Power BI use is growing, quite often because it is available to end users for free via an Office 365 subscription, but how does it actually compare to an enterprise level BI suite such as SAP BusinessObjects Edge?
For the end user creating reports and dashboards in Power BI is very tempting because it is easily available, quick to install and simple to learn – up to a point. But what about data preparation, security, distribution and access? Let’s have a look.
For end users Power BI seems almost like an extension to Excel. It is a drag and drop environment, has an easy to understand UI, is a Microsoft product so runs smoothly and has great documentation to fall back on when things get complex.
Both tools can produce either ad-hoc analysis on spreadsheets or CSV files, or can be connected to databases and multiple sources at once. Both can produce off-the-cuff, rough and ready output or highly formatted masterpieces with careful layout and pagination (though BusinessObjects probably wins at operational, list-style reports, invoice production etc though its Crystal Reports product).
BObj has its universe concept which creates a ‘semantic layer’ or data-map that then all users can follow to achieve a single version of the truth from a centralised source. The universes are easy to produce with a little bit of database knowledge, in a gui environment. Multiple sources can be connected to at once to provide a complex data model than can be re-used over and over again.
Power BI has powerful tools for data modelling, both in-engine and in the add-on Power Query (which is also found in Excel). There is a UI that allows for graphical data-modelling as well as the DAX language that provides end users with very flexible control over data. New tables can be created ad-hoc, data can be mashed together and manipulated. However, except in certain circumstances, this data-modelling cannot be shared between users. It will need to be re-done for each new dashboard or report, unless you have access to the Power BI cloud service.
In BusinessObjects Edge you can choose to have a copy of BusinessObjects Data Services available to you as well. This is an easy to use data-warehousing tool that allows for extraction, transformation and loading of data on a scheduled basis. Power BI doesn’t yet have this kind of capability in its suite, though the SSIS package might be available to an organisation that has SQL Server databases in-house.
Power BI as a stand-alone tool doesn’t have a lot of data-security options built in. Any security would need to be applied at the user level by the organisation’s DBAs to control what data can be accessed via connections. It’s only when the Power BI service or on-premise server is added to the environment that security rules can be applied over who sees what data or access which visualisations.
BusinessObjects has a configurable and reliable security system at its heart, allowing administrators to govern who accesses which content, has the ability to query which data sources and who sees what data from those.
Power BI is essentially a self-serve environment. Users need pro-licences to log into their service and look at and refresh dashboards and reports. If this is not employed, then it is possible to share PBIX files between desktop users but it is a very manual task.
BObj allows end users to set up recurring schedules for reports, and for these to then be emailed directly to users as PDFs or spreadsheets, or sent to shared folders – negating the need for extra licences for the entire organisation. A few power users can distribute 100s or 1000s of reports with hardly any effort after the initial set up.
Power BI puts a lot of potential in the hand of its end users. If you have good knowledge of your databases and other sources, and can learn the DAX language, then you can achieve a lot without having to involve anyone else from IT etc. There is great scope for imaginative data manipulation and a lot of power in the one tool. It’s possible this might be too much power for some users to wield fully, or more than IT wish to grant.
BObj separates the data-prep and reporting building into different tools (universe design v report design) – which can of course be used by the same person if they have the right combination of skills. In many organisations, IT will want to control the data-preparation and the business will want to own the report building tasks – this is much easier with BObj instead of Power BI. Re-use of the data modelling is baked into BObj.
I would recommend that any analyst who has felt constrained by the fact they cannot easily access their own data and let their creativity run wild try Power BI, and any organisation that seeks more control, robustness and ease of distribution try SAP BusinessObjects.