The big data revolution continues in earnest and enterprises continue to generate more and more data about every business interaction they can track. Couple this with the volume of data now being generated by devices and sensors connected via the Internet of Things, and you begin to appreciate the universal need for better data visualization.

All of this generated data must be transformed into actionable information that decision makers can use. Data visualizations in the form of dashboards and reports must be developed and shared throughout the enterprise, crossing departmental and sometimes even international lines.

Microsoft’s Power BI suite of data visualization tools is designed to accomplish the transformation of data into useful information. This cheat sheet explains everything you need to know about Microsoft’s data visualization toolset, Power BI. This article is also available as a download, Cheat sheet: Microsoft Power BI (free PDF).

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

Executive summary

  • What is Microsoft Power BI? Power BI is a set of data visualization tools that allows users to transform collected data into actionable information for decision makers.
  • Why does Microsoft Power BI matter? In a modern enterprise, the ability to transform data into something useful is paramount to overall success.
  • Who does Microsoft Power BI affect? Power BI is a vital tool for any enterprise employee trying to communicate information to management, stakeholders, or other decision makers.
  • When is Microsoft Power BI available? Microsoft Power BI is available now.
  • How do I get Microsoft Power BI? A free trial version of Power BI is available for download from Microsoft. Office 365 subscribers already have access to Power BI as part of the general suite of applications.

SEE: Microsoft Power BI: Data analytics goes mainstream (TechRepublic Premium)

What is Microsoft Power BI?

Power BI is Microsoft’s suite of data visualization tools. The suite allows users to transform data found within, and even outside of, the enterprise. Power BI can tap into numerous data sources, including SQL Server, Excel, Salesforce, and Google Analytics.

As of June 2019, Power BI can readily access more than 100 data sources, which are listed in the common connector library on Microsoft’s website.

Mark W. Kaelin

In an effort to simplify and democratize the application of data visualization at all levels of an organization, Microsoft continues to add new features to Power BI, including a June 2019 update to the user interface, accompanied by integrated Siri shortcuts for iOS, visual level filtering for data slices, and the addition of a personalized visualization pane.

Beyond interface improvements, Microsoft has also added enhanced access to cloud-based computer features, including artificial intelligence resources through Azure Cognitive Services and Machine Learning. To further drive enterprise-wide data-driven decision making, Microsoft has improved its embedded analytics features.

Additional resources

Why does Microsoft Power BI matter?

The ability to transform the huge amount of data generated by business enterprises into some form of actionable information that decision makers can use on a regular basis is critical to the success of the enterprise. Power BI provides tools for transforming raw data into information that can be presented in dashboards, documents, and reports.

SEE: Microsoft Power BI: Getting started with data visualization (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The addition of several new features in the Power BI June 2019 update continue to serve Microsoft’s mission to democratize data visualization across all levels of an organization. Microsoft argues that more personalized views, shared and certified datasets, and the development of simple, fast, intuitive user experiences in Power BI opens access to the benefits of data visualization to more users within the enterprise and enhances the flow of actionable information to more decision makers.

What are the primary competitors to Microsoft Power BI?

As the need for informative data visualizations within enterprises has risen so has the level of competition. The concept of tools that allow the democratization of data analysis and visualization has created a new niche market that is nearly irresistible.

Prominent products in this market competing directly with Power BI include IBM Watson Analytics, Tableau Desktop, and Google Analytics. There are also dozens of smaller companies offering specialized data visualization products and all of them are vying to take share from the largest players and each other.

But they are not the only companies vying for this market. Enterprise-wide database software producers like Oracle and SAP are also looking to move their large-scale analytic products down to departments and individuals. These companies are attempting to move tools that once were the domain of a few highly-specialized individuals down the organization hierarchy, which should help keep customers within their sphere of influence.

In 2019, there have been several high-profile and high-stakes mergers and acquisitions involving companies specializing in data visualization systems and software. In June, enterprise CRM specialist Salesforce announced it was purchasing Tableau Software for $15.7 billion in stock. This acquisition comes on the heels of an announced purchase of BI and analytics firm Looker for $2.6 billion by Alphabet, presumably for its Google Cloud Services.

The size of these acquisitions and mergers indicates just how valuable data visualization software and systems have become to the modern business enterprise. Microsoft is not alone in its belief that the democratization of data visualization software and services across all levels of an organization is a powerful, and lucrative, endeavor.

Additional resources

Who does Microsoft Power BI affect?

Anyone in an enterprise who needs to communicate information to their department, managers, vendors, or to the organization in general can use Power BI’s data visualization tools to make it happen. Power BI has a number of templates to get even the most technology-challenged user started, and Microsoft provides many free educational training videos that can help turn novice users into experts.

Additional resources

When is Microsoft Power BI available?

Microsoft Power BI is available now, and new features are added to the suite of tools periodically.

Additional resources

How do I get Microsoft Power BI?

Power BI is available in several different ways. The most obvious is as a free web service users can access with a standard web browser. The free service is limited to cloud data sources and simple dashboard sharing, and it’s restricted to individual use. The free service is limited to 1GB of capacity per day.

The Power BI Pro service is subscription-based and costs $9.99 per user per month. The Pro version allows users to access all supported data sources and is designed for business use. This version is limited to 10GB of capacity per day.

A desktop version of Power BI is also available for download. And enterprises with large mobile workforces can use the mobile version of Power BI, which is available on Windows 10, Apple iOS, and Android platforms.

For Office 365 subscribers, Power BI is available at no additional cost as part of the productivity suite. Users with the appropriate Office 365 subscriptions and administrative credentials can also download a desktop or mobile version of Power BI to use at their workstations or on their mobile devices. Power BI and its data sources are administered at the enterprise level, so you may have to ask your IT department for access.

In June 2017, Microsoft released Power BI Premium, which is an enterprise version of the data visualization product. The Premium version allows reports and dashboards to be distributed widely throughout an enterprise, and even externally, without requiring the audience to have individual licenses. This version of Power BI is cloud-based with capacity that can adjust to usage as necessary. The base price is $625/month, but pricing will likely vary for each enterprise.

Additional resources

Power BI 101

Get a leg up on your career by learning the basics of data visualization and Microsoft Power BI with these TechRepublic articles.

Image: Microsoft

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2016.

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