Before Steve Ballmer even announced the "One Microsoft" reorganisation, he'd started talking about Power BI as a key product for the company because of the powerful natural language queries. You can just type in questions like 'monthly sales by category' and receive charts ready formatted for you. But Power BI has been tied to very Microsoft ways of working – Excel, Silverlight and SQL Server. That's changing in the new release which has just been unveiled, says James Phillips.
Six months ago Phillips, the co-founder of NoSQL database Couchbase, became the general manager of "data experiences" at Microsoft, taking over Power BI – that's the third leg of Microsoft's data story alongside SQL Server (which he once competed with at Couchbase) and the SQL Azure version, and Azure ML (the machine learning service for working with your data).
Put them together and the Microsoft data strategy is a "simple promise" Phillips told TechRadar: "For every byte of data that enters the Microsoft data platform – whether it enters through SQL Azure or through a connection to a database on-premise – that will be exposed as a collection of value. You can do machine learning on it, you can build apps with it, you can do business intelligence on it. We're pulling it all together and allowing customers to wring value out of every piece of data they put into the platform."
The difference from previous generations of BI isn't just the tools – it's the idea of what data you can get intelligence from, and how much of a technical expert you have to be.
"The first-generation was technical business intelligence for the data professional, the database admin who understood OLAP models and cubes of data," he explains. Microsoft has done very well in that market: "We're the unit leader – there are more cubes running our system than any other product on the planet." But times have moved on.
"The second-generation is the move to self-service BI; that's where you've got Excel, you've got Tableau – you've got solutions a business analyst can pick up and use. You may not know OLAP, or be able to install a database, but you can get value out of it and create analytical reports."
The new Power BI Designer software for creating visual reports is obviously designed to compete with Tableau, which Phillips calls "a solution that's very focused on meeting a smaller need" than Excel, which he notes offers "unbelievably powerful ad hoc analysis". He views both Tableau and Power BI Designer as tools to use alongside Excel – "I've yet to meet a Tableau user who does not also use Excel."
BI finally goes cloud
Power BI Designer will be free too, "because arming business analysts with tools to model and visualise data should not cost an arm and a leg". That's another indication that Microsoft is gunning for Tableau in this release but Phillips says the opportunity is far bigger than that.
"I think we're entering a new generation of BI. Think about services like IBM Watson Analytics or Salesforce analytics cloud. It's the move to finally allow business users to adopt BI without being technical professionals. That's where we are putting all the wood behind the arrow."
The big change is that so much data is now going into cloud services that BI can also finally become a cloud service. "Businesses have their data in Salesforce, in Marketo, in Mailchimp and so on. So we're finally able to deliver a BI solution as a cloud service, because they have adopted services where their data is accessible to them."
If you use Salesforce or Marketo or Zendesk or GitHub or SendGrid (or Microsoft Dynamics CRM), you can open your data in Power BI in just a few clicks, and get a set of pre-built dashboards that you can use or configure the way you want them – and Microsoft is working with other services to get them connected (the next few will be Inkling Markets, Intuit, Microsoft Dynamics Marketing, Sage, Sumo Logic, Visual Studio Application Insights and Visual Studio Online).
You don't just get your cloud data, you get the data model – which means the natural language Q&A feature works straight away. He also points out that users don't need the technical expertise for Power BI that Watson demands.
This cloud connection puts Microsoft in a good position for today's web data and tomorrow's Internet of Things data. Databases and BI started in the transactional world of software designed to run your business, but "in the last decade and a half businesses have not just been using software the way they used to," Phillips points out.
"They have also used software in a different way to talk to customers. With websites and mobile applications, they're serving not just employees but customers measured in the millions or, if you're lucky, in the billions. That puts a pressure on transactional systems that is unprecedented and try as we have to tune it, twist it, turn it and harden it, you just need a different hammer."
Look forward and the problem just gets worse. "We've gone from systems of record to systems of engagement and there's another newer trend. Whatever business you're in, whatever you make is spewing data and it comes at very high velocity. That requires a different way of thinking about how I capture information because not only do I need to transact, I also need to respond to something happening in that stream."
That means a fundamental change in what you care about in BI, he believes. "Today BI almost always looks in the rear-view mirror. You get data, and then tomorrow you get it again. Now we're pivoting from historical only to real-time backed by historical."
Doing more cheaper
All that on-premise data still matters too, of course, and Phillips points out the "hundreds of thousands of data models on the planet that are in Microsoft SQL Server and Data Analysis Services." Power BI can automatically discover those – Phillips demonstrated that by finding a very long list of internal Microsoft databases – but you only get access if you have Active Directory permissions to use them. "You can connect it up to Power BI but you never have to move data to the cloud; it stays on-premise, locked inside your role level security model and you only get the data you're allowed."
He thinks Microsoft is unique in being able to handle both. "We cover the gamut on ways to build software systems and get value from data coming out of those systems."
Phillips calls Power BI "the face of the Microsoft data strategy – it will be the tip of the spear for everything we do". In this new release, that means a free service you can sign up for with just an email address (as long as you're in the US – the international version follows soon). "No details, no credit cards, no CAL, no software," he promises – and much lower prices. "What we're selling today as the pro tier will be under $10 (around £6.50, AU$12.50) per user per month."