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MJFChat: What's New With Microsoft's Power BI?

 

We’re doing a twice-monthly interview show on Petri.com that is dedicated to covering topics of interest to our tech-professional audience. We have branded this show “MJFChat.”

In my role as Petri’s Community Magnate, I will be interviewing a variety of IT-savvy technology folks. Some of these will be Petri contributors; some will be tech-company employees; some will be IT pros. We will be tackling various subject areas in the form of 30-minute audio interviews. I will be asking the questions, the bulk of which we’re hoping will come from you, our Petri.com community of readers.

Readers can submit questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or LinkedIn using the #AskMJF hashtag. Once the interviews are completed, we will post the audio and associated transcript in the forums for readers to digest at their leisure. (By the way, did you know MJFChats are now available in podcast form? Go here for MJF Chat on Spotify; here for Apple Podcasts on iTunes; and here for Google Play.)

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Our latest MJFChat is about what’s new with Microsoft’s Power BI business-intelligence platform. My special guest is Andrew Brust, a long-time Microsoft Regional Director, MVP and founder of Blue Badge Insights. Andrew has worked with the Microsoft BI stack since its inception in the very late 90s and knows his stuff. He and I talked about Power BI’s past, present and future in the course of this conversation.

If you know someone you’d like to see interviewed on the MJFChat show, including yourself, just Tweet to me or drop me a line. (Let me know why you think this person would be an awesome guest and what topics you’d like to see covered.) We’ll take things from there…

Mary Jo Foley:
Hi, you’re listening to Petri.Com’s MJF Chat show. I am Mary Jo Foley, AKA your Petri.com community magnate. And I am here to interview tech industry experts about various topics that you, our readers and listeners want to know about. Today’s MJF Chat is going to be all about Power BI, Microsoft’s analytics platform. And my special guest is Andrew Brust, founder of Blue Badge Insights and a long-time Microsoft MVP and RD. Hi Andrew, thanks so much for doing this chat today.

Andrew Brust:
Hi, Mary Jo. Thank you for having me. Good morning.

Mary Jo Foley:
Good morning. So for those of you who don’t know Andrew, he has worked with the Microsoft Power BI stack since its inception in the late 90’s. He also used to serve Microsoft’s BI Partner Advisory Council roughly from 2005 to 2011. I just learned this about you, by the way, from a story I read on ZDNet. So Andrew does know this stuff and it’s going to be very exciting to get him to explain it to us who kind of flounder around with Power BI. So I know this is a question that could be hours in terms of an answer, but I’m going to put you on the spot and say elevator pitch style, Microsoft’s not a newcomer to business intelligence. So give us a quick history just so we can put Power BI in context.

Andrew Brust:
Yeah. So let me try and give you the abridged version. Basically, Microsoft has been in the BI business since the late nineties, it started when they bought some technology from an Israeli company called Panorama and added it to SQL Server. It was at first called OLAP Services and was quickly renamed Analysis Services. And that was really their history. That platform became very standard, it’s query language and its protocols became industry standards as well. And so that’s really the legacy. But in terms of front end and kind of self-service BI, Microsoft really for, I would say a good 15 years, tried, swung, and missed in terms of getting in that market. Things started to change when this thing for Power Pivot came out, that was an add into Excel and then a companion to that called Power View. And eventually that morphed into Power BI and after only just a couple of years of runway, it gained huge momentum in the industry. And the cool thing is on the engine side, it’s actually using the same technology as Analysis Services. So while it’s a brand new product, it’s using the same technology that established itself as an enterprise standard. And so it’s good, Microsoft when they kind of embrace their strengths in their past, but then they add innovation on top.

Mary Jo Foley:
Okay. That’s good. That’s funny when you’re reciting all these names of products, I’m like, Oh yeah. I kind of remember covering that back in the 90’s, because I used to write, believe it or not, a lot about databases back then. So, okay. That’s interesting. I’m trying to put Power BI also in the context of Microsoft Power Platform. Because when they talk about Power Platform, they always say it’s Power Apps, Power Automate, and Power BI. And I always feel a bit like Power BI is the odd one out here. But I’m curious, how do you see Power BI fitting in with the rest of the Power Platform?

Andrew Brust:
Yeah, I mean, I think your intuition is well founded because historically the BI stack, Analysis Services, was part of the SQL Server team and the Data Platform team. So it’s a little strange that Power BI is kind of with the business applications, Power Apps for building applications, Power Automate for building you know, kind of workflows and even doing automation like robotic process automation, that kind of thing. But so it is a little bit the odd person out or the odd product out, but there are important integrations between them. And I will also say that just strategically and corporately, it makes sense. The corporate vice-president for the whole Power Platform is James Phillips. And he really has been instrumental in making Power BI successful and seeing it as, because it works in a self service capacity, seeing it as part of the spectrum with Power Apps and Power Automate. And he’s really been a very good leader and the team is very happy with him as a leader. So although Power BI really is kind of data platform, it’s very at home in the business applications side of the company, it works out well.

Mary Jo Foley:
So that’s a good segue into my next question, which is, who is Power BI really for? Is it for business analysts? Is it also for professional developers? Is it for Excel jockeys, all of the above? I’m always kind of curious because when Microsoft talks about the Power {latform and they talk about it as low code, no code, everybody’s a citizen developer. When you drill into that, they really aren’t talking about everybody, right? There’s a specific audience of business professionals that they’re targeting with that. So I’m curious on the Power BI side, who you would consider the target audience to be.

Andrew Brust:
Yeah, well, and over the years that that answer’s kind of changed. Initially Power BI was there to address the self-service BI market specifically because again, Microsoft had a real deficit there, right? They had, for the enterprise, they had Analysis Services and they had SQL Server and they had the platform, what they were missing was the application layer and making it making it accessible to business users. So initially I would say business users or business analysts, to use your phrasing and also anybody who is cool working inside of Excel, doing stuff with pivot tables, because actually the pivot table technology was developed jointly between the Excel team and the Analysis Service team, believe it or not. So going all the way back, right. That’s been a history. So initially it was that, what’s changed though, is that with the introduction of Power BI Premium, which I imagine we could talk about separately.

Andrew Brust:
So I won’t drill down into it too much, but with the introduction of that, now everyone who was in the Analysis Services ecosystem is also in the Power BI ecosystem. That is really sort of the melding of Analysis Services in Power BI. So it’s also Enterprise BI folks in terms of developers. There is a developer story because there’s Power BI embedded, and it’s very easy to work with Power BI. And, you know, if you’re an application developer bring in those visualizations and so forth into your application. So there’s a story for them. I wouldn’t say it’s aimed at them specifically, but it really is an all of the above answer, but that has evolved. And you know, it was business users first and then enterprise users came in after that. And now it’s both.

Mary Jo Foley:
Okay. That’s good. I always feel like, I’m like, who is the target audience for this thing? And I feel like it’s a little out of my grasp sometimes because I see features mentioned and I’m like, is that really for like normal developers or normal customers? Or is that more enterprise? So, you did help answer that. Thanks. Okay. The SKUs of the Power BI are a little confusing to me too, I guess there’s Desktop Pro and Premium. Could you talk a little bit about what differentiates these at the highest level?

Andrew Brust:
Yeah, absolutely. So Power BI Desktop is you know, it’s a personal BI product that can be downloaded for free run on any Windows machine. And you can do an awful lot with it. The reports that you build can be shared to the extent that you can email them around. But working with desktop only is not really a departmental or an enterprise solution. If you want to get to the point where you’re publishing stuff to the cloud and sharing it and making it available to embed inside of applications, that’s where Pro comes in, and Pro is $10 per user, per month. And you know, compared to other offerings on the market, that’s quite reasonable. That then lets you create workspaces, invite people to the workspaces, share stuff with them, even share stuff with free users, right? As long as you have the Pro license, you have the ability to author and share.

Andrew Brust:
And then Premium, as I hinted at before, Premium is really meant for enterprises. So imagine you’re an enterprise and you have enough employees that $10 a month per user really, really adds up. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were an option that you could come in and just pay a flat rate per month for the entire company and Premium lets you do that. It also gives you your own dedicated infrastructure. A lot of the file size limits go away and the important new capabilities come in, including some AI capabilities that integrate with Cognitive Services on the Azure side and so forth. Also some things that you can do with mixing and matching enterprise models with personalization. So that’s sort of the spectrum and Premium’s basically, there’s ways around this, but basically Premium starts at $5,000 a month. But, that’s for the whole company.

Mary Jo Foley:
Got it. So let’s, now that we’ve kind of broached the pricing discussion. Let me ask you another pricing question. Up till now Power BI Pro has been sold on a capacity model, right? Premium, sorry, premium. But now there’s this new per user pricing that was announced at Ignite. Right? So how does that change things? Do you think it opens things up to new types of users, new workloads, or where do you kind of see that new pricing scheme fitting in?

Andrew Brust:
Yeah, so I mean, it was funny cause you mentioned my history with the BI stack and back in the day when I was on the Partner Advisory Council, we would always groan a little bit when new features were added to Analysis Services. And to the BI stuff in Excel, but you couldn’t get it unless you had like SharePoint Enterprise. We’d always just groan and say, okay, so here’s some great new features that none of my customers can use or very few of them could use. And Premium kind of brought a little bit of that back because as I said, the entry level is $5,000 a month, which is $60,000 a year if you do the math. You know, individual developers and certainly influencers aren’t going to do that. So the question was, is there a way we can give people access to the premium features without them having to incur that very high, monthly cost and the answer to that is Premium per user, which adds another $10 a month and that’s it.

Andrew Brust:
So it’s a total of $20 a month. You can either upgrade from Pro as an add on, or you can just start from scratch, but 10 and 10 still equals 20. And that gives you access to almost all the features. There are a couple of exceptions, like the Power BI Report Server for doing Power BI reports on premises. You don’t have that. That you really need to be you know, an Enterprise Premium customer, but basically it lets you have your cake and eat it too for an extra $10 a month. You can be a premium user and have access to those features and the capacity or capacity is a bad word to use, but the file size limitations and so forth tend to go away.

Mary Jo Foley:
Okay, cool. I hate to go into licensing because that opens a can of worms, but we did get a reader listener question from Steve Brown about when you think Microsoft might enable Power BI Per User Premium Licensing to share across the org. Do you think they will ever do that?

Andrew Brust:
Yeah. So first of all, let me just explain the context of the question because Premium Per User is awesome, except that, you know, it has a ramification, which is that I, as an author now have access to all these cool features cause I pay $10 extra a month. But in fact, if I build reports that use those features, I can’t share those reports with anybody else unless they are also paying $20 a month.

Mary Jo Foley:
Right.

Andrew Brust:
Whereas with the full-on Premium, not Premium Per User and you know, basically anyone in the organization can see the reports. So this question, is asking really if he can have his cake and eat it, is there a way that I can be a Premium Per User subscriber and yet still share everything across the organization and to my knowledge, no. And there’s no plans for that because that would be kind of having your cake and eating it too. So you create a workspace, the only people in that workspace can be other Premium Per User subscribers or you do the $5,000 and up a month thing. And then it’s all you can eat in terms of your colleagues.

Mary Jo Foley:
Yeah. I feel like this is a question I get a lot around Microsoft 365, people are like, can I just mix and match? Like E1, E3, E5, I’m like sort of, but not really because you may have users who are trying to access different capabilities that they don’t have licenses for. So yeah, it’s, like I said, it’s a whole can of worms. Licensing is a whole thing unto itself, as we all know.

Andrew Brust:
It’s not always, it’s not immediately obvious that that restriction is going to be there until you think it through. So it can be frustrating. And I understand the motivation behind the question, but you know, the answer is no. And you know, we were asking for a long time for per user pricing and the team had to work pretty hard, both technologically and from the business side to make it work. So we should be pretty happy for what we’ve got, but yeah, we can always have a wishlist for more

Mary Jo Foley:
True. Going back to the broader database context that we started with at the beginning of the podcast, is there a connection between Power BI and Cosmos DB? And then I’m also curious, what, if any connections there are between Power BI and Azure Synapse,

Andrew Brust:
Right, right. Cause again, Power BI is kind of this double agent, right? It’s in the business apps part of the business, but it’s really part of the data platform, you know, and again, everybody was under the same SQL Server roof back in the day. So Power BI has a bazillion that’s a technical term, bazillion connectors that can get to all kinds of not just databases by the way, but also kind of APIs behind applications. So if you want to get data out of Salesforce or out of Dynamics or out of many other web-based enterprise applications, you can. So it shouldn’t shock anyone that Power BI has a Cosmos DB connector. There is that connection in that Cosmos DB can be one more data source for the models that you build in Power BI. Beyond that there’s not a direct connection. However, since you asked about Synapse, there is a bit of a roundabout connection.

Andrew Brust:
So Power BI and Azure Synapse do have some pretty tight integration. First of all, if you’re working in the Synapse Studio, you can do stuff right there in terms of accessing Power BI reports and embedding them and connecting them to your data sources. So the teams worked very closely together. There’s also features in Power BI where if you’re hosting a Power BI report and Synapse the data source, they will automatically build what are called materialized views. So that the reports basically can serve up much more quickly because of the fact, in effect the data is cached. So that’s a good thing. And my guess is there will be more integrations to come now. Synapse also has a connection to Cosmos DB whereby the data that’s in Cosmos can almost look to Azure Synapse like it’s part of the data lake, and then you can do analytics right on it.

Andrew Brust:
And since there is a connection from Power BI to Synapse, there’s two hops to get Cosmos, if you will. So Power BI can go to Synapse and Synapse can get to the Cosmos data and do analytics on it, by the way that won’t drag down Cosmos, because it’s actually kind of a separate I don’t know, it’s a separate instance of the data. So the analytics workloads won’t slow down the operational workloads. But other than the connector between Power BI and Cosmos there’s no, as of yet, there’s no especially rich integration between those two.

Mary Jo Foley:
Okay. You know what, we haven’t talked about the competition at all, and that again is something that could be a huge discussion, but I’m curious where you see Power BI’s strengths and maybe even its weaknesses compared to things like Tableau and other competitors. Like where do you see it fitting in the market?

Andrew Brust:
Yeah. Well, I mean, initially I would say, I don’t think anyone at Microsoft would articulate it this way, but initially I would say that Power BI was you know, Microsoft’s compete for Tableau. Tableau had and Qlik, they had kind of defined and owned the self-service BI market, where Microsoft was not doing well. So Power BI was Microsoft’s answer to Tableau and initially Tableau led it, by quite a lot. But eventually you know, there was parody and some might argue that Power BI is now ahead. So they started out being very much the same, but I think strategically they’re actually quite different. First of all, there is the whole enterprise side with Power BI Premium that I mentioned, and that’s not really something that Tableau does. And then there are all the connections between Power BI and, you know, as we just discussed Azure Synapse, but also Databricks, there’s a custom connector for Databricks that really makes things work quite well.

Andrew Brust:
And there are connections also very deep with Azure Machine Learning. So that’s not really a place where Tableau plays. On the other hand, that rubs both ways. Cause it means Power BI is more at home if you will, in the world of the Microsoft Stack and Azure than perhaps it would be, let’s say in the Amazon Cloud and in the Google Cloud, although it can still work fine in those capacities. But so you might say that Qlik and Power BI are more multicloud. You might say that Microsoft is more about being part of a very strategic broad enterprise stack. And by the way, another integration that we haven’t even talked about that is getting richer all the time is the integration between Power BI and Microsoft Teams. Right now, I imagine one day since Salesforce owns Slack and Tableau, that we might see a similar kind of integration there, but we don’t really have that right now.

Andrew Brust:
Microsoft is really trying to make it so that if you’re in a Teams channel and you’re having a text-based discussion and you want to bring some data into it, that’s you know, like a couple of key strokes away. That really is the use case that they see. Whereas Tableau is much more on its own. One more thing I’ll mention though, is that Tableau and because it’s web based Qlik are very at home on the Mac and Power BI Desktop is a Windows only tool. So you can do authoring in the cloud and in the browser, but it’s not really a parody, at least not yet. So that’s another difference between them.

Mary Jo Foley:
Got it. Okay. All right. We’re almost out of time, quick last question. Any general resources for people who are trying to keep up with what’s going on in Power BI? And I know this is another one where there’s a million resources and all kinds of things, you know, webinars, Microsoft Docs, all that, but anything you would just point out to people who are kind of new to this, who may not know about certain things.

Andrew Brust:
Yeah. I mean, I would say the go-to thing is the Team’s Blog, first of all, because every time there’s an enhancement to the platform, it is announced there and it is detailed there. Also Power BI Desktop is updated every single month, I think with one exception, which is usually January because of the holidays. But every time that happens, the team will do a very detailed video at least half an hour long about all the new features and those pop up on the blog as well. Like that’s the place to go as is the link to download the new version. So that’s, you know, you just go to Power BI site and then add slash blog, and that puts you there. There’s also a Power BI Community site. And that, you know and that in turn links to a lot of other resources, that’s community.powerbi.com. So those would be the two and that is far from a comprehensive list. But I feel like if you go there, you can then branch out to lots of other things. There are of course, lots of influencers in the Power BI space who have their own blogs and so forth, but between the team blog and the community site, you’re in good stead.

Mary Jo Foley:
Excellent. Well, Andrew, thank you so much for this. I actually feel like I understand Power BI more now, so that’s always great. And I hope our listeners do too. I’m sure they do. Appreciate you doing the chat.

Andrew Brust:
Without even a demo.

Mary Jo Foley:
I know, no demo required.

Andrew Brust:
Alright, excellent. Thanks for having me.

Mary Jo Foley:
Thank you so much. And for everyone else listening right now to this chat or reading the transcript, I’ll be putting up more information soon about who my next guest is going to be. And once you see that you can submit questions directly on Twitter, if you want using #MJFChat. In the meantime, if you know of anyone else or even yourself who might make a good guest for one of these chats, please do not hesitate to drop me a note. Thank you so much.

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