Getting Started with Business Intelligence on the Microsoft Platform


I was invited to the monthly Microsoft Student Partner meet-up last Friday, and I was excited to be speaking to an all-student audience after a long time. I had checked with the organizers about the audience’s know-how of business intelligence, and was told that it was something new to them. So, I decided to talk about Business Intelligence and Data Analytics on the Microsoft platform.

Now, 5 years ago, this subject would have been much easier to talk about. However, in recent times, the space of business intelligence and data analytics has changed much. Even within the Microsoft space of BI there is a lot to look at, and if you are new in the field, getting started is going to be quite a tough little challenge. With this in mind I built a little slide-deck, and a simple demo that I hoped would wow, or at least give them a moment’s awe, and waltzed into the auditorium.

When I finished delivering the presentation, I knew hadn’t nailed it and there was no wow factor from my demo. My primary mistake; not knowing the audience enough. I had assumed that they would have sound knowledge on the basics of databases, which I was not sure given the usual nature of us shy Sri Lankans when it comes to interacting at an event such as this. So, on the whole I left with a feeling that these students had not learnt what they had come there to learn, most of it would have just gone over their heads, and hence this post.

If you are a newbie to the lustrous world of Business Intelligence, what would you need to know to get started…

Overview of Business Intelligence

Business Intelligence is a concept. A concept that is interpreted  in various ways by various people. Here is what I think it is. The definition is not mine, but from a favorite book of mine:

An organization needs to take decisions in order to push towards it’s goals. In order to do that you need people who can make effective decisions. Business Intelligence is the processes and the technology that enables these processes, through which the the right information is given to the right person at the right time to make effective decisions.

Okay, so where does all this information that is mentioned come from? From the various sources of data that the organization has. It can be software systems (including legacy ones), plain files such as text files and spreadsheets, and in some cases even paper files.

Data that is relevant to the decision makers needs to be identified from this jungle of data, cleaned and then transformed, and finally stored in a central location. The information is usually stored in a special easy-to-read structure called a dimensional model (or star schema). This type of database is known as a data warehouse, because it stores large amounts of historical information. The data from the data warehouse is then fed into structures known as cubes for faster data reading. This information is then accessed by the users in various ways for analysis. Some of the usual ways through which this data is interfaced to the users are via reports, dashboards and scorecards.

Using more advanced tools and methods, the same data can be used for advanced analytics such as predicting the future and identifying hidden patterns.

Microsoft tools for Business Intelligence

The main tool for business intelligence from Microsoft is SQL Server. SQL Server started out as a relational database management system, but has now evolved into a full-fledged enterprise business intelligence system. It has tools for building data warehouses, tools for extracting and transforming data from various data sources to the data warehouse, tools for creating cubes and tools for creating reports and dashboards. SQL Server also has tools for advanced analysis of data, such as data mining.

Tools:

SQL Server 2014 (with Database Engine, Analysis Services, Integration Services and Reporting Services)

SQLServer2014

Microsoft also provides a set of tools called Power BI. This is for creating smaller BI solutions by people who don’t have much technical knowledge, but are well versed in analytics of data and who are good with Excel. Anyone can do business intelligence with Power BI tools, and it can be done quite fast as well. Power BI can also be used to access data from enterprise business intelligence systems such as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Tools:

Excel 2013 (with Power Pivot, Power Query, Power View, Power Map), Power BI dashboards

Power BI   ExcelLogo

Microsoft also has tools on the cloud for business intelligence. These can be used for storing unstructured data, creating Big Data solutions, perform machine learning and host your data warehouse.

Tools:

Azure SQL Database, Azure DocumentDB, Azure HDInsight, Azure Stream Analytics, Azure Machine Learning, Azure Data Factory

So this is an overview of what you can expect in Business Intelligence on the Microsoft platform. This post is intended as a primer for those who want to start working with BI, especially those in the student community. I am looking for some enthusiasm around this topic, and if I find a few people who are indeed interested, you can expect a lot more on it…

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