During its first year of availability, Power BI, an Office 365-hosted business intelligence (BI) service, improved compatibility with Excel and access to on-premises data and added self-service analysis features. Future improvements are expected to include a new Power BI portal and mobile applications with more self-service capabilities and platform changes that reduce the reliance on Excel and provide access to a broader range of data, preconfigured reports, and Azure services. The service is also removing the dependency on SharePoint Online and being converted to a stand-alone subscription service, opening the service to a broader audience.

Power BI receives updates as frequently as monthly, and its features and capabilities continue to change. This roadmap covers significant changes and trends to the service introduced in 2014 and discusses changes expected in 2015 and beyond.

Power BI Overview

The Microsoft-hosted Power BI service is an Internet-based platform for sharing refreshable reports (Excel workbooks) with users, in a more timely and secure manner than distributing reports by e-mail. The service is part of Office 365 services, and for most organizations, the service is less expensive to deploy than an outwardly facing on-premises solution.

Reports hosted by the service are typically created using Excel 2013 data and reporting features: Power Query and Power Pivot are often used to access, combine, filter, and clean data, and Power View and Power Map are used to create sophisticated charts, maps, and other data visualizations. Resultant workbooks are published to one or more organizational Power BI sites.

End users access reports through a personalized Web portal in the service (called My Power BI) or a Windows Store tablet application. Interactive features include filtering, drill-down, and query capabilities, and users can tag favorite reports for inclusion on their My Power BI site for quick access.

(For a more detailed overview of Power BI, see "Power BI Explained".)

Improvements in 2014

Improvements to the service in its first year focused primarily on compatibility with Excel 2013 reporting features, access to on-premises data, and the release of a Windows Store application.

Excel Report Compatibility

The Power BI service relies on Excel and several other services that are used in various combinations to create, share, and interact with Power BI reports. A key component in this relationship is Excel's Power View feature, which is used to design charts, animations, and other presentations for data analysis. Power BI uses an HTML5 Web application, also called Power View, that allows users to interact with Excel 2013 reports, including filtering and drill-down features.

When first introduced in Feb. 2014, the Web version of Power View was able to render many, but not all, of the report types created in Excel. Updates in 2014 brought the Web version of Power View to parity with Excel 2013's Power View.

Refreshing from On-Premises Data Sources

Excel 2013 reports can connect to public and on-premises data via Excel's Power Query and Power Pivot features. Power BI can leverage those connections and access on-premises data through on-premises software called the Power BI Data Management Gateway. Improvements to the Data Management Gateway in 2014 expanded the range of on-premises data sources that Power BI can access and simplified the configuration of some types of connections.

Notable improvements include the following:

SAP BusinessObject support. The service can now connect directly to on-premises SAP BusinessObject BI universes (SAP's BI tool that exposes data in SAP's Business Warehouse and Business Suite applications, among others) through Power Query. The connection enables users to access real-time data from an organization's SAP Enterprise Resource Planning software and then use Excel 2013 to analyze data, create charts, and share the results through Power BI.

SQL Server Analysis Services and Reporting Services access. Many organizations have developed reports and analysis that are critical to daily operations using Analysis Services and Reporting Services. Power BI can now connect to on-premises Analysis Services cubes, enabling reports to access transformed organizational data for analysis and charting in Power BI reports. Power BI sites can also host fully rendered reports from Reporting Services that include support for automatic refreshing from on-premises data. However, the underlying report data, which is usually accessible on-premises as an OData feed, is not currently available in Power BI for inclusion in other reports or analysis.

SQL Server and Oracle scheduled refresh. Excel reports that connect to on-premises SQL Server or Oracle databases can now schedule refreshes of Power Query data models, ensuring that analysis and charts hosted in Power BI present the most recent approved data. Previously, scheduled refreshes of Power BI reports were only available for workbooks that accessed on-premises data through Power Pivot.

Mobile and Tablet Clients

Two clients were available in 2014 for accessing Power BI reports: Power View in a Web browser and a Windows Store application for Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT. The Web browser version of Power View is an HTML5 application that is accessible from browsers on a variety of devices, including mobile devices such as Apple's iPad, and it delivers interactive functionality to users without the need for a local application.

The Windows Store application provides touch-optimized interactive features, similar to the Web Power View version, and additional sharing features via other Windows Store applications, such as the Windows Mail application. Updates to the Windows Store application in the first half of 2014 brought its feature set to parity with the Web Power View version.

What's Ahead

Power BI is the primary focus for most of Microsoft's BI development efforts and is expected to receive significant updates and changes in 2015 and beyond.

Major themes for Power BI updates are expected to include the following:

  • Expanded report design options
  • Expanded self-service features
  • Wider range of data sources
  • More mobile platform support.

Several updates to the service are currently in preview and are expected to be generally available in late 2015.

Report Building Options Remove Excel Dependency

Power BI can host Excel 2010 and later workbooks as reports, but an Excel 2013 "premium" edition is required to create interactive reports. To remove the dependency on Excel 2013, which may not be available in organizations using prior versions of Excel, Microsoft is currently previewing the following solutions for report design:

Stand-alone report designer. A new Power BI report design tool called Power BI Designer is a free (32 or 64 bit) desktop application that allows creation of report workbooks without the need for Excel 2013. The tool consolidates features from Excel's Data, Power Query, Power Pivot, Power View, and Power Map features to provide most of the same report design features and capabilities as Excel 2013, although there are currently limitations in manipulating the data model. Similar to Excel, authors can select data sources, establish secure connections, select data, create sophisticated visualizations, and publish reports. The most significant difference is that reports are created using a new version of the Web Power View client that now has a comparable set of design features. The tool creates designer Power BI Designer workbooks (that use a .pbix extension) that can be published to Power BI; however, the files are not readable by Excel and the tool cannot read Excel workbooks.

Web-based report design. A major update to the Power BI portal (currently in preview) introduces important self-service reporting features that enable users to access data and create reports directly in a browser, similar to the Power BI Designer but with fewer design options. It contains a light version of Power Query, a simplistic data-modeling tool (compared to Power Pivot), and a new version of Power View for creating visualizations. Reports created in the portal can be shared by users, and the portal opens up report creation to a larger audience.

Developer tools. A Power BI Representational State Transfer (REST) API, currently in preview, allows developers to build custom application connectors between their applications (public and on-premises) and Power BI to programmatically create data models, reports, and dashboards from organizational data sources. The service could provide organizations with a secure method for sharing and refreshing reports and key performance indicators from internal applications.

Preconfigured application reports. Preconfigured BI reports and dashboards delivered through application connectors are expected from several Microsoft and third-party services (such as Dynamics CRM Online, GitHub, and Salesforce.com). Users select an application from the Power BI portal data sources and log in with their application credentials. An application's available reports are listed for users to select and place on personalized dashboards, enabling them to have updated reports without having to log into the host application.

Azure services. Azure computing services are expected to become more connected to Power BI, and results from those services will be deliverable to Power BI dashboards. For example, Azure Stream Analytics (a service that processes streaming data and events from devices, sensors, and applications) can deliver real-time results to Power BI dashboards (in preview), providing a solution for sharing results to end users.

Power BI Portal Update

A new Power BI portal (currently in preview) removes the dependency on SharePoint Online while introducing OneDrive for Business as a hosting solution for organizational reports and dashboards. It also improves self-service capabilities for end users with new report design and data access features. When released, the new portal will replace the existing Power BI portal and retire the current user interface and Power BI organizational sites. Customers currently on Power BI should plan for a migration to the new service.

Removing the SharePoint Online dependency. The current Power BI service uses SharePoint Online to host reports in SharePoint libraries, called Power BI sites. The team is removing this dependency and switching to direct storage within the service for storing personal reports, and OneDrive for Business for sharing organizational reports. OneDrive for Business is derived from SharePoint Online technology but can be licensed separately. The change will require existing customers to either migrate their workbooks to the new storage location or configure connections in the service to expose existing Power BI sites.

Report organization. End users can build multiple personal dashboards for organizing frequently accessed Power BI reports, an improvement over the single home-page used to display favorite reports in the current offering. Team dashboards designed and shared by IT departments will offer preconfigured dashboards of company reports for users who are less familiar with Power BI, and reports configured as live tiles can provide refreshed summary information without being opened by the user.

Self-service report design. The new portal introduces self-service reporting design capabilities (described above) that enable users to access data and create reports directly in a browser, without needing Excel, but with fewer design options.

Expanded Set of Data Sources

Power BI is regularly updated to address changing data trends and make more data sources available for analysis. Power Query capabilities are now included in Excel, Power BI Designer, and the new Power BI portal, and Power Query is expected to receive enhancements to access more data sources and provide new transformation features. However, Microsoft is also introducing alternate solutions for Power BI to access data and reports.

Application connectors provide data and reports. An important part of the Power BI data access roadmap is the continued growth of application connectors created by third-party vendors. Application connectors are accessed in the Power BI portal and are capable of delivering data, preconfigured reports, and dashboards. A growing list of vendors, such as GitHub, SAP Business Objects, and Zendesk, have created application connectors that are accessible in the Power BI portal and expose formatted application data that can be used to create reports. Other vendors, such as Dynamics CRM Online and Salesforce.com, have created application connectors that also provide preconfigured reports, which can be placed directly onto personalized dashboards. Customers should expect that more Microsoft products will deliver Power BI application connectors for users to create personalized BI dashboards using data and reports from those products.

Interactive Analysis Services models. A new Power BI connector for SQL Server Analysis Services (currently in preview) provides a direct, real-time connection to on-premises Analysis Services tabular models with full support for role-based security. The connector enables users to view and interact with live on-premises Analysis Services data for creating reports. The feature requires synchronization of on-premises Active Directory with Azure Active Directory, and support for multi-dimensional models is expected in future updates. The new connector does not use the existing Data Management Gateway feature and cannot coexist on a server using the gateway.

Azure access. Azure data services will also continue to play an important role in Power BI's data roadmap. Recent changes to the Power Query add-on introduced a "From Azure" toolbar entry to highlight and hold the expanding list of Azure data sources available. Customers should expect to see Azure Storage Files, DocumentDB (an unstructured data service based on NoSQL), and Social Listening (a social media sentiment tracking service) added to the list.

Cross-platform Mobile Applications

A preview of the Apple iOS (iPad and iPhone) Power BI mobile application was released in Dec. 2014, showing the direction for future Power BI mobile applications.

The preview application works with the new Power BI portal and allows users to switch between dashboards and interact with reports. The application includes streamlined sign-on and user-defined alerts that can recognize critical changes in report data and notify the user through the device's alert features, and it is optimized for touch.

Microsoft has stated that a similar Android mobile application will be released to preview in mid-2015, and updated Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 mobile applications will be available when the new portal service becomes generally available.

The applications should help organizations efficiently share reports with users on mobile devices.

Deployment Decisions for 2015

Many of the items discussed in the roadmap are currently in public preview, and Microsoft has stated it will release these features in late 2015. Consequently, organizations considering a Power BI deployment in 2015 currently have two options:

Deploy the production environment. Configuring and deploying the existing Power BI production features will necessitate a migration and retraining when the new features are made generally available in late 2015.

Deploy the preview environment. Customers can deploy and use the preview features; however, preview features don't have service level agreements, which may restrict some organizations. Customers should expect the feature set to change during the preview.

Power BI Stand-alone Service

The existing Power BI offering is currently available as an add-on to SharePoint Online subscriptions in the Office 365 services. However, Microsoft announced Power BI will be converted to a stand-alone subscription by the end of 2015, which removes the requirement for a SharePoint Online subscription and potentially lowers licensing costs.

The existing offering will separate into a limited free edition, Power BI, and a paid professional edition, Power BI Pro.

The free edition won't require a subscription or a Microsoft account and is designed for occasional consumers of reports, such as an organization's vendors, partners, and customers. The free version is expected to have limited interactive features and enables 1GB of data per report, daily data refreshes, and 10,000 rows of streaming data per hour if using the Azure Stream Analytics service to deliver real-time data.

Power BI Pro will require a subscription and is designed for organizational users with a need for report design and self-service analysis features. It will enable 10GB of data per report, hourly data refreshes, and 1 million rows of streaming data per hour if using the Azure Stream Analytics service to deliver real-time data.

Some Power BI features will only be available with Power BI Pro, including access to live data sources, access to on-premises data through the Data Management Gateway, team dashboards, report design and publishing, and sharing queries in the data catalog.

The price of the Power BI service has dropped to US$9.99 per user per month effective Feb. 2015, which is also the planned price of the Power BI Pro service. Power BI formerly cost US$29.99 per user per month. (These prices are for purchases in the Microsoft online services portal without an annual commitment, and they are the highest a U.S. business would typically pay.)


Power BI updates are covered in "Power BI Updates Expand On-Premises Data Access" on page 13 of the Sept. 2014 Update.

Power BI is available at www.microsoft.com/powerbi/default.aspx.

Power BI pricing is at www.powerbi.com/dashboards/pricing.

Excel 2013 Power Query is available at www.microsoft.com/download/details.aspx?id=39379.

Power BI Designer preview is available at www.powerbi.com/dashboards/downloads/designer.

Power BI REST API is covered at https://msdn.microsoft.com/powerbi.

The Power BI preview announcement is at blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2015/01/27/microsoft-brings-business-intelligence-mainstream-enhancements-power-bi.