Power BI Desktop Reading View are automatically, contextually interactive with no added effort needed. Unlike other data discovery tools, Power BI Desktop does not require tedious, manual linking or targeting of charts to one another to get visual filtering functionality. When you highlight or filter a value in one visualization, it can automatically change the values in other charts in your report. Power BI Desktop filters have basic and advanced functionality for creating complex filter expressions. Filters also can be defined at visualization, page or global report level scope for granular control of contextual filtered displays. You can also sort and drill down further into Power BI Desktop visualizations. (UPDATE: 11/20/2015 Charts can also be used as filters with targeted object filter control.)

Visual Interactions

Times are Changing

Historically Microsoft Power BI 1.0 did not get much attention in the market. Since the release of Power BI 2.0, that vibe has changed and Microsoft is no longer ignored. Top independent industry analysts, Gartner and Forrester, gave Power BI 2.0 optimistic reviews. It is also hard to miss a worldwide community user base that is growing exponentially. Over 500,000 users from 185 countries participated in the preview – that kind of engagement in an early preview is not at all insignificant. Since then more groups around the globe are checking out and beginning to adopt Power BI 2.0. Even the skeptics and haters seem to appreciate the user attention and level of effort coming out of Redmond these days.

The most beautiful human qualities are within our spirit, mind and soul. Those are not surface level and require getting to know a person on a much deeper level to fully appreciate them. The spirit of young Power BI Desktop 2.0 may not have the surface level depth of the very top niche data discovery tool. However the inevitable combinations and integrations with closely related Microsoft Azure data services, Cortana Analytics, Revolution R Enterprise, Office 365 apps and the all-time favorite data analysis tool in the world…Excel, make it an undeniably disruptive force in the data discovery market. Power BI 2.0 is an offering that you should follow closely, get to know and may even soon grow to love.

For more information, check out 2015 Self-Service BI reviews by PC Magazine.