Post by Rob Collie and Chris Finlan
Datazen (The Latest Addition to Microsoft’s Suite of BI Tools) is a Mobile Monster
(Monster in a GOOD Way. Yes, PowerPivotPro has its own DZ Custom Theme – You Can Too)
Datazen Q&A With Chris Finlan
***Intro from Rob: Today I’m interviewing Chris Finlan of Microsoft about MS’s recent acquisition of Datazen, and what this means to us in the Power Pivot and Power BI community.
ROB: Last month, Microsoft purchased a company named Datazen. Most people had never heard of Datazen before, but you had pointed them out to me last summer I think. You were already a big believer in them at that point, as were your customers.
CHRIS: Yeah, I love Datazen. I’m as passionate about it as you are about Power Pivot. I think it’s an extraordinary product, and have felt this way for quite some time Don’t believe me? Check out the date of my review in the Windows Store. (Spoiler alert: it was April of 2013 – that’s before I even applied for a job at Microsoft).
ROB: You’re truly a trendsetter in tech and clothing. I think one of the natural first reactions/questions from the community is, “wait, did MS just buy one of Power BI’s competitors, and if so, when do I use it versus, say, Power Pivot?”
CHRIS: No, DZ was designed from the beginning to “only” be a visualization layer on top of the Microsoft Data Platform. In your post on Visualizations Layers in Perspective: The Last Mile, you pointed out three key reasons at the end on why you’d buy a visualization tool. Datazen checks all three boxes (and oh by the way, there’s no longer anything to buy – it’s simply a benefit you receive when you license SQL Server Enterprise with Software Assurance).
ROB: Which means it’s free for many existing MS customers. More on that later. But I also want to talk about how DZ can be used to “light up” the great work being done by Power Pivot practitioners, because hey, that’s what we do around here.
Any Flat Table in Excel Can “Power” a Datazen Dashboard
EX: Power Pivot Produces a Flat Pivot (or DAX Query Table),
and DZ Can Use That Excel File as a First-Class Data Source.
(The ONLY Server Required Here is a DZ Server – No SharePoint, No SQL, No SSAS)
ROB: I’ll throw you a softball to start that off: What’s so special about Datazen that would compel Microsoft to make such a purchase? I know the basics – that it’s beautiful, completely themeable, and runs equally well on all phones, tablets, and computers – but for you, what’s the crux of it?
CHRIS: Well for one, the actual dashboard creation/design experience is unlike any you’ve ever seen before. Most folks who create dashboards start with the data first, then start the lengthy back-and-forth around what the end result will look like with their users. Datazen flips the script on that – it invites users to start with the visualization first, and mocks up the data view so you know exactly how the data should look in order for the dashboard to work. This is incredibly powerful – because for 15 out of 16 people, this is the perspective they’re used to and feel comfortable with. It’s speaking their language, and makes the translation to “data gene speak” for them simple.
ROB: That’s pretty novel, I agree. But “my kind of people” – the people reading this article – I don’t really think they need it to be quite that simple. Are you saying that this is NOT aimed at the Power Pivot crowd?
CHRIS: No, I think it’s GREAT for the Power Pivot crowd. You lay out a dashboard that would “wow” people, and then Datazen shows you the table it needs to “power” that dashboard. You then go create a Flattened Pivot or DAX Query that produces that shape.
ROB: Kinda like that diagram I drew above?
You Can Have THIS, No SharePoint Required.
ROB: In that sort of deployment, there’s no SharePoint requirement, nor is there even an SSAS server requirement. Just desktop Power Pivot, and the DZ server, and you’re off to the races. That’s a MAJOR big deal that got me excited last summer: web and mobile reach without the SharePoint tax.
CHRIS: There are still many benefits of SharePoint of course, but if you’re not already a SharePoint customer, you truly CAN get started quickly with DZ. Compared to other server products, the DZ server is very “light” to install and configure – here’s a guide for doing so in Azure.
OneDrive and Auto Refresh
ROB: OK, so I set up a DZ server in Azure, which sounds simple enough. And I am using my Power Pivot workbook as a data source, by connecting DZ to a flat pivot therein for instance. How does the DZ server “see” my workbook, since the workbook is on my desktop and DZ is running in Azure?
CHRIS: You put the workbook in OneDrive for Business, and then install OneDrive on the DZ server so it synchs. So when the workbook gets saved to OneDrive, it then gets replicated to your DZ server automatically.
ROB: And then, when I get updated data, I save a new version of the workbook “over the top” of the workbook on OneDrive, and DZ picks up the latest.
CHRIS: Correct. But I’ve been using Power Update to handle that refresh for me, so it’s hands free.
ROB: I love that, obviously. Power Update runs the refresh locally on a schedule, and pushes the updated workbook to OneDrive for you. So us Power Pivot types get mobile/web visuals of the highest quality, AND auto-refresh, and the only server required is one that even *I* can install myself. It’s like nerd nirvana. Nerdvana. For nerds who hate installing software, in particular. Like me (and most of the biz world’s Excel pros).
CHRIS: Yeah, I work primarily with MS’s Enterprise customers – people with IT departments. And their response to DZ is very positive as well. But I see what you mean – smaller orgs and even individuals can now “project” very professional results quickly and affordably.
ROB: And that was the thing that excited me the most about DZ last summer. Mobile beauty and 100% themeable. It’s a perfect fit for the Insight as a Service crowd in particular. So what’s the “draw” with Enterprise customers?
CHRIS: For one thing, buy-in. For many folks who read this blog (and me), sometimes getting people to buy into the idea that Excel and Power Pivot can be an Enterprise solution is challenging. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but there is often a bias against Excel in organizations because of a myriad of reasons. In fact, this bias becomes more profound the higher you up you go I that organization. C-level executives tell us they want to see KPI’s while brushing their teeth (this was an actual quote from one of my customer’s CEO, by the way). This means they want something simple, looks beautiful and runs on their mobile device – and that brings us back to DZ.
ROB: And you’ve told me that DZ enthusiasm, in turn, then leads to Power Pivot buy-in.
CHRIS: Yes. Once the decisionmakers have seen how cleanly and crisply the data can be delivered to them, wherever they are, then we need the Producers, the Power Pivot pros, to feed good metrics into the dashboards.
ROB: Anything that makes the Power Pivot pros’ work shine, or even better, that triggers such work to be done in the first place, is something I heartily endorse.
Can I Ditch My Flat Pivots and Go “Direct?”
ROB: All right, this is all good news. At some point though, if I DO have a Power Pivot for SharePoint server or an SSAS Tabular server, I’m going to want to ditch the flat-pivot-as-data-source approach (or the DAX Query Table equivalent) and just connect DZ directly to my Power Pivot model. I can kinda do that today already right?
CHRIS: Yes, you can give DZ an MDX or DAX query string, for instance, and it will just work.
ROB: But I need to provide that MDX or DAX query myself, DZ won’t write it for me. DZ doesn’t give me a field list experience like Excel pivots for instance.
CHRIS: That’s correct, in the current version of DZ.
ROB: Aha! Current version! While I really like the current “no SharePoint/SSAS required” story, I *do* also want the “field list experience” someday soon – for cases where we DO have a SharePoint or SSAS server. I’ve been very vocal about this. Give it to me. Yes, I’m greedy and I want it both ways.
CHRIS: Pretty sure everyone has heard you say that now, repeatedly.
ROB: So, when???
CHRIS: You know I can’t talk about future product roadmaps.
ROB: Yes, but I like making you squirm. OK, anything else you’d like to share?
CHRIS: Jen Underwood had a great post recently about Datazen and pointed out how companies that deployed mobile BI showed double the adoption rate vs. those that don’t. That’s a great reason to get started with Datazen and help us at Microsoft shape the product to meet your specific needs. And to that end, both Rob and I would love to hear from folks who’ve used the product, have questions, feedback, or simply want to learn more. Just drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all comments. Enjoy!