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Fast-and-furious Microsoft BI update brings Excel integration

New features in Microsoft's cloud BI tool give users a raft of data visualization capabilities, including the ability to analyze Power BI data in Excel.

The Power BI development and release cycle is not what longtime Microsoft BI users expect.

Microsoft's young, cloud-based business intelligence tool is growing up fast -- thanks, in part, to the fact that the entire Power BI data visualization stack is open sourced, and the company's own engineers deliver updates to Power BI weekly.

This week, Microsoft delivered row-level security, new controls in the Power BI Admin Center and support for a top-requested feature: deeper integration with Excel. To date, it has added more than 250 new features, largely in response to user requests, since releasing a revamped version of Power BI last July.

While quick response to good suggestions is the right direction, some IT pros wonder whether the pace is sustainable -- for Microsoft and Power BI users alike.

"Weekly cloud updates and monthly desktop deployments? That's a pretty intense schedule, especially when you consider that a lot of these updates tend to have new features; they aren't always just bug fixes," said Justin Stanley, whose work at a software company includes helping  technical operations managers acquire and interpret data from a variety of sources. 

Sustainable, fast updates? Maybe

"If I were a betting man, I'd be willing to stake a shiny nickel or two on the idea that the release cycle will start to lengthen as the product matures," said Stanley, who attended Microsoft's Data Insights Summit in Bellevue, Wash., this week. At this pace, by next year, there likely won't be many features to add, he said.

Indeed, Microsoft is quickly filling the gaps in its data visualization tool and has already hit the top of the self-service BI heap, along with Tableau and Qlik. At least, that's where consultancies Gartner and Forrester Research put the company in their latest rankings of BI tools.

In The Forrester Wave: Agile Business Intelligence Platforms, Q3 2015 report, Forrester analyst Boris Evelson said Microsoft has dominated and will continue to dominate the market with the most commonly used BI platform worldwide -- Excel. But with every update to the Power BI software, Evelson wrote, "Microsoft makes it more difficult for large enterprises that have already deployed Microsoft Office, Office365, SharePoint and SQL Server not to consider Power BI as its enterprise BI platform."

That's the case for Stanley, who does the vast majority of his work in Excel and with Power Pivot, Microsoft's data analysis add-in for the spreadsheet software, but plans to jump into the cloud-based Power BI after this week's summit.

The familiar Excel UI, agile in-memory Power Pivot architecture, hybrid deployment support, BI functionality -- from data sourcing to visual storytelling -- and low cost sets Power BI apart from the competition, according to Evelson.

Microsoft BI pricing is certainly a draw. As a cloud service, there aren't upfront software, hardware and support costs, and Power BI Pro costs $9.95 per user, per month, compared with Tableau Online, which costs $500 per user, per year -- or about $42 per month. Another leading self-service BI tool, Qlik Sense Cloud Plus, costs $20 per user, per month.

When the new Power BI launched last summer, it was priced at $39.95 per user, per month and required an Office 365 subscription. Eliminating the subscription requirement and lowering the price, while quickly adding new features has sped adoption, according to analysts.

So far, 200,000 companies use it, with over 5 million subscribers by Microsoft's count. Another reason for the quick success is, of course, that Microsoft has a massive user base to draw from, and Power BI has deep integration with other widely used Microsoft applications.

One such app, Excel, just got a deeper reach into Power BI.

What's new in Power BI

The top-requested capability among users on the Microsoft BI UserVoice forum is to analyze Power BI data in Excel. Now, they have it. Users can click an "Analyze in Excel" button to open the spreadsheet app, and Excel can then access data in Power BI.  

Power BI publisher for Excel is also generally available now. It lets users move snapshots of pivot tables, charts, cell ranges and more from spreadsheets to a BI dashboard, which can then be shared.

A new row-level security feature in Power BI  lets IT set different access rights to data based on the user and a set of rules, so users see only the data they need -- another highly sought feature.

Also, Power BI's Admin Portal now includes a usage matrix that allows IT managers to see which dashboards, content packs and data sets are being used the most, giving them more visibility for improved governance.

Another new capability, which drew oohs and ahs from Data Insights Summit attendees, but may be just a cool-to-have item, is that Power BI dashboards will be available for displaying on the Apple Watch starting this month.

Microsoft also demonstrated a custom visual for Power BI, called SandDance. Available in preview mode now, it represents every row of data as an element on the screen, with animated transitions between views to help users visualize data in various ways, including 3D models with 360-degree views.

Power BI Desktop is getting a boost as well, including trend lines for graphs and the ability to drill down into specific data points within aggregated data -- a feature called Drill Through. Both of those features will be available this spring. The Power BI tables in reports, now monochromatic and inflexible, are also being improved with color and style formatting properties to customize tables.

Next Steps

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Microsoft puts spotlight on Power BI at Convergence conference

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