We’re truly living in the age of Big Data. For modern businesses, information is everything. The more you collect, the closer you get to perfection. It is this relentless pursuit of optimization that is currently driving the distribution sector. Being perfect means eliminating waste, maximizing big ticket transactions, and keeping both eyes on the supply chain at all times.
It isn’t easy, but it has become increasingly possible with the introduction of sophisticated business intelligence software. 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 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. The simplest example is seasonal sales. Large warehouses and stock centers depend on this information to tell them when to increase or scale back inventory. Otherwise, they’d lose thousands of dollars on lost sales and surplus stock.
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 that 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
This is the name for a suite of tools designed by Microsoft for easy data processing. Well, that’s putting it a bit simply, but the rather fancy assortment of programs does have a simple objective. It wants to help businesses turn all of that messy, complex information into neat, 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 SSQL (SQL Server Integration Services), SSAS (SQL Server Analytical Services), and SSRS (SQL Server Reporting Services).
The idea is that 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 works by moving data from multifarious, unmanageable sources to a centralized architecture, where it can be reconfigured.
Why Is Power BI So Important?
The jewel in the crown for Microsoft is its innovative Power BI service. It’s a curious mix of SaaS, desktop, and cloud based tools. The central focus here is reporting. So, this is the part of the Business Intelligence suite which mines and explores. 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.
It 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. In fact, this part of the system is well suited to extracting early insights. In other words, it can even help you decide which questions you need the answer to. This is important because logistics and supply chain data only becomes useful when you’re looking at the right facts and figures.
To put it another way, you already have the answers to every question you want to ask about your business. However, this is far more of a frustration than an asset, unless you decide which ones 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 and spreadsheets. You can even link the software up to statistical language R and have it display complex numerical reports.
The Key Features of Power BI and Why You Need Them
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 bigger 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. More are being added all the time, so it is worth keeping an eye on things.
If neither of these methods is suitable, MSBI recently offered a Power BI Premium service for much larger reports.
Transforming Data (Query)
After you’ve picked the right sources for 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 myriad ways.
Reporting and Publishing
Once the right data sources have been mined and relevant insights extracted, it’s time to draw up some custom reports. There are lots of different ways to present information, but the most common are things like pie and line charts, as well as classic graph templates. Basically, the more simply you can make it look 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 Free, Pro, and Premium users should have valid credentials.
The dashboard is a useful sharing function. It allows you to control who views and interacts with the report. You can make it ‘sticky,’ so that 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 that all documents and memos get uploaded here.
Depending on whom you want to see the report, you can switch certain permissions on or off. For instance, it’s probably handy to let department heads view and index the information. They can highlight key details by selecting slicers and filters. The dashboard is a valuable feature, but it can take some time to get accustomed to.
Sharing and Collaborating
Unsurprisingly, the Microsoft Business Intelligence Suite has some pretty robust security features. They’re very flexible and customizable though, so it’s just a matter of structuring the level 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 that 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 Premises Data Gateway
One of the cleverest Power BI tools is the on premises data gateway. This forms a permanent (until you terminate it) 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 Premises 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 that new information is added according to your requests.
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. You will need to download the corresponding app in order to do this. The functionalities aren’t quite as extensive, but you have everything you need for indexing data and creating reports on the move.
Power BI is compatible with various Azure data platform tools. They include Data Lake, Analysis Services, HD Insight, Machine Learning, SQL, and SQL Data Warehouse. The benefit of bringing the two together is that Azure expands the reach of your software and opens up more opportunities for automation and cloud based warehousing.
Flow and Power Apps
The Microsoft Flow and Power apps 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.
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.
Microsoft’s Other Business Intelligence Tools
With Power BI providing so many different data processing functions, it’s easy to forget that it isn’t the first or last offering from Microsoft. It is part of a suite of tools, many of which can be used as sources for 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 that they can be transferred out to an MSBI 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.
Azure is a big hitter 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. Even better is the fact that Azure can be combined with Power BI and other programs to create more independent data systems, free of hardware limitations.
Working with the cloud brings many advantages, not least of which the opportunity to reduce on premises 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.
The Relationship between Power BI and Excel
With so many dynamic tools to offer, it’s natural to wonder how the Microsoft 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.
Yet, it doesn’t mean that you should ditch your classic spreadsheets. Power BI might be a standalone 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 really felt like part of 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
Nevertheless, 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 that 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, at school or work, it doesn’t feel so intimidating to users with minimal training. Plus, you can use it create dashboards, in much the same way as 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 that 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
So, for instance, you could use the dashboard function in Excel to display data relating to sales. You can pinpoint a specific timeframe and location so that you get 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.
The Excel dashboard is handy for identifying key performance indicators and consolidating, organizing, and interpreting many numbers and 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 that any changes or fluctuations 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 Microsoft Business Intelligence suite isn’t the only one of its kind. It is certainly the most widely used, but this doesn’t mean that it’s an automatic fit for every business. For instance, one common concern for 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 programs will always be popular because they have come to be synonymous with computing. If you haven’t got 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 is really down to the needs of the user and whether the brand architecture provides enough support. If you’re not sure, or you’re keen to try something different, there are plenty of approved and endorsed analytics tools out there.
The Sisense Prism system 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.
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. For example, the plainly named QlikView program is actually the most sophisticated of the bunch. Unlike the other two, it can customize scripts and perform a variety of high-level tasks.
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.
The Oracle system has been around for some time, and it has always been reliable. It offers OLAP analytics 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 that you can build up a clear picture of what’s happening inside your business. This is key to optimizing and streamlining supply chains.
If you’re keen to steer clear of Microsoft, for whatever reason, but you 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.
The Final Word on Business Intelligence and Analytics
The point is that there’s plenty of choices out there, even if you don’t want to give your money to the biggest hitter. While Microsoft has a reputation for quality and reliability, an increasing number of businesses are looking towards smaller, more agile solutions. It might be that a less well-known vendor provides a better fit for your operation.
If you decide to opt for the Microsoft Business Intelligence suite, there’s a lot to learn. The important thing is that you’ll have fun doing so. 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.