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More than 5 million enterprise subscribers use Microsoft Power BI to collect, analyze and format essential operational data. However, for those on the outside looking in, adopting such a system can seem like quite a chore.

Are you looking to bolster your business analytics strategy without causing an internal fuss? Connect with an expert like B2B Chief Technical Architect Tyler Bithell, who spends his days helping businesses of all sizes unlock the potential of Power BI. Below, Bithell discusses the platform and some of its key components.

How do you generally introduce clients to Microsoft Power BI?

Tyler Bithell: I generally start off by explaining that it’s a suite of business analytics tools. However, by the time I get involved they are well aware of the solution and are in the process of replacing another competing system with Power BI.

In general, the platform allows people who normally handle the data to collect, analyze and visualize it. Plus, they can get that information out to other people or use it to make business decisions. It eliminates the need for your classic, large-scale business analytics projects.

If an organization hasn’t already gone through the process of creating a data warehouse and doesn’t have everything all together in one place in a classic business analytics scenario, it’s okay. With Power BI, you can develop those capabilities quickly and not have to worry about a year-plus project to get your data together so you can actually make use of it.

How does the implementation process normally unfold?

Bithell: Here at B2B we have what we call a “canned project.” Over a period of 40 hours, I get clients set up on Power BI and configure the gateways somewhere within their organization. In most cases, I run it on their server so they can connect to their on-premises data. Then, I replace one of their existing reports with a Power BI report. I work with them shoulder to shoulder the entire time.

The purpose is to get them started in Power BI and get their analytics staff to a place where they can build reports from the day I leave and onward.

What kinds of clients do you normally work with? Do you see a lot from one certain industry or does it vary?

Bithell: Most recently, I worked with an accounting firm and a pharmaceutical company. Really anyone who wants to analyze their data can use Power BI.

Organizations with Power BI can easily access data from disparate systems via one portal.Organizations with Power BI can easily access data from disparate systems via one portal.

Microsoft offers a cost-free version of Power BI and Power BI pro. What differs between these two solutions?

Bithell: With a free account, you can only push out 1 GB of data and that’s information you’re pulling from various internal sources. On Power BI Pro, you can push out up to 10 GB.

The other big difference relates to data refreshes. With a free account, you can only refresh your data once daily, whereas Pro permits hourly refreshes. Clients using streaming data in their dashboard and reports can stream up to 10,000 rows of data per hour with a free account. On Pro, you can stream 1 million rows per hour.

Additionally, to access on-premises data using a connectivity gateway, you need a Pro account. On the collaboration front, Pro is essential. If you want to use Office 365 Groups, create organizational content packs, manage access through Active Directory or run row-level security, you have to be on Pro.

On top of that, if you want to see direct-query dataset data from SQL server analysis services, or Azure SQL or Azure SQL data warehouse, you would need a Pro account. If you have a dataset that needs to be refreshed more than once a day and you want somebody to see it, the recipient needs a Pro account. With Pro, it’s not just about what you can do with the data, it’s also about who can see it.

There are two different kinds of connectivity gateway options, right?

Bithell: There’s a personal gateway that allows users to refresh data from local files. However, I haven’t seen real-world application like this. It really makes a lot more sense to go with the on-premises gateway, which connects directly to a server somewhere in the organization. The gateway handles all the connections between Power BI and your data resources, stays up all the time and handles data refreshes.

However, I haven’t seen this used in a real-world production application. Given that the data refresh requires the machine to be on, it doesn’t make sense to have this running on a user machine.

What kind of data sources can you draw from with Power BI?

Bithell: Right now, there are over 50, and that list grows regularly. For example, you can pull in Excel, MailChimp and Salesforce data. It’s a long list and it continues to grow. If a client comes to Microsoft and asks for a connection that doesn’t exist, it will get added to the list. Power BI changes monthly. It’s moving really fast and has been for a while.

What types of data do you come across most often when working with clients?

Bithell: Normally I see SQL server on-premises or tabular models on SQL server analysis services. One client of mine had a data warehouse that was built on SQL server analysis services. I run into a lot of Excel files as well.

As you said before, Power BI offers a variety of data refresh options. In your experience, do more organizations request daily or hourly refreshes?

Bithell: It depends on how often the data is updated. If they have tables that are updated once a day, then that’s what they account for within the system. If they have live data, they can connect Power BI directly to the data source.

How does the Power BI Desktop feature fit into the equation?

Bithell: The Power BI Desktop allows you to get data and make changes to the queries to make sure you’re only getting the data you want. Then, you can model that data and create reports with it. It’s really a means through which to build data sources and reports.

Ultimately, you don’t have to use it – you can use Excel instead. And in my experience, organizations with SQL server analysis services don’t need it at all because all of your modeling is already done. Still, there are differences between the two that should be reviewed before deciding on which tool to use. Personally, I prefer Power BI Desktop.

Like you mentioned earlier, Power BI Pro comes with access to collaborative tools via Office 365. Do content packs fit into this collection of features or are they separate?

Bithell: The platform works with Office 365 groups. You can share your reports and data sources through those groups. Content packs are a little different. You can take data sources and dashboards and share them with other users in Power BI. Recipients can also edit content packs shared with them. The system actually makes a duplicate and lets them know they are working off their own pack.

I like to remind clients that if they want to share Power BI data with higher-ups and others who just need to view the data, you can just create a dashboard they can access without having a Power BI account. The solution also allows you to share data on public websites. In that case you really want to make sure the data is cleared to be shared externally.

Interested in discussing your Power BI needs with Tyler Bithell or another member of the B2B team? Contact us today.