Yeah I’m a Bit Slow…
Back in October, Microsoft released a roadmap blogpost detailing plans and direction for their BI platform. I kinda pressed the Snooze bar on paying attention, because hey, I was super busy, plus… I always tend to take my time with announcements like these. I do my best “digestion” once the noise has died down, and my best thinking slowly, in quiet.
Spoiler: Mostly Positive
Words like “Bad” and “Ugly” are overkill, as my reactions are mostly positive. I just love this movie and have been dying to create/pervert an image like the album cover shown here. I was raised on Star Wars, yes, but also on Spaghetti Westerns, thanks to my father (my middle name is Clinton, because he originally wanted to name me Clinton Eastwood Collie – not a joke, my mom intervened).
What “negative” feedback I do have is constructive in nature, rather than disparaging. So if you came here hoping for a bloodbath, move along, this isn’t the post you’re looking for. It’s not all sunshine and double rainbows either, so if you’re a Microsoftie hoping to hear that I love everything, well, that’s not quite happening either, but please stick around and read what I have to say.
They explicitly come out and say they want Power BI to be used by a Billion People. I like this kind of ambitious goal, and it absolutely strikes me as Completely Feasible. Heck, we have that many people (more, probably) creating and consuming Excel-based analytics already! Why shouldn’t we set our sights lofty? And besides… goals like these are ONLY attainable when MS BI fully embraces the Excel crowd. They’re not going to get there just by direct Power BI adoption. So goals like these tell me they are seeing things properly (or at least, will be forced to over time, muhaha).
They are working on an “on premises” server for the publishing of Power BI Desktop visualizations. Bravo, bravo, bravo. Years ago when Microsoft announced its “Cloud First” mantra for BI, it was clear to me that they weren’t going to do on-premises versions of the new stuff unless they were forced to. Well, they’ve been forced to, because, in my experience, the bigger the customer, the less likely they are to embrace cloud-based BI (and big customers are overwhelmingly the most important to the MS business). For more than a year, I’ve been crossing my fingers that MS corporate would be pragmatic enough to start building out the on-prem version. This is awesome news.
It sounds like they might be building an on-premises version of Web Excel that does not require SharePoint! I’m reading between the lines here a bit, because the blog post didn’t explicitly say this, but the post does seem to strongly imply it. I mean, they’ve already done this in the cloud, by allowing you to pin Excel reports into your PowerBI.com dashboards. This would be a HUGE development for on-premises customers, because a) SharePoint is one of the most fidgety servers in the world to install and maintain and b) SharePoint tends to involve a heavy political cost as well, because it tends to cross over into other factions of IT outside of BI land – at one of our clients, the deployment of Power Pivot for SharePoint took more than THREE YEARS because of such politics. Sidestepping all of that would be a big win.
Excel continues to have a prominent place at the table. Keep in mind that the blog post in question was written by the SQL team, not the Office team, and as such it’s natural that they’d emphasize their own products more heavily, but Excel does appear in the roadmap as one of the four canonical types of reports. In related news, the name “Power Pivot” will survive indefinitely within Excel – so much so that we were enthusiastic to maintain its presence in the title of our 2nd edition book – and even the SQL team continues to build around Excel (witness the ability to pin Excel reports to Power BI dashboards and the new Excel addin for doing precisely that.)
Hey, nothing in there is Bad, in the way Angel Eyes was in the movie. (Some people are always expecting there to be Evil lurking behind the scenes at Microsoft, and no, there just isn’t any such thing. Academic hubris and big-company-clumsiness are the only “evil” forces we will find.)
But if we’re talking “Bad,” in the way Lee van Cleef himself was bad… you know, like Michael Jackson was bad, or George Thoroughgood was bad to the bone, well, I think our friends The Engines (as in, the DAX and M engines) qualify.
Or maybe we should call this section The Awkward. Cuz that’s a decent umbrella under which to collect my thoughts. (And besides, Eli Wallach, in hindsight… ugly? I don’t think so. Did you see him in The Holiday? Such a sweet man.)
All of the on-prem stuff is being organized “under” SSRS. Yep, SQL Server Reporting Services is being positioned as the Mother Ship for all of the on-prem investments. As in, if you want on-prem Power BI Desktop publishing, or Web Excel, or Datazen, you need to install an SSRS server (as opposed to, say, Microsoft’s Hot New On-Prem BI Server, which is what *I* was expecting them to do).
As a technical detail, fine, OK. But as a description… look, Power BI Desktop publishing, on-premises, can only be sensibly described as “Power BI On-Prem.” In any conversation with customers, that’s what we’re going to be calling it. Calling it “SSRS Interactive,” as it’s described in the blog post, would be super, super opaque and I can’t imagine anyone in the real world responding well to it.
And isn’t SSRS a pretty non-sexy vehicle? I mean, it’s been around forever, it correctly has a reputation as Yesterday’s Static Report Server, and it’s lost whatever “coolness” it once had in customers’ minds. Why would we “stamp” all the Brand New Hotness as if it were yesterday’s old news? If I want people to be properly excited about the new on-prem server, I’m going to (truthfully) tell them that it’s not SSRS, but instead Microsoft’s Next-Gen On-Prem BI Server. Web Excel, Power BI, and Datazen have nothing to do with SSRS. Why associate them like this. (Yes, I get it, SSRS has a huge install base, so there is that as an advantage. But install base is a very different thing from mind share and perception, and I suspect this branding will backfire significantly.)
New Official Names for Things We Already Understand? Weird if so.
While we’re at it, they’re calling Datazen “Mobile,” and NOT using that word to describe Power BI (which they are calling Interactive), which seems to imply that Power BI is NOT mobile (wrong) and that Datazen is not interactive (also wrong). This makes me wonder if these descriptors (Mobile, Interactive) are truly going to be official terms in the released product, or if they’re just part of this blog post roadmap thingy (boy I hope it’s the latter, cuz it’s all just super confusing – we didn’t need new adjectives for these things – adding a new description doesn’t magically converge and rationalize the many different offerings, it merely makes a decent story look murky).
Instead, I would have hoped that, by now, we wouldn’t be talking about Datazen and PBI as separate techs anymore. Tell us a story where beautiful, interactive, mobile visuals are all going to be one thing. I’m sure that’s the eventual plan (right, Microsoft?) but it’s non-ideal that we’re heading into a major release and still distinguishing them. If I am about to get on-prem PBI, why do I need Datazen anymore?
I still don’t get the MS obsession with Hybrid mode. As in, a BI platform that simultaneously has one foot in the cloud and one foot on-premises. It’s one thing to have a mixture of on-prem and cloud data sources. But why would I want my UI layer in the cloud (on PowerBI.com) and my data engines on-prem (on SSAS/Power Pivot servers that I maintain)? Seems like a whole bunch of extra network roundtrips to me (slow), as well as additional configuration requirements (and failure points) in the form of gateways. Not to mention, it STILL is likely to trigger enterprise customers’ “anti-cloud” immune systems. (That’s been my experience so far anyway). Seriously, if I’m wrong about this, please tell me, I actually DO want to understand better. As it stands, I see Hybrid as not terribly practical, and the sooner MS internalizes this (or I discover why I am wrong), the better.
But hey, we’ve got an on-prem answer on the way! If the above sounds cynical, well no worries, because MS is already solving that problem by giving us a full on-prem version. As they should be. And our larger clients will love this. They will deploy lots of it.
Right? Right? It’s a FULL on-prem version. 100% parity with the cloud version, and vice versa. That was hinted at in the blog post with words like “harmonize” and “align,” but it’s such a simple thing to say, and they danced around it rather than keeping it simple, which worries me a touch.
Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, I know they can’t deliver parity overnight. It takes time. And I also understand that the cloud versions will always be “fresher” than on-prem, because it’s just so much easier to release new code to the cloud. But it’s such a simple thing. It’s what EVERYONE expects: the cloud and the on-prem servers are the same thing, with the same features, capabilities, and behaviors. Why fight the way humans work and think. Why swim upstream against that current. Just tell us that perfect parity is an explicit goal, and that the on-prem thing isn’t intended as a stopgap.