In case you were buried without power and internet in one of the many 2014 snow storms, Microsoft’s Cloud Office 365 Power BI for Excel launched last week. The Twittersphere was buzzing. BI and technology news outlets flooded the channels with articles and advertisements. I thought about adding my thoughts right away on launch day like I usually do but this time I held back because I was a little surprised by the messaging. I will dig into that deeper at the end. Since Cloud subscriptions are a much more lucrative business model for Microsoft than the install an app and use it for 10 years model, you will be hearing A LOT about this new subscription-based Excel Cloud BI if you have not already. If you live near Tampa, Florida, I welcome you to come to my Excel Advanced Analytics class this coming Friday that will cover several Power BI topics.

I have written a few blogs and articles in industry publications on the Power BI topic since the announcement last July 2013 at WPC. Feel free to search my new blog site with tag Power BI to find them. Power BI is NOT a traditional Microsoft BI developer platform like SSAS, SSRS, PeformancePoint, etc. It is a new Excel offering that is a bit of a Cloud island right now. I am assuming that it will eventually easily integrate with on-premise Microsoft BI and other Azure hosted Microsoft BI offerings. Right now no one seems to know HOW to get on-premise Microsoft BI and other Azure hosted Microsoft BI seamlessly integrated with Power BI or Office 365 for that matter. Things like authentication across Cloud worlds and on-premise with Cloud worlds for single-sign on, row level data security and transparent user experience has not been communicated broadly yet. The partner community is anxiously waiting out here for documentation, white papers and material on those topics. I have already had a few accounts inquire and no one can provide them an answer – not AzureCAT/SQLCAT, Microsoft technical field teams, MCS, MVPs, etc. If you have these answers, please do share them. Many groups migrating to Office 365 with on-premise Microsoft BI deployments are asking these questions for future-proofing technical architecture designs.

Congratulations is in Order
Kudos to the engineering groups over there for this significant accomplishment. Microsoft’s BI engineering teams shifted focus last year mid-stream to the Cloud First, Cloud only mission. They also had to work with Office more closely than ever before to unify the often overlapping Office BI, SharePoint BI and SQL Server BI teams to deliver Cloud BI as an Office Excel solution. There are still feature overlaps in the array of Power BI Excel add-ins but the Excel delivery vehicle will ease mass distribution. It already has with the cooked in Power Pivot and Power View in Excel 2013 that was first previewed in July 2012.

Speaking of Power View, that team did triple-twisting backflips to rebuild Silverlight Power View with an HTML5 option – it seems super close to completed. Once that is done, I imagine we will finally see improvements in Power View functionality. When that happens, competition within the BI market will get much more interesting over the next few years with customers asking is Excel Power BI good enough. In late May 2014, I am giving a presentation at the International Data Warehouse, Business Analytics and BI Conference 2014 in Rome, Italy that is titled Is Microsoft’s Power BI in Excel a BI and Data Discovery “Killer App”? In that session I plan to explore BOTH sides of that topic. Excel historically was designed for the masses, cover the basic needs and leave deep analytical features for partners, SAS, SPSS or other vendors to fill. The Power BI name and higher than expected pricing do speak volumes as to longer-term intent. Let’s just say that Rome session should be a fun and thought provoking event!

One under the radar, huuuuuuge feature that is not ready yet but is coming soon for Power BI Power View is external, anonymous access…being able to embed a Power BI Power View on a Web Site. I was so surprised none of the news articles or marketing messaging included that super hot tid bit that could be a real game changer for Microsoft. I suspected this was coming soon. Shish’s demo seems to work on my Windows 8, my iPhone but not my iPad. Other folks report it works on Android and iPad.

Now Available in Office 365
The following Cloud Office 365 Power BI features are now available to the general public with a Power BI paid subscription:

  • Power BI Excel 2013 Add-Ins: Power Query and Power Map (Power Pivot and Power View are already embedded in Excel 2013 Professional Plus)
  • Office 365 Power BI Sites, an add-on service for several Office 365 packages and also a stand-alone package
  • Power Query Sharing
  • Data Management Gateway (one way data copies to the Office 365 Power BI Cloud from on-premise sources)
  • Data Catalog and Data Search
  • Q&A
  • Some Scheduled Data Refresh capability with OData, SQL Server and Oracle with a Daily minimum level of full refreshes
  • Browser-based Mobile BI for non-Windows devices and a Power BI native mobile app for Windows devices (native app for iOS never seems to come)

If you do have Office 365 and a Power BI Preview Site like me, you will need to sort through what versions and features to buy by early March. I am guessing there will be some emailed warnings but just in case you should check your Site Admin to figure out what you want to buy to keep your projects fully functional when the preview extended trial version expires.

Sending the Wrong Message
On to the messaging topic that I mentioned at the start. What is odd to me about messaging in this specific Power BI launch release is things that I find beautiful and exciting are not talked about at all while other things that are being shouted everywhere are totally misleading. Nice things like the speed and ease of spinning up a Power BI solution. The changing, slicing/dicing and drilling of Excel pivot table reports from a web browser on a desktop, tablet or phone. The nice array of data sources and ETL features in Power Query. The coming soon external, anonymous access that people have wanted for years now. Excel’s on-going user interface make-over. Have you looked at Excel 2013’s user interface when you create a report? It is really gorgeous and keeps getter prettier. They are secretly making some really incredible user interface rendering enhancements that I can see/tell. Do you see it? Smoothe, sleek graphics on the desktop and browser… I suppose useful, practical and many wonderful little things are not marketing messaging worthy and won’t get as many web site hits as the big data SEO and social media hashtags.

What really bothered me about this launch messaging was the lies about Power BI and Big Data – not stretches of capabilities or spinning the solution at an attractive angle. Nope, flat out lies and really smart people are being bamboozled by it. Power BI has 1000 point rendering limits in Power View right now and 250 MB file size limits…250 MB is NOT big data! Yes Power Pivot can work with Hive ODBC and Power Query can connect to Hadoop and unstructured web data sources… Great BUT telling your customers that Power BI Power Pivot can work with BILLIONS and BILLIONS of records is a lie. Here are the current Power BI and Power Pivot limitations. They are a far cry from customer’s perceptions of big data sizes. What ends up happening out here is customers think the solution is broken or buggy when it does not work. Trusting customers incorrectly specify a Power BI solution that won’t work. Minimally, excited customers run to the office and give it a whirl only to CTRL + ALT + DELETE hours later and are disappointed. I asked a respectable MVP if even stand-alone, 64-bit Excel 2013 Power Pivot could load billions of records now since in my Excel 2013 POCs I could never get more than 80 to 100 million for a 5 to 10 column data set. I do know what I am doing and I am familiar with the Workbook Size Optimizer. Aside from lifted memory limits in 2013, realistically I know that you would not be able to get billions of records loaded in Excel 2013 desktop Power Pivot. The MVP said maybe a one or two column data set with many recurring values with large amounts of RAM… Again, a one or two column data set with many recurring values is not at all a realistic analysis scenario. Business users most likely have 8GB of RAM or less on their machines. I did my POCs on 16GB RAM or 32 GB RAM machines and even then the Excel user interface was just too slow. It made much more sense to use Excel Power Pivot with smaller data volumes and upgrade those models to SSAS Tabular Model for large data set loads. SSAS Tabular loads data a zillion times faster in those situations.

The other message that was totally misleading was NO TRAINING required. I am only slightly biased since training is 2% of my business. Sure there is low training for plain Excel with Power View but Power Pivot and DAX do have larger learning curves. DAX is a steep learning curve similar to MDX but supposedly a little easier. By sending that no training message to customers, they are unfairly setting many folks up to fail that might have been granted the opportunity to get training budgeted, get time to learn it and be successful with it. I have seen way too many incorrectly designed, one table Power Pivot workbooks on support calls with customers that were saying time intelligence in Power Pivot does not work. Some business user customers have no idea what dimensional modeling is, why data can’t be repeated in Power Pivot tables in designs, what is a time dimension, how to create a DAX calculation, how come they can’t subtract Excel C1 from B1 in Power Pivot, 101 type questions… There is also a lot of confusion around what feature to use when. If customers have to teach themselves, a lot of folks won’t. Those folks will miss out on better ways to do things in Power BI’s flavor of Excel. There is a plethora of new functionality in Power Pivot, Power Query, M scripting, the Power BI Sites, Sharing Queries properly and publishing Data efficiently to avoid creating a Cloud version of Excel hell per se. There are governance features within Power BI that users should be trained on before ever having access to publish on the Cloud Power BI Site system. I could go on and on but I will leave it at that. No training…what a crummy message to send.

Broader BI Market Impacts
It is getting interesting to see where Power BI is heading – and – reviewing the other BI vendor responses, messages and changing positioning strategies. I would imagine we will see many more BI players not singing the better together tune but will become more aggressive in attacking Excel weaknesses, positioning their own solutions in a unique light and getting ready for the more challenging BI and analytics battles in the years ahead.