After months of public preview, Microsoft today is releasing the Power BI service to general availability. The preview was really a beta that evolved in these months, and I personally liked the approach that MS developers have now. I did not read the “it’s by design” answer to the many comments and suggestions provided in support forums and community areas, I have seen a continuous commitment to help users and partners in creating analytical solutions.

You can read the official announcements and many details in the Power BI blog. In this blog post, I want to focus on Power BI Desktop (formerly known as Power BI Designer) and then make a few considerations about the entire platform. Chris Webb wrote a good comment about the role of this tool in the Microsoft BI stack. I would like to add my personal point of view about that.

Power BI Desktop is a tool that you can download for free. It includes the features of Power Query, Power Pivot, and Power View, so you can create an analytical solution that works locally without any licensing cost. Someone read this as a strange move from a company like Microsoft, but things are changing and going to the cloud is not a question of “if” but of “when”. Thus, you start using Power BI Desktop today for a local model that works only on a single desktop. Whenever you will be ready to access cloud features (including the ability to use Power BI mobile apps to navigate your data on your mobile device), you will upload it to Power BI service. Which is still for free for personal use with 1GB of data uploaded to the cloud. You start to pay only to use the Power BI Pro features, which include collaboration (sharing with other people), on-premises gateways, hourly scheduled refresh, and larger data capacity (10GB/user). The cost is 9.99$ user/month, which is a competitive price from my point of view. More details in the pricing page of Power BI site.

However, the fact that Power BI Desktop is completely free is not what is more interesting to me. What is important is that I have seen what Microsoft did in the last 9 months, and if they will continue to keep the pace of new release and improvements, this tool will be something you will be ready to pay even on a desktop, because you will depend on it. The fact that it is free is just a welcome additional benefit. Let me list a few of the important facts I see here, not all of them are so highlighted in official announcements.

  • New in-memory engine: Power BI Desktop runs a local instance of the Analysis Services engine, which is the same engine that also runs Power Pivot for Excel (however, the engine here had 3-4 years of evolution since the version that runs current versions of Excel and Analysis Services). An important difference is that Power Pivot is an add-in that runs in-process, and its release is managed by the Office team. Consequence: slow update cycle, priority to compatibility with older versions, more complex tests. Since Power BI Desktop has an independent release cycle and runs locally in the user context, you will be able to update it more frequently. The engine we have now is the same that runs on Excel 2016, but in reality it already exposes features that are not part of Excel 2016, such as bidirectional cross-filter for relationships in the data model. The new engine has many performance improvements, but what I like more is the ability to get improvements with monthly updates, instead of waiting for service packs of a bigger beast like Office.
  • New DAX: all the DAX code you wrote is good and works, but there are new DAX functions and the syntax for DAX variables which are very important to simplify DAX code and improve performance.
  • New graphical engine: if you used Power View in the past, or you used Power BI Designer during the preview, be prepared. Power BI Desktop has a completely new graphical engine, based on D3.js, which is amazingly fast. All the graphical components created by Microsoft are also open-source (available on GitHub), and you can extend Power BI data visualizations by extending these classes. There is food for system integrator and ISVs here, but first of all the results in terms of user experience are very good. Maybe you will find some bug and some feature to improve, but the roadmap is clear and is very good. Power BI Desktop is not only a product, it is also a platform, it can become an entire ecosystem (adoption of Power BI service and Power BI Desktop will be important for that)
  • Complete design experience: if you used the Power BI Designer preview, forget the limitations you had. The Power BI Desktop released now has the ability to create DAX measures, calculated columns (seeing the preview of the result of your formula in a table-view similar to Power Pivot), relationships (you have the diagram view). You can edit longer DAX expressions in a decent window with a decent editor (only one formula at a time by now, I hope they will implement a sort of complete-script editor in the future).
  • Ready for hybrid solutions: if you have your data on-premises in Analysis Services Tabular, you can connect Power BI directly to the service, from both Power BI Desktop (which will be only a set of reports in that scenario, without a copy of the data in the PBIX file) and Power BI on the web (so the cloud service only renders the report, but data is not persisted on cloud servers and you can log and audit all the incoming queries to your on-premises server). As soon as the same feature will be available for Analysis Services Multidimensional (Microsoft already announced it, even if we still do not have a release date), the number of semantically-rich data models ready to be used in Power BI will grow exponentially in one day. Be ready for that.
  • Direct publishing on Power BI: you can publish your data model and reports from Power BI Desktop to the Power BI Service by clicking on a button in the Power BI Desktop user interface. The alternative is to upload the PBIX file to the server, not a big deal, but this integration will just make it easier and faster.
  • Integration with other vendors: a big news is that you can publish your report also on other servers. The Power BI Desktop has a Publish button that open a list of options (see Chris Webb’s post here). Power BI service is the first, and the second one will be Pyramid Server. Pyramid Analytics is the first vendor that implements the ability to publish a Power BI Desktop file to their server, which runs on-premises. This integration is not available yet and it will be released in the next few months. My understanding is that, once available, it will be possible to publish reports you design with Power BI Desktop without any access to any cloud service. I am really curious to see all the details, because you can imagine how many questions I have.
  • Integration with other services: the number of connectors (especially for other cloud services) available increased at a very fast pace, I have seen a new connector every week in the last months, and there are more to come. Probably Power BI is already the easiest way to get data from other cloud services and publish dashboards. One example over all is Google Analytics: Power BI is so quick and simple to get the most common used information that I use it on regular basis now, and I access to Google Analytics only when I need particular details.

As you see, this is a very technical and feature-oriented point of view. If you read between the lines, what is more important to me is that this is the foundation of a new ecosystem for business analytics. Involving partner in extending connectors, publishing, and visualizations is a key to achieve that goal. This was not here in previous versions of Power BI strongly integrated with Office 365. The connection with Office 365 is still here (you have more features available when you use One Drive for Business for navigating in Excel data models), but is not a precondition to start using the service.

This is the real challenge. Creating the reference ecosystem for Business Analytics. If you look at the market from this point of view, I would say that nobody has a clear leadership today. There are strong players in certain sectors, but nobody controls an ecosystem here. The next 12-18 months will say if the bet is right.