If you’ve worked with us at ClicData, you know that, above all, it’s important to us to be very transparent—about what our platform does and doesn’t do, and about our pricing, our services, and our vision. As always, our goal is to provide a data analytics and reporting tool to help businesses worldwide manage their data and their time better, faster, and simpler.
It is because of this transparency that we chose to post a blog to compare Microsoft’s Power BI application ClicData’s BI tool.
In fact, soon after we begin consulting with new clients, we are often asked how the two compare. In the beginning, we responded from a technical perspective, highlighting the fact that Power BI is a great tool for exploratory and one-time visualization—much like Excel on steroids—whereas ClicData is a full-scale automated data warehousing, data management, connectivity, and publication tool. Power BI doesn’t do most of those things. In fact, the costs of building a system based on Power BI that has the equivalent functionality of ClicData are staggering.
Sure, it’s true that Microsoft—thanks to its company acquisitions and vast years of experience with similar tools—has created in Power BI a great data visualization tool.
But at ClicData, we believe that, while visualization is a key component of Business Intelligence, getting data processing to serve the company goals often takes up 60-70% of a data analyst or a department manager’s time and is, therefore, the more valuable component of a BI system. While ClicData provides seamless and potent data visualization, it’s the efficient and broad-reaching collecting, massaging, cleaning, and transforming of data that our company focuses on and delivers to our customers.
But despite our attempts at technical discourse, our message doesn’t always seem to land. Sure, maybe there are good reasons for that: A) We are not a huge ubiquitous corporation like Microsoft; B) all of our IT friends and staff have heard of Power BI or are using Office 365; and C) We are, after all, the competition. So, why would anyone believe us?
So we decided to look at it from the perspective of someone considering a Power BI solution. After all, at ClicData, we use Office 365 for email and word processing, and we use Azure for all our data— across seven countries and three regions. It would make sense to give our partner, vendor, (and competitor) a try.
Accessing Power BI
To get started, the first thing I did was log into my Office 365 account and access the Power BI menu. Now, our Office 365 subscription gives us access to a basic personal version of Power BI, so that was easy.
Next, I wanted to create a collaboration workspace, so I clicked ”Create Workspace.” Here’s where it gets fun.
After clicking Create Workspace, I’m immediately told that upgrading to Pro will cost me $9.99 per month per user in addition to my Office 365 license. I also notice there is another version called Premium for $4,800/month paid yearly (amounting to $57,600), which would include some advanced administration and allow a user to consume the content, presumably with dashboards.
Not dismayed by this, I continued with the trial version and attempted to create my first connection to a file and a database.
Here came my second challenge. When I selected “Connect to my database,” I was prompted to “Download Desktop.”
And when I clicked “Download Desktop,” I got this:
Since I use a Mac laptop, I searched for the Desktop version of Power BI for Mac, but there didn’t seem to be one. So I switched to a Windows machine, searched for it in the Windows Store, and was able to install it.
Let’s stop for a moment and review what’s happened so far. Just to have the tool to connect to some of my data sources, I have to be running on a Windows machine and install an application (280 MB) on every machine that will be able to edit, create, and manage data and dashboards.
Cloud-based? Power BI is not. But let’s keep going and see how far we can get.
I install Power BI Pro. The adventure continues.
At first glance, the list of connectors on Power BI appeared quite long and consisted mostly of databases and file systems. However, I didn’t see any connectors for systems such as Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and Google Sheets. I also did not see connectors for Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Ads, and a few others that are commonly used with ClicData. Most importantly, I saw no generic Web Service connector, and most of the other connectors were in beta. I suspect the “beta” label will continue to be applied for some time to gauge the interest of users.
In fact, as I looked closer, I saw that, if we remove connectors that are variations of the same connector and remove Microsoft-only connectors, we are left with very few third-party connectors.
If we remove Azure connectors, Microsoft SQL Server, and CRM Dynamics, there are not many connectors—or at least not any useful ones. Nothing for applications such as QuickBooks and HubSpot. Do we have to download something else or perhaps pay for an additional connector? Unsure.
My next step was to connect to a local SQL database or to an Excel file on Dropbox. But again, a concern. Since I was forced to use the Desktop version, nobody else will be able to work on the connection except me. In other words, with this method, I can create individual connections on my laptop, but nobody else will be able to use them.
Not only is that a shame, but it also has severe implications since it means I’ll have to have my laptop on and be logged in to be able to produce automated dashboards based on MySQL. There has to be another way! Maybe a server version of Power BI? Unsure. But I persisted.
I entered my credentials and, after a few clicks similar to SQL Server Management Studio, I chose to “Transform the Data.” With that, a second application that I was unaware that I had installed was loaded in. Called Power Query, it might have come with Power BI, and, for all intents and purposes, it looked and acted very much like Excel.
Now, I wanted to simply merge this table with another table from the same server, but I got faced with this dialog. So, there I was at a dead-end because I had not selected additional tables in my initial “Import,” and I didn’t have any other tables available to merge with at that point.
I produced a simple report with a map, saved it to my local computer, and published it to my Power BI Office 365 account.
Then I wanted to share the report with other users, but again I was confronted by the upgrade message. I ensured that my trial was working and proceeded to publish it to users of my Active Directory. That meant that I was able to share my dashboards as long as all my users were on Office 365 in my Active Directory. And that means that clients and partners are out of the question unless maybe I can embed the dashboard. Let’s see how that works.
I clicked the embed option in the File menu and was presented with this cryptic message. Since I am the administrator of Power BI, I was even more curious about how I would control something as simple as letting my users embed their dashboards.
As I tried again and again to refresh my simple Excel data, I was informed of two limitations very quickly. One, my data set was limited to a certain number of rows or size. It was unclear which one since the error was not explicit, but it did ask me to upgrade to Premium again. The second was that after a certain number of refreshes, it also told me to upgrade to Premium. Again.
After reading more on this, I found the following limitation mentioned on the website: Maximum number of automatic refreshes per day: Power BI Pro—8, Power BI Premium —48.
As I was unable to test or try Power BI Pro, I was unable to determine if the numbers were per data source or data set.
I was very impressed by the visualization and auto-detection of columns within Power BI. But I was less impressed by the fact that I needed to continuously refine my catalog to include additional data sources. You see, in ClicData, you can continuously add new data sources to dashboards—even data sources that have nothing to do with each other—on the fly. But in Power BI, mostly because of this “publish” process, they have to be defined well before the design or implementation of a report or dashboard.
All in all, Power BI’s data visualization is impressive—a step above Excel and many others.
Power BI is the culmination of Microsoft’s BI solution, which has always been a mash-up of technologies—SQL Server Analysis Services, Office (mostly Excel), and, later on, Power Pivot and Power Data. Power BI replaces all of these. Here are some of its shortcomings:
Use on Windows only
Unless you are prepared to install Power BI on Windows across all of your editors, this solution is not for you. If you are on a Mac, then you are completely out of luck.
Requires custom/built-in security
The only way to secure data is based on personal/local access and/or using Active Directory within Office 365. This will surely be a problem if you need to distribute data and dashboards to people outside of your organization. But even within an organization, you will most likely have to get IT involved to manage your security any time you require a change.
Embedding not easy
Embedding isn’t really possible unless you have some administrative and technical involvement. I wasn’t able to embed a dashboard on any web page without some serious workarounds.
Limits on connectors
For the most part, Power BI’s list of connectors seems impressive. But if we remove Microsoft-based connectors (mostly Azure databases), the list thins out substantially, and common cloud SaaS apps are not available. Those that are available are, for the most part, marked with “beta” and come with warnings of accessing third-party software.
Here’s how Power BI compares to ClicData offerings, feature-for-feature:
- The Power BI Premium yearly subscription of $4800/month offers a similar set of features to ClicData’s $425/month Enterprise subscription, a difference of $52,500 per year.
- The Power BI Pro package costs $9.99/month per user compared to $8.50/month per user for ClicData’s Enterprise subscription, but ClicData offers many more features. Power BI Pro will not deploy content to multiple regions or users, has no incremental data refresh, and no ability to share content with users that don’t have a Power BI license. Also, datasets in Pro are limited to 1GB, and the platform only allows eight data refreshes per day. The Microsoft product suffers from several other limitations compared to ClicData, as well.
Data storage and refreshes
Power BI gives you a view of your data from one point in time. But if you need to save that data for future analysis, take a snapshot of it, save it for comparison or because you are moving systems, then you need to store it somewhere. Power BI is not a data warehouse, so you would need to build one using Azure SQL Data Warehouse or some other type of database, and then implement a variety of other tools to connect the data and store it.
Again, if you are technical and want to do all that, Azure, Google, and Amazon, among others, are great. They have lots of databases at your disposal, virtual machines that you can pay by the hour and minute with almost unlimited disk space.
Or you can get all that with ClicData built into your account.
These are just a few key differences and “gotchas” that you’ll experience with Power BI. I urge you to investigate carefully before handing over your money just because the name is Microsoft or because someone told you. There’s nothing like the first-hand experience.
Test out the Microsoft offering and ClicData’s solutions, test the support you get with both, and ensure that you compare all features. Be sure to consider what you need as well as what you might need once your first dashboard is ready to be shared across your team or your organization or with clients and partners.
I’m quite confident that you’ll experience what I have experienced with Power BI: frustration, confusion, and paying a high cost for something that only does beautiful visualization fast—but that you could do just as well with Excel.
Give ClicData a try for 2 weeks—it’s free! Signup for your trial account and start connecting your data right away. Our Support team is available through an in-app chat and support tickets. Feel free to book a demo with one of our Product Specialists.