Microsoft today took the wraps off Power BI for Office 365, its new self-service business intelligence (BI) service built on Excel and Office 365.
"Businesses today are feeling the impact of some important trends that are converging in the enterprise: the growth of cloud services, a marked increase in data volume and processing needs and employee demand for more simplified, intuitive connections with that data," says Eron Kelly, general manager of product marketing for SQL Server at Microsoft. "In response to these trends, we've created Power BI for Office 365, which dramatically reduces the barriers for businesses of all sizes to use and deploy self-service BI tools."
Microsoft has made no bones about its view that Excel is the most-used BI tool in the world, and its efforts in the BI space took a leap forward several years ago with the introduction of PowerPivot and Power View, which gave users new data modeling and visualization capabilities. And last year the software behemoth expanded its existing relationship with Hadoop distribution provider Hortonworks to provide a solution for deploying and managing Hadoop on Windows, but also to provide the ability to use Excel, PowerPivot for Excel and Power View for BI and data visualization on data in Hadoop.
With today's announcement, Microsoft is complementing those capabilities with Power Query (formerly Data Explorer) and Power Map (formerly GeoFlow). Power Query gives users the capability to discover, access and combine data—whether it's publicly available data or data proprietary to the enterprise, or both. For instance, you could create a spreadsheet from a Twitter feed, dividing the Twitter messages, dates, locations and users into separate columns, and then mash that data up with internal data for new insights.
Meanwhile, Power Map adds the capability to create rich, 3D geospatial visualizations in Excel. For instance, you can place geographically coded data on a map provided by Bing Maps, visually summarizing how many Twitter messages originated in each city in a country, indicating the number of messages by the height of a bar that rises above the location of the map.
"This comprehensive set of capabilities in Excel gives the over one billion Office users the ability to do more with their data through quick, easy-to-use, familiar tools," Kelly says. "Business users can now search for new data sets both inside and outside their company that can be combined and analyzed within Excel. These new tools not only make it easy to connect to traditional structured data, but also allow business users to easily connect to Hadoop clusters in a company's data center or to Windows Azure HDInsight in the cloud."
New Business Intelligence and Administration Features
While self-service is the name of the game, Microsoft is also aiming to help IT manage it with a Data Management Gateway, which is desinged to give IT the capability to build connections to on-premises data sources and schedule refreshes to make sure business users always have access to the most up-to-date data, whether accessing it from a desktop or a mobile device. At the same time, data stewards will have the capability to manage and monitor the data views created for their individual and team's analyses.
"What's really cool about the Power BI service is that IT will also be able to create a private data catalog that will allow it to publish data sets for end users to search and discover," Kelly adds.
At the same time, Microsoft is also focusing its efforts on collaboration with BI Sites, which Kelly likens to a SharePoint collection for BI projects. They are dedicated workspaces optimized for BI projects that provide real-time access through HTML5 browsers as well as touch-optimized mobile applications for Windows 8, Windows RT, Surface and iPad devices.
Kelly notes Microsoft has also added Q&A, a natural language query that's designed to let you ask questions of your data in natural language and receive an interactive table, chart or graph in response. This, Kelly says, means even non-power users who don't know how to structure SQL queries can use the tool to get relevant results. For instance, a user could ask "How much revenue did product X generate last year?" and receive a graph showing the data.
Kelly says the public preview of Power BI for Office 365 will be available this summer. You can sign up to be notified when the preview is available.
Thor Olavsrud covers IT Security, Big Data, Open Source, Microsoft Tools and Servers for CIO.com. Follow Thor on Twitter @ThorOlavsrud. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Thor at email@example.com