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Microsoft Business Intelligence Tools and Everything You Need to Know

We’re truly living in the age of Big Data. For modern businesses, information is everything. Microsoft business intelligence tools provide a solution for handling the volume of important information continuously collected by modern companies.

With the right tools, you can process huge amounts of data in mere seconds, and it is this part of the process that counts. Any business can collect information, but it takes skill and careful management using business intelligence tools to make it valuable.

This is the essence of “business intelligence”: the ability to take vast quantities of market data and extract trends and patterns.

Fortunately, business intelligence software has grown increasingly sophisticated over the years. It is capable of processing and collating data from a hundred different sources so your company has the best possible view on the market. The Microsoft Business Intelligence suite is one such solution, and it offers a comprehensive array of functions and features.

What is Microsoft Business Intelligence?

The Microsoft BI Suite is the software giant’s suite of tools designed for easy data processing. That’s putting it a bit simply, but these programs do have a simple objective. The system aims to help businesses turn all of that messy, complex information into extractable insights. It is one of the most popular BI solutions on the market right now.

The full range of tools enables businesses to direct data through IT systems, identify and isolate data, and create expansive reports on the current status of different departments. They include SSIL (SQL Server Integration Services), SSAS (SQL Server Analytical Services) and SSRS (SQL Server Reporting Services).

With these tools, any mass of data can be turned into a digestible report, dashboard, graph, spreadsheet or another format. You just need to input your parameters and let the system know what you need. Microsoft Business Intelligence platform works by moving data from multifarious, unmanageable sources to a centralized architecture where it can be reconfigured.

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Why is Power BI So Important?

The top Microsoft business intelligence tool is its innovative Power BI service. It’s a curious mix of SaaS, desktop and cloud-based tools.

Three different Power BI pricing tiers are offered by Microsoft: Power BI Desktop, Power BI Pro and Power BI Premium. Power BI Desktop is the software’s free program, intended for businesses in need of a low-cost report building tool. Desktop is able to connect to databases and publish visualizations on public online spaces, such as the Power BI service. Power BI Pro is the next step up. Pro gives users more control over report sharing, with features that enable access restrictions, project collaboration and simplified circulation. Power BI Premium is the suite’s top-tier solution. It is made for large-scale data analysis, increased distribution ability and more options for deployment.

The central focus of the system is reporting, data mining and exploring. It is able to pinpoint valuable data from a huge variety of sources and build it up into a report or combine it with others.

Power BI is especially useful for accomplishing reporting tasks through application programming interfaces (APIs). In many ways, Power BI is much like the existing SSRS framework of Microsoft Business intelligence. It creates intricate layers of data which contribute to the final reporting aspect of business intelligence operations.

The desktop app is great for drawing up and publishing reports. This part of the system is well suited to extracting early insights. In other words, it can help you determine which questions you need to answer.

To put it another way, your data holds the answers to every question about your business. However, this is far more of a frustration than an asset, unless you decide which questions and answers are valuable. Power BI can help you do this by connecting to live data and providing real-time analytics of trends and market indicators.

The real beauty of Power BI is its near-limitless capacity to mine diverse sources. It can extract insights from much newer SaaS architectures (like Zendesk and Github) just as easily as it can from traditional databases. You can even link the software up to statistical language and have it display complex numerical reports.

The Key Features of Power BI and Why You Need Them

Finding Data

As we’ve discussed, the primary purpose of Power BI is data mining. It searches for information in as many different sources as you tell it to. There are two main methods for achieving this. You can import the data to Power BI, or you can rely on Direct Query. If you choose to import, you’ll be limited to viewing 1GB of information at any one time.

This can be frustrating, but the solution is to use Direct Query for larger reports. Although, you should be aware that Microsoft Direct Query isn’t compatible with all data types. You can check whether yours is one of them by visiting this list of approved sources. New sources are added frequently.

If neither of these methods is suitable, Power BI Premium is intended for much larger reports.

Power BI

Power BI can pull data points based on user queries.

Transforming Data (Query)

After you’ve picked sources to import, Power BI gives you a preview window. This is a chance to choose columns or other classification features to help you better organize the data. The Query Editor is a very interesting tool because it allows you to shape, change, configure and restructure the data in multiple ways.

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Reporting and Publishing

Once the right data sources have been mined and relevant insights extracted, you can start drawing up custom reports. There are a lot of different ways to present information, but the most common are elements such as pie and line charts. Basically, the simpler it looks on a page, the easier it will be to utilize and share.

Calculated columns and measures are accessible via Digital Analysis Expressions (DAX). Power BI also supports the use of third-party custom visuals. You can, of course, publish reports to the Power BI service once they’re ready. You need a registered account for this, but all Power BI Desktop, Pro and Premium users should have valid credentials.

Power BI publishing

Publishing reports with Power BI.

Creating Dashboards

The dashboard is a useful function for sharing. It allows you to control who views and interacts with the report. You can make it “sticky,” so it remains in a visible place. Or, you can just highlight important bits and pin those to your virtual board. You also have the option to create a live report feed, so all documents and memos get uploaded to the dashboard.

Depending on whom you want to see the report, you can switch certain permissions on or off. For instance, you can allow department heads to view and index information. They can highlight key details by selecting slicers and filters.

Power BI dashboard

Power BI dashboard creation.

Sharing and Collaborating

Unsurprisingly, Microsoft Business Intelligence software has robust security features. They’re very flexible and customizable, so users can structure levels of access. Ultimately, you do want managers and supervisors to have the freedom to view and edit reports. Often, this is the key to finding new forms of supply chain optimization.

As with all logistics software, Power BI has a central control function, so data management processes can be overseen at an executive level. In most businesses, however, multiple dashboards are set up for different departments, and they’re maintained by senior figures. The App Workspaces function is an easy way to share and collectively edit these dashboards.

On-Premise Data Gateway

One of the most clever Power BI tools is the On-Premise Data Gateway. This forms a permanent link between the data sources and your report. So, in theory, the report will continually update itself whenever new information is added, or the existing data is changed in some way. This is a vital function, as it will save you hours of time spent drafting reports.

To keep the data fresh, you need to install the Power BI On-Premise Data Gateway separately. It creates a secure connection between your local network environment (where your sources are) and the Power BI service. Once you have this, you can construct data refresh scenarios, which ensure new information is added according to your requests.

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Power BI Mobile

These days, all business software needs to be mobile compatible. Fortunately, you can access Power BI on Windows, Android and iOS devices with the corresponding app. The functionalities aren’t quite as extensive, but you have everything you need for indexing data and creating reports on the move.

Azure Integration

Power BI is compatible with various Azure data platform tools. They include Data Lake, Analysis Services, HDInsight, Machine Learning, SQL and SQL Data Warehouse. The benefit of bringing the two together is Azure expands the reach of your software and opens up more opportunities for automation and cloud-based warehousing.

Flow and PowerApps

Microsoft business software, Flow and PowerApps, provide additional tools for dashboard organization and integration. They make it easier to establish parameters for reports and structure information in an optimal way. For instance, if you apply a threshold data alert for specific visuals on the dashboard, the system will launch a workflow when the target is reached.

Stream Analytics

Some businesses find themselves in need of faster, more dynamic reports. The Stream Analytics function is good for this because it supports the smooth streaming of information to the dashboard. It is becoming increasingly important for Internet of Things scenarios, as it can bring machine sensor data into the dashboard too.

Other Microsoft BI Tools List

With Power BI providing so many different data processing functions, it’s easy to forget that there are other MS BI tools. It is part of a suite of tools, many of which can be used as sources for SQL Server Integration Services (SSIS). They support the extraction and assimilation of data, with the aim of creating viable, practical business intelligence.

SharePoint, for example, is a web-based platform which builds collaborative workflows. It identifies and retains valuable files so they can be transferred out to a Microsoft BI software interface at a time of your choosing. Cloud-based applications are just as important, of course, because many business technologies are moving towards completely virtual architectures.

SharePoint

Microsoft SharePoint

Azure is a hit for the vendor because it streamlines the movement of data through Microsoft-based software processes. It is a highly versatile system, with the ability to construct apps in a cloud-native fashion. Azure can be combined with Power BI and other programs to create more independent data systems, free of hardware limitations.

Azure

Microsoft Azure

Working with the cloud brings many advantages, including the opportunity to reduce on-premise workloads. There are, in theory, no limits on storage. And security protections are constantly updated without any contribution from you. This is one of the biggest advantages of the cloud — it is continually changing in response to new information and abilities.

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The Relationship between Power BI and Excel

With so many dynamic tools to offer, it’s natural to wonder how the MS Business Intelligence Suite might change your relationship with older, established programs. Microsoft Excel, for instance, has been at the forefront of logistics and supply chain operations for many decades. So, the question is, where does it stand now that Power BI is on the scene?

Well, you might not know that Power BI was originally born of Excel. It started life as an add-on for the program and used query tools to turn tabular data into graphs and charts. It was able to connect to the SQL Server OLAP tool and provide an easily-navigated interface for billions of columns worth of information. Now, Power BI has moved beyond Excel.

This doesn’t mean you should ditch your classic spreadsheets. Power BI might be a standalone Microsoft business analytics system, but it is modeled on the Excel way of working. The difference between the two is the integration of new and existing functionalities. Before Power BI, it was already possible to kit out Excel with a range of analytics and visualization features.

The value of the new tools – Power Query, Power Pivot, Power Map and Power View – has never been in doubt, but they don’t necessarily feel included in the primary interface. In fact, they all come with their own interfaces, so analyzing data with Excel is kind of like operating two, three or even four different systems. It works, but it isn’t very efficient.

Power BI brings all of the functions of Excel and the Power add-ons together in one cohesive software solution. The visual editing tools make it easy to reconfigure, edit, add and eliminate data. However, there’s no longer any need to jump between different interfaces. You can complete an entire data lifecycle (mining, reporting and presenting) without leaving the suite.

How to Use Excel for Business Intelligence

There may be times when you want to strip the process down and go back to basics. Either way, it’s useful to keep one eye on Excel and stay familiar with its main features. The big benefit of using Excel, of course, is it’s very affordable. It’s rare for there to be any additional costs, and it continues to be one of the most accessible software solutions.

It’s also extremely easy to master, which is why it provides a great foundation for new businesses. As most people have used it at least once before, it doesn’t feel so intimidating to users with minimal training. Plus, you can use it to create dashboards, similarly to Power BI. The interface isn’t always as smooth, for the reasons described, but Excel is still capable of transforming large quantities of data.

If you do want to use Microsoft Excel for self-service business intelligence purposes, it’s a good idea to download the PowerPivot add-on. This is what will allow you to construct custom dashboards. It is here where you can post and pin reports formulated from selected data sources. There is also a powerful data reporting function, which enables advanced calculations via DAX.

Creating a BI Dashboard with Microsoft Excel

With the dashboard tool in Excel, one example of functionality is the ability to display data relating to sales. You can pinpoint a specific timeframe and location for an accurate picture of your performance in that area. Whether it’s one, two or five years of information you need to analyze, the system can present it in an easily digestible format.

Power BI Excel

Dashboard creation in Microsoft Excel.

The Excel dashboard is handy for identifying key performance indicators and consolidating, organizing and interpreting multiple metrics on one page. With the PowerPivot, it becomes possible to create real-time links. As with Power BI, you forge a connection between the report and the live data sources so any changes are reflected there.

You’ll find the PowerPivot function inside Excel on its own tab. As already mentioned, it is not technically an integrated part of the program. It is an add-on and must be operated as such. Nevertheless, it allows you to import information from a database in seconds. All you have to do is write a query and wait for the data to be compressed and presented back to you.

The Best Alternatives to Power BI

It’s worth mentioning that the M.S business intelligence suite isn’t the only one of its kind. It is certainly the most widely used, but this doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for every business. For instance, a common concern for potential users is whether this software has the technical capabilities to live up to its brand name.

Regardless of whether Power BI is as innovative as Microsoft claims, it’s obvious that being such an established brand is an advantage. The Microsoft business tools and other programs will always be popular because they have become synonymous with computing. If you don’t have much experience with administrative programs, you’re going to opt for a name that you recognize.

So, the question of whether Microsoft is the best provider available doesn’t have a clear answer. It depends on the needs of the user in question and whether the system’s architecture provides enough support for those needs. If you are unsure if Microsoft BI tools will be able to fulfill the needs of your business, or if you’re interested in trying something different, there are plenty of approved and endorsed analytics tools out there. In addition to Microsoft, below is a list of the best business intelligence tools:

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Sisense

Sisense is a BI solution which prioritizes simplicity and straightforward interfaces. It includes several different tools for data mining, reporting, publishing and visualization. You can gather information from SQL and reconfigure it to create attractive, easy-to-interpret graphs and charts.

QlikView

The creatively named QlikView is a very popular software solution because it is flexible and accommodating. In fact, the QlikView Business Intelligence suite offers a range of three tool sets. They are slightly different and designed to serve specific needs. QlikView can customize scripts and perform a variety of high-level tasks.

Information Builders

This next analytics solution is great for moving teams and travelling managers. It provides business intelligence computing on the move via mobile-friendly features. What’s more, Information Builders is fully compatible with Microsoft Excel, so you can have the best of both worlds. Use Excel to build up your data parameters and the IB suite to turn them into comprehensive reports and reviews.

Oracle

The Oracle system has been around for some time, and has always been reliable. It offers OLAP tools combined with mobile-friendly interfaces and displays. One of its best features is the Enterprise Reporting function. It makes light work of internal data so you can build up a clear picture of what’s happening inside your business. This is key to optimizing and streamlining supply chains.

BusinessObjects (SAP)

If you would like to steer clear of Microsoft but want a dependable, fully endorsed solution, try BusinessObjects by SAP. It has always scored highly for its business intelligence management processes. You’ll be treated to speedy response times, a high level of data transparency and very intuitive user interfaces. Like Power BI, it is a mostly independent (self-managed) service, but customers have 24/7 access to tech support teams.

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The Final Word on Business Intelligence and Analytics

There are plenty of choices out there. While Microsoft has a reputation for quality and reliability, an increasing number of businesses are looking towards smaller, more agile solutions. A less well-known vendor may provide a better fit for your operation.

If you arrived wondering what is Microsoft BI and decide to opt for the Microsoft Business Intelligence suite, there’s a lot to learn. These tools are dynamic, fast moving and versatile. Use them correctly, and they will become a source of great value for your company — a dependable, consistent spring of actionable information.

Alainia ConradMicrosoft Business Intelligence Tools and Everything You Need to Know

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