Usually, when Microsoft puts on one of its big technical conferences, it takes the opportunity to announce and roll out new features for Power BI. This year’s Ignite conference, which kicks off as a virtual event today, is no exception. In fact, the list of new capabilities for Power BI being announced today is huge.
Microsoft Corporate VP Arun Ulag was kind enough to brief me last week on the array of new capabilities. In this post, I’ll cover some of the major announcements in detail, and do my best to at least enumerate the others.
Perhaps the biggest enhancement to Power BI is to its billing model: Power BI Premium will soon be available on a per-user basis, at what the company promises will be a very affordable price. Up until now, The Premium subscription was only available by “capacity,” meaning on dedicated infrastructure, for an entire organization, with a pricing entry point of about $5000/month. That worked well for large enterprises who no longer needed to buy $10/month Power BI Professional seat licenses for each of their users who consumed (rather than authored) reports and dashboards, but it meant that individuals and smaller organizations were locked out of any features that were Premium-only, including some important AI capabilities.
Now, individuals will be able to upsize their per-seat Professional licenses to Premium. During the preview period, the upgrade carries no additional cost. Microsoft isn’t announcing GA (general availability, i.e. post-preview) pricing for the service, but it is saying it will be “uniquely affordable and highly competitive in the industry.” That should come as very good news for users in the Power BI community who will now find the entire feature set of the platform available to them on an individual subscription basis.
Beyond the per-user availability, Power BI Premium is also getting faster, and is gaining an autoscale capability that, when enabled, allows Microsoft to provision additional “V-cores” (virtual CPU cores) to the customer’s cloud tenant for periods of 24 hours, when overloads are detected. The v-cores are automatically removed during idle periods, according to Ulag.
Watch your (natural) language
Moving on to features of the core product, Microsoft is announcing the preview of “smart narratives,” an augmented analytics feature it demoed in May at its Microsoft Business Applications Summit (MBAS) conference. Smart narratives provides plain-English summarizations of the data in a report, either on a per-visualization or page-wide basis. The narratives automatically update when data is filtered or drilled down upon, and the narratives are editable, both in terms of formatting and for insertion of arbitrary or calculation-driven text.
While Microsoft is playing catch-up here with other BI products that already offered narrative summarizations, it has worked hard to integrate its own implementation fully into the Power BI paradigm. The feature is surfaced through a drag-and-drop visual that is contextually updated when the underlying data changes through a filter, a slicer or the cross-filtering that takes place when a data element in another visual is selected. This makes the learning curve negligible for existing Power BI users. And combining smart narratives with “Q&A” natural language query capabilities will make Power BI a now strong contender in the augmented analytics arena.
Another major area of enhancement to Power BI’s usability comes in the form of a dedicated Power BI add-in application for Microsoft’s Teams collaboration platform, released as a preview. The Teams integration includes the ability to browse reports, dashboards and workspaces and directly embed links to them in Teams channel chats. It’s not just about linking though, as Teams users can also browse Power BI datasets, both through an alphabetical listing of them or by reviewing a palette of recommended ones. In both cases, datasets previously marked as Certified or Promoted will be identified as such, and Teams users will have the ability view their lineage, generate template-based reports on them, or just analyze their data in Excel.
Excel also gets the ability to browse datasets (and view them in PivotTables) and to bring dataset tables into spreadsheets using Excel’s data types feature. Both of these capabilities were shown at MBAS and subsequently made available as in preview; the dataset browsing and PivotTable connectivity will be GA later this year.
Power BI asset sensitivity levels, applied as Microsoft Information Protection (MIP) labels, are surfaced in the Teams as well. Additionally, through a new preview feature, those labels can be applied from within Power BI Desktop, making it unnecessary to apply them to the report and its underlying dataset in the cloud service’s user interface. And last month, Microsoft released a feature whereby Excel spreadsheet files with PivotTables connected to Power BI datasets will automatically inherit their MIP labels, too.
Visual data preparation
Microsoft is enhancing its Power Query technology to feature a visual interface rather than relying on the data grid view that has been its hallmark. Essentially, Power Query gets a new Diagram View where all queries in the model, and each of the transformation steps within them, will appear together, in a flowchart-like representation. This visual presentation indicates the dependencies between queries and the sequence of individual transformations within each. New transforms can be easily added in the Diagram View as well.
Visual data preparation is coming soon. It will be available initially in Power BI dataflows only (i.e. online), and not in Power BI Desktop. Ulag said the capability will come to Desktop “within the next calendar year. While this new incarnation of Power Query still uses the same mashup engine and M language behind the visual interface, that interface makes it more competitive with self-service data prep solutions from independent vendors like Trifacta and Alteryx.
Other Power BI goodies being announced at Ignite include visual anomaly detection (coming soon); a new visual that can trigger Power Automate processes in a data-driven fashion (also coming soon); preview of an upgraded Power BI HoloLens application compatible with HoloLens 2; a performance accelerator for Azure Synapse Analytics that automatically creates materialized views to accelerate frequent queries from Power BI; GA of deployment pipelines (including availability on government clouds) that can move Power BI assets between development, test and production environments; and a preview of a data impact analysis feature that can notify users of datasets that may be affected by a change to another dataset upstream.
The previews of smart narratives, the updated HoloLens app, integration with Excel’s data types feature and data source impact analysis are available today. The preview of the performance accelerator for Azure Synapse Analytics, the GA of Excel PivotTable/Power BI dataset integration and all preview features described here as “coming soon” are scheduled to be available later this year. Microsoft says any other previews I’ve discussed here are scheduled to be available later this month.
This is a huge manifest of new features. It will take some time for them all to be previewed and GA’d, and even longer for the Power BI user community to ponder, digest and master them. It’s good stuff though, and it certainly keeps the Power Bi ship moving along.