What is Power BI?

Microsoft's definition of Power BI "Connect to and visualize any data using the unified, scalable platform for self-service and enterprise business intelligence (BI) that's easy to use and helps you gain deeper data insight."  

Power BI for Dummies: I spent my entire career doing accounting and reporting financial information in excel, so when Power BI was thrust upon me several years ago, I was a bit taken aback. How could I, a mere accountant, who's coding experience consisted of a week of HTML at a summer camp in high school, learn a dashboarding tool?! As the days went on and I began spending time with the tool, I realized how easy and intuitive Microsoft's latest (at the time) product was. That is not to say that there are not levels of proficiency that can open many more possibilities and capabilities. Still, for the vast majority of use cases and users, Power BI is a tool that can be quickly picked up. The closest analogy that I can think of is Microsoft Excel (for the accountants out there) or riding a bike (for everyone else). Most people don't have a need or a desire to know what an array function is in Excel or how to shift gears on a bike effectively. Neither is an essential piece of knowledge, but both tools become much more powerful when utilizing those features.

So what is Power BI? Power BI (Business Intelligence) is a dashboarding tool released by Microsoft in 2015. BI tools take large (or small if that suits you) amounts of data and give the creator the ability to manipulate and display them in various ways to create a better end-user experience for the report consumer. There are many BI tools out there, including Tableau, Qlik, SAP, and Cognos, to name a few. In 2020 Power BI marked its 13th year in Gartner's Magic Quadrant showing it's relevance within the market.

Why Use Power BI? I will preface this by saying I have not used every BI platform out there. The various generalizations and opinions I am attributing to Power BI may very well apply to other platforms that I have not used. I have used several BI platforms over the years, some with large market share and some specific to a particular software. I can categorize the majority of these into two camps: those designed for everyone to create reports and those designed to be so versatile that they can do anything. There are inherent problems with each of these camps; those who wish to cater to the ease of report creation do not allow you to build very versatile reports. One can create simple tables, but things start getting a bit hairy when it comes to doing anything more complicated than a simple join.

On the other hand, software that seeks versatility inevitably requires some coding to produce a simple report limiting the number of users capable of generating reports. Power BI finds the middle ground between the two. It does not take much time to learn how to combine data from multiple sources and create simple reports. From there, it is all how far you would like to take it. I have not come across a use case that Power BI cannot handle, and with such a large community base of users, the majority of the time, someone else has already figured out how to accomplish what you are trying to accomplish. Power BI has layers of complexity that I am sure I will never begin to touch, but I am ok with that. It allows me to produce everything needed, from tracking/mapping autonomous vehicles to generating sales pipeline reports. Power BI has been the utility knife that can be used for every situation. Suppose your organization is having trouble identifying issues before it is too late or is unsure about metrics in any area of your business. In that case, Power BI is a great tool to help create easily trackable metrics to keep your company and employees on track.

How much does Power BI cost? So now, let's get to the question that all the accountants are asking. Unfortunately, there are many potential answers to this relatively simple question. The topic inevitably begins to stray into the complex world of Microsoft's licensing, so I will try to simplify it as much as possible. Power BI Free and Power BI Pro are the two main licenses available; there is also a third license called Premium that is only used by very large organizations, so we will ignore that. The easiest way to differentiate them is to think of how many people will be looking at the report. If you will be the only one viewing the report and using your own data, then a free license is all that you will need (this is also a great way to try out Power BI). As soon as you wish to start sharing reports so that others can see them, a Pro license is required. Pro licenses have a list price of $9.99 at the time of writing this post, and discounts can be obtained by purchasing through a Microsoft certified partner (such as Coretek Services). Lastly, Pro licenses are also included with Office 365 E5 licenses, so many people already have them and do not even realize it.

How do you get started? The first thing I would recommend for anyone interested in getting started is downloading Power BI desktop. Downloading the software will allow you to begin playing around with Power BI at no cost. From there, Microsoft has a wide variety of resources available to further your knowledge and teach you the basics and advanced topics in their learning site. If you would like to discuss getting Power BI Pro licenses or any other Microsoft licensing, please feel free to contact Coretek directly.

Author Bio: Justin Graff is a Senior Financial Analyst with Coretek Services. He has had a career in Finance and Accounting and focuses primarily on reporting and analysis.

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