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Microsoft steadily adding to Power BI analytics platform

The tech giant continues to add functionality to its BI platform, recently including a feature that will enable Premium users to run reports with only the freshest data.

While Microsoft rarely does major Power BI platform updates, the tech giant adds new analytics features and capabilities on a regular basis.

A major addition in 2021 was the introduction of Goals in Power BI, a performance tracker first introduced in preview in May of last year that enables Power BI platform users to curate metrics and business objectives, and assemble them in a single location for a unified view.

Users can then measure progress against those goals using data curated in Power BI to develop performance scorecards, share updates and take proactive action when metrics and business objectives aren't being met.

New additions

More recent highlights include the introduction of Hybrid Tables, a tool now in preview that will be part of Power BI Premium, and a preview of Power BI visualizations within Power Apps and Dynamics 365.

Hybrid Tables, unveiled in December 2021, will better enable users of Power BI Premium to run queries and develop reports and dashboards using only the most up-to-date data. Previously, in order to run queries and build analytics assets using the most recent data, Power BI platform users had to perform a data set refresh.

Hybrid Tables eliminates that need, balancing the capabilities of Power BI's import mode, which enables high-performing queries but not always on the freshest data, and DirectQuery mode, which enables queries on the freshest data but at the expense of report performance.

"I'd say the most significant [recent] announcement was the preview of Hybrid Tables," said Doug Henschen, an analyst at Constellation Research.

He added that though Microsoft referenced real-time data in its description of Hybrid Tables, it is not a data streaming tool.

"That said, I'm sure it will drive low-enough latency to support the vast majority of use cases," Henschen said.

I increasingly think of Power BI as the cornerstone of the Power Platform. Organizations continue to use BI and analytics to document and report on performance, but [they] are also increasingly pushing to make insights actionable to drive better performance.
Doug HenschenAnalyst, Constellation Research

The introduction of Power BI visualizations within Power Apps and Dynamics 365, meanwhile, increases the embedded analytics capabilities of the Microsoft Power Platform by enabling users to embed business intelligence assets created in Power BI into custom applications developed with Power Apps and within Dynamics 365.

"I increasingly think of Power BI as the cornerstone of the Power Platform," Henschen said. "Organizations continue to use BI and analytics to document and report on performance, but [they] are also increasingly pushing to make insights actionable to drive better performance. Microsoft's development of the Power Platform is right in tune with the desire to make insights actionable."

While Henschen highlighted Hybrid Tables and new embedded analytics capabilities, Amir Netz, technical fellow and CTO of Power BI, pointed to the unveiling of natural language calculation authoring and new automatic insights in reports -- both in preview -- as recent highlights.

Natural language calculation authoring, expected to be generally available in spring 2022, will enable Power BI report authors to create calculations using natural language rather than code.

"This will help beginners quickly create basic calculations easily and help seasoned [coders] generate more sophisticated calculations in less time than before," Netz said.

New automatic insights in reports, meanwhile, will proactively alert users to interesting insights in their reports and provide explanations for the insights.

Beyond the capabilities mentioned by Henschen and Netz, notable new features added to the Power BI platform in December 2021 and January 2022 include the following:

  • updated connectors to Azure Data Explorer, Tibco Data Virtualization and Exasol;
  • support for Goals in Power BI Mobile;
  • API enhancements that provide administrators with more visibility and governance control over subscriptions and user access;
  • an extension in preview that enables users to integrate Power BI content into automated processes in Azure DevOps; and
  • the unveiling of Process Mining in preview, which will enable users to better glean insights across their organizations' daily business processes.
Screenshot of employee progress displayed in a Goals in Power BI dashboard
A sample Goals dashboard in Power BI displays the progress of an organization's initiatives that relate to a given employee.

The ecosystem

Perhaps more important than the individual features Microsoft has added to the Power BI platform in recent months is the totality of what the tech giant is adding each month, according to Mike Leone, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

While Hybrid Tables, added embedded analytics capabilities, natural language calculation authoring and automatic insights in reports will help create a better user experience for Power BI customers when performing particular tasks, collectively they add speed and efficiency.

"The recent announcements are an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts," Leone said. "There has been a continued focus on enabling data access and integration across data tools and businesses.

"Between data connectivity features, deployment pipelines and automation tools, Microsoft is focused on empowering data stakeholders to work better, faster and smarter," he continued.

That focus on empowering users to work better, faster and smarter, meanwhile, is keeping the Power BI platform competitive. While peers might be the first to introduce new capabilities, and others may choose to specialize in one area to stand out, Microsoft is able to respond quickly and develop those same capabilities for Power BI.

For example, while vendors such as Toucan Toco and Narrative Science specialized in data storytelling and Yellowfin made innovative data storytelling capabilities part of its main analytics platform, Microsoft responded by adding smart narratives in September 2020.

"Power BI continues to be the gorilla in the room," Leone said. "Between market share, continuous innovation, partner ecosystem and wider integration throughout the data ecosystem, they are not resting on their laurels."

Similarly, Henschen noted that the vast scope of Power BI -- plus its interoperability with other tools within the Power Platform -- is its strength.

"Power BI is backed by a tech giant that promotes it heavily and practically gives it away with enterprise license agreements," he said. "It's an increasingly capable platform, with AI and machine learning capabilities, recent upgrades in semantic modeling, and a platform complemented by Power Apps and [workflow creation platform] Power Automate."

But there is a downside to Power BI, according to Henschen. Part of its allure is its compatibility with the entire Microsoft ecosystem, including Microsoft Azure for cloud storage. That's fine for users who prefer Microsoft's tools for all of their analytics needs, but it's not ideal for users who store their data on multiple clouds.

"A commitment to use Power BI is also a de facto commitment to use Microsoft Azure and an inducement to use Microsoft data-management capabilities, [so] you face compromises if you have lots of data on other clouds," Henschen said. "Power BI starts with a desktop tool, but the real power offered is in the capabilities and ecosystem tethered to Microsoft applications and Microsoft Azure."

Roadmap

While Hybrid Tables, natural language calculation authoring and automatic insights in reports are all in preview, Microsoft has a host of other capabilities planned for the Power BI platform, according to Netz.

Among them are the general availability of automatic aggregations, which automatically create and manage in-memory aggregation tables in Power BI Premium data sets while in DirectQuery mode; new data visualizations called sparklines, which are charts shown with cells of a table or matrix that enable users to quickly compare multiple trends; and an update to Goals that will make it easier to integrate throughout an organization.

"We have a ton ... planned -- big and small -- for 2022," Netz said.

Enterprise Strategy Group is a division of TechTarget.

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