Microsoft's new service, Power BI, provides a way to analyze data and present the results in a visually appealing way, without the bother of consulting an enterprise business intelligence software package.
"We're making it easier for the user to interact with the data without having to go back to IT," said Eron Kelly, Microsoft corporate vice president and director SQL Server marketing.
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Microsoft introduced the service last July, as a preview. On Monday, the service became generally available.
Power BI is a new set of features for Microsoft's Office 365, a Microsoft-hosted set of Microsoft Office tools and applications. Power BI is not available as part of the Microsoft Office software package, and the company has given no indication when, or if, it would be available as part of the on-premises software package.
Microsoft is pitching Power BI as a self-service BI suite, one that does not require the expertise of an organization's business analyst or IT staff. "The end user can interact with the data directly, yet IT can still curate the data to ensure that end-users are accessing the right data," Kelly said.
The service works by running workbooks created by users in a hosted version of Microsoft SQL Server. "In effect, this is real-time in-memory analysis," Kelly said.
Although primarily acting as an interface for Excel, Power BI can also import a dataset from internal files, from a catalog of data sources maintained by Microsoft, or from the Web. Data sources can be periodically refreshed as the source data is updated.
Using the Q&A interface, the user can query the data, posing natural language. The Power Query tool provides a set of filtering and merging capabilities.
Query results can be formatted in a number of graphically appealing ways. Using Power Map, for instance, Geocoded data can be rendered on a map provided by Microsoft Bing Maps. The service can even render the mapped data in three dimensions, showing not only the province of the data, but also its intensity as compared to data clustered in other locations.
Results can be pushed back to Microsoft Excel or, in the cases with geographic data, exported to a movie file, where it can be replayed by others.
As an example, Kelly demonstrated how to use Power BI to parse data offered by New York that catalogs the non-emergency "311" phone calls the city gets. The data can be divided up into calls by ZIP code, calls by complaint type, by location, or by time of day.
The location-specific data can be placed on a map to show New York's "hot spots," Kelly said. Dividing up the data by complaint can show where the worst landlords are located, judging by the number of complaints from specific addresses concerning the lack of heat during the winter months.
Parsing the data in other ways provides other insights as well. In Staten Island, garbage and street infrastructure are an ongoing issues, while in Brooklyn heating and construction noise are the main complaints.
Some users have already found value in Power BI, according to Microsoft.