Review: Microsoft Power BI is no Tableau (yet)

Microsoft’s BI-as-a-service offering is capable and inexpensive, but lacks fine-grained control over visualizations

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Microsoft formerly offered a rather confusing array of centralized business intelligence, reporting, and analytics products aimed primarily at IT developers, with users often assumed to be working with Excel against on-premises SQL Server Analysis Server and SharePoint data sources. The company added cloud-based collaboration in Power BI for Office 365 in 2014, at a rich subscription price. This complemented the Power Query, Power Pivot, Power View and Power Map self-service BI features added to Excel 2013.

With the introduction of the new standalone Power BI, currently in preview, Microsoft hopes to compete with and perhaps leapfrog self-service BI products such as Tableau. The new Power BI includes a Web interface to a service hosted on Azure and a Power BI Designer application for the Windows desktop, and it’s much more modestly priced: A standard account and the Power BI Designer are both free, while a Pro account is $9.99 per user per month.

Both the website and the Designer application are updated on a regular basis. The Power BI Designer is updated monthly; it’s hard to tell when the site is updated.

Data import

You can import data into Excel, the Power BI Designer and the Azure site. It can come from Access, Active Directory, Azure SQL, DB2, Excel, Exchange, Facebook, GitHub, Google Analytics, HDFS, HDInsight, Marketo, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, Microsoft Dynamics Marketing, MySQL, OData, Oracle, Postgres, Power BI Designer files, Salesforce, SAP BusinessObjects BI Universe, SendGrid, SharePoint, SQL Server, SQL Server Analysis Services, Sybase, Teradata, Web tables, Visual Studio Online and Zendesk. (See Figure 1.)

Power BI

Figure 1. Power BI can connect to online, desktop (uploaded from your computer or residing on your OneDrive), and on-premises data. Connecting to an on-premises SQL Server Analysis Server requires installing a connector on your server.

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