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Microsoft Rolls Out Power BI for Office 365 and Cloud Incentives

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Microsoft offered some technology previews at its Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston aimed at making its cloud and business intelligence (BI) offerings more robust and easy to use for organizations.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft Server and Tools Business president, announced the cloud offerings and incentives during a keynote on Monday and in a blog post. Nadella provided details on five programs: Power BI for Office 365, a Windows Azure SQL Database Premium offer, some new Windows Azure Active Directory capabilities, a "Cloud OS Accelerate" program for partners and a Windows Intune discount program.

Power BI for Office 365 got the biggest crowd reaction at WPC, especially after an entertaining demo by Microsoft Technical Fellow Amir Netz, who pulled visual data on the comparative popularity of different music stars over the decades and breathlessly narrated the results as if it were a horse race.

Nadella described Power BI as "our new self-service business intelligence (BI) solution that combines the data analysis and visualization capabilities of Excel with the power of collaboration, scale and trusted cloud environment of Office 365."

There are three components to Power BI for Office 365 that work from within the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program, according to an Office 365 blog post. First, there's Power Query (formerly known as "Data Explorer"), which supports data searching and discovery. Second, Microsoft has Power Pivot, which is used to analyze and model data. Lastly, Microsoft's formerly code-named "GeoFlow" project has two means for visualizing and exploring data, known as "Power View" and "Power Map." Power View is for manipulating data into charts, whereas Power Map is a three-dimensional visualization tool for "geographic and temporal data."

Power BI requires an IT department or partner to prepare data sets, such as company financial data or CRM data, and place them in a Data Catalog, which is hosted in SharePoint Online. IT can configure how frequently the data is updated. Users can then import that internal data and combine it with public data prepared by Microsoft from sources such as Wikipedia. Once they've found data from the catalog, end users can use Excel to connect data from different sources and analyze it. Power BI also allows the creation of BI Sites, where companies can set up dedicated workspaces for business intelligence projects.

Mobile apps will allow for access to those BI sites from iPads or Windows 8 and Windows RT devices. A FAQ in Microsoft's Office 365 blog post indicated that Power BI is supported in browsers using HTML 5 as well as by iPad and Windows 8 mobile apps, with support for other platforms to come.

Another Power BI feature, called "Q&A," includes a natural language query experience in which users ask questions of the data in a search box and get back answers in a table, graph or map, depending on how Power BI interprets the question.

A public preview of Power BI for Office 365 will be available later this summer. Microsoft has not released pricing for the production version, but officials say it will be a per-user, per-month model.

A Premium offer for Windows Azure SQL Database will offer dedicated capacity "for more powerful and predictable performance from Azure databases," Nadella said.

"One of the challenges with [Windows Azure] SQL is what I'll call noisy neighbors," said Eron Kelly, general manager of SQL Server product marketing, in an interview. "With the new Premium version, we're locking down and dedicating a certain amount of capacity -- bandwidth and CPU."

The Premium platform-as-a-service database will debut as a preview toward the end of July. Once in production, customers will pay an additional fee per core, along with the standard per-gigabyte price of SQL Azure. The per-core price will be disclosed later.

New Windows Azure Active Directory capabilities will extend AD management to third-party cloud services. That capability will make it possible for organizations to control things like employee accounts for cloud services when used as part of their job. Microsoft is currently working with some of the biggest software-as-a-service vendors to integrate their services with Azure AD. The system is extensible so that ISVs and other third parties can create their own integrations.

Cloud OS Accelerate is an incentive program to encourage new private and hybrid cloud solutions for customers. A $100 million combined investment in incentives for Cloud OS Accelerate will be made by Microsoft, Cisco, NetApp, Hitachi Data Systems, HP and Dell.

A Windows Intune offer will go into effect on October 1, providing a discount for those using Microsoft's cloud management suite. Customers who buy Windows Intune as part of the Office 365 or CAL suite will get a 30 percent discount, Microsoft officials said.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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