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Microsoft BI Review: "It's Excel for Big Data. So easy, so cheap, so fast, and powerful enough most everything."
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Alexander Lubyansky profile photo
Updated August 07, 2016

Microsoft BI Review: "It's Excel for Big Data. So easy, so cheap, so fast, and powerful enough most everything."

Score 10 out of 101
Vetted Review
Verified User
Review Source

Overall Satisfaction with Microsoft BI

Microsoft BI is, and seemingly shall be, the "BI Tool Of Tomorrow" forever. There are few people using it at my organization. In general, whenever I tell technically savvy people in the analytics/consulting space that there's a free visualization tool in Microsoft Excel that's 90-95% as good as Tableau, they are like "What?!" Then, they forget all about it in favor of expensive clunky tools and straight up coding.

Microsoft BI is a many-times-relabelled tool for visualization and lite analytics. It's like super duper Pivot Tables and Pivot Charts that let you work with big data. As an analytics tool per se, it's as good as Excel since it is Excel. I wouldn't do any analytics heavy lifting with it personally, but you can easily do algebra stuff and make derived variables. The real business benefit is visualization. It's just very easy and powerful.
  • EASY visualization of business data. Excel is the killer app so anybody remotely good at basic office tools knows how to make PivotTables and PivotCharts. If you don't, it's really easy to learn; give it a try... People think big data visualization is hard but it's not for most business use cases.
  • FAST visualization of business data. There are BI/Analytics tools out there, some of them beginning with the letter S, that are slooow. I do my taxes waiting for them to run basic queries/filters/charts. Microsoft BI (and Tableau, etc.) create compact data models to allow for pretty fast data loading and slicery.
  • FREE or at least REALLY CHEAP visualization of business data. Who has MS Office on their business computer? Oh, everybody. If you don't have Office Pro, pony up for that or get the monthly license. The bigness of data you can run on your own machine is fairly big; don't use cloud if you don't need it. By comparison, who enjoys throwing thousands of dollars away on bloated legacy BI software? Well, too many companies, apparently.
  • More than two dimensions. Yes, I know that 2D is the core of Excel's DNA. However, we're starting to deal with higher-dimensional arrays here in analytics land so better visualization support would be cool.
  • UI weirdness. By default, you are flipping back between regular Excel tabs and super-top-secret BI tabs. You create charts in one place, but look at them in the other. That kind of stuff. I know there are a couple of other ways to interact with Microsoft BI, but please figure out the main way.
  • Better hookups to other analytics tools including Microsoft's. Microsoft BI has a good variety of data connections, and I don't expect it to bloom into a full-fledged analytics tool, but it may be a good idea to keep hammering at connectivity with "hardcore" analytics. In my case, Python stuff.
Looking at the visualization portion of BI, there are three types of tools.
  1. Programming packages. Free and powerful, they let you make any diagram, at the cost of difficulty of use.
  2. Specialist software like Tableau and Microsoft BI. This is the best choice in most cases due to ease of use and quality of output.
  3. More generic software offered by the big IT companies, often part of a BI suite. There's really a lot of variety here. Use this when it fits the workflow and you are already using the relevant software. But, personally, I'd still use the specialist software.
It's pretty good in terms of range of data sources, the ability to pull from both databases and the hard drive, and the way it compacts/autoformats data. There is still room for improvement in terms of access speed and smarter data formatting.
Honestly, software-based sharing and collaboration are not that important to me or to the work I do. There's this thing called the print screen button. There's also this thing called sending someone a file. It's easy enough to use the tool itself. If you are incapable of using Microsoft BI, you should not be entrusted with "write" permissions on anything made with it.

Visualization of business data: it's good, fast, and cheap. What more can you ask? With more specialized visualization needs, use Tableau or write code. For complex scientific visualizations, write code.

It's also so much easier communicating about the tool and its visuals to other people who don't spend their lives analyzing complex data. "It's Excel for Big Data!" is really quite simple.

Microsoft BI Feature Ratings

Pixel Perfect reports
10
Customizable dashboards
10
Report Formatting Templates
10
Drill-down analysis
8
Formatting capabilities
6
Integration with R or other statistical packages
5
Report sharing and collaboration
10
Publish to Web
6
Publish to PDF
6
Pre-built visualization formats (heatmaps, scatter plots etc.)
8
Location Analytics / Geographic Visualization
7
Predictive Analytics
2
Multi-User Support (named login)
5
Multiple Access Permission Levels (Create, Read, Delete)
5

Using Microsoft BI

Users and Roles

20 - That "20" is my best guess. We have over 100 people doing analytics here and I'm not exactly going to do a census. Some of us use Excel in its fancy capacity, but most just use Excel as Excel.

Support Headcount Required

Again, if you don't count IT support for the database side of things, I am having difficulty imagining why one would need support for Power BI any more than one would need support for chewing one's food.

Using Microsoft BI

Usability

7
It's a good rating for people willing to learn and get used to it, but it's not inherently user friendly, especially to people who are not Excel power users.

Usability Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Like to use
Relatively simple
Easy to use
Technical support not required
Well integrated
Consistent
Quick to learn
Convenient
Feel confident using
Familiar
None

Easy Tasks

  • Familiarity. It's Excel. It's a spreadsheet. Come on.
  • Thinking in matrices (PivotTables) takes a little getting used to, but it's not hard. For people without a good high school math background, it may seem unintuitive.
  • Charts and PivotCharts are fairly easy, but Microsoft has a ways to go to make them less ugly.

Difficult Tasks

  • Data source connections. It's sometimes difficult to replace and update connections.
  • Dropping certain types of fields into the Pivot Table (example: default aggregation type for values).
  • The weird interface. Microsoft tried to have it both ways by using the standard Excel interface for some tasks, and the "Power" interface for others. It's just awkward, cumbersome, and confusing.