Microsoft previews free, updated Power BI business intelligence tool

A new edition of the company's data visualization tool is now freely downloadable

James Phillips, General Manager for Data Experiences, Microsoft. Corp.

James Phillips, General Manager for Data Experiences, Microsoft. Corp.

Aiming at a mass business-user audience, Microsoft has released a preview of the next version of its cloud-based data visualization software, Power BI, with a promise to maintain a free option even after its general release.

Starting Tuesday, businesses can sign up at PowerBI.com to test it (the first version premiered last February). A free version of the software is available immediately from the Apple App Store for the iPad. Power BI will also be available for free later this year for the iPhone, Android, and Windows 10.

Through a free, downloadable component of the software called Power BI Designer, users can produce dynamically updated dashboards, with interactive, animated charts of corporate data. The software is designed so that elements of those dashboards can be easily shared with other Power BI users, with or without Excel. A variety of connectors allow Power BI users to set up live links to a wide range of data sources.

A version of the software called Power BI Pro, with additional data capacity and enterprise features, will be made available to subscribers at $9.99 per user per month, effective Feb. 1.

"Power BI allows business users to directly connect with their data," said James Phillips, a Microsoft general manager. "In the past, if I wanted to use business intelligence, my data was locked up by IT, or sitting inside of an SAP system or a Teradata warehouse or a SQL Server data analysis cube."

Today, the data being used to run businesses is, more and more, hosted by cloud-based software like Salesforce, Workday, and SuccessFactors. That data is now accessible by way of login credentials and public APIs, in a way that even on-site data has not been before, Phillips continued.

A new wave of BI tools, including Tableau, Pentaho, Sisense, and Qlik, aims to help companies make sense of their growing abundance of data, both on-site and in the cloud. Last year, analyst firm Gartner gave Microsoft grief for not having updated -- and discounted -- its BI suite in the face of more powerful, cloud-based competition, as well as for placing too much leverage on Excel for its reporting functions.

"There's a transformation that is occurring on the business user side -- it's not data science and propeller-head stuff, but it is becoming more data-aware, more data-centered," said Phillips. "And as tools like Power BI allow you to connect people with data effortlessly, you set up the ability for people to become more data-conscious and data-driven... versus a world where everything is intuition, and everyone runs on gut, and you think you know what the answers are but you don't have the ability to measure and understand whether you are right."

In a product demonstration, Phillips showed how PowerBI enables a company with a Microsoft account to log onto a data visualization service hosted by Azure, and in minutes, authorize that service to connect to cloud-based or on-site data sources. (Anyone who has a U.S. business email account can use the preview version.) The particular data source he showed off was Salesforce, where companies' global sales performance data is kept in real-time.

Seconds after making the connection, PowerBI estimated which types of charts would be most meaningful for drawing correlations between elements of connected data. In moments (under 30 seconds, in Phillips' demo), the system produced a surprisingly complete dashboard with live, animated, interactive charts, inside the user's browser. Since the chart is rendered using HTML5, Internet Explorer can be used though is not required.

"Now we're connecting live with Salesforce," Phillips said, "so I'm logging on with my credentials, I get the data that I have permission to see, and we're creating a new dashboard. There's my data, out of Salesforce, just like that. It did not require me to go to an analyst or to a business intelligence technical professional. I got connected with data that was available to me immediately.

Power BI allows users to gain insight from the data they already have in existing data analysis systems such as Hadoop and Azure Stream Analytics, Phillips emphasized, saying, "it doesn't mandate that you run off and re-architect your world; it meets you where you are and pulls you forward."

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