Covid, Composite Models, and the State of Power BI: An Interview Microsoft MVP Matt Allington

February 6 2021

Australia has weathered the risks of Covid-19 better than many countries, but tough restrictions have hampered business there as state governments lock down some areas after even small outbreaks.

Matt Allington

For people who have built their professional lives around in-person technology training, the new market conditions have presented challenges. The need for training in a skill like Microsoft Power BI still exists, but it must now be met with remote learning methods and tools. MSDW caught up with Microsoft MVP Matt Allington after a year of change for the Power BI product and community to get his perspective on what comes next for the product and its customers.

In addition to providing training and consulting, Allington is a prolific Power BI blogger on the Excelerator BI blog.

Covid changes the game

Allington traditionally delievered in-person training on Power BI. The past year has been a big adjustment, he says.

We've fast forwarded the online transition by 10 years. Previously nobody would come to an online live training course by Zoom, but now it is quite common. We have regular online training. That wouldn't have happened pre-2020. People previously didn't value that kind of live online content as opposed to face to face. Live online training works, but it is actually quite challenging for a trainer to deliver content through live-streaming [due to difficulties gauging the body language of participants].

While quick fixes like a "cameras on" policy help address these challenges of online training, Covid-19 has also posed challenges for the Power BI User Group in Sydney that Allington helps to lead.

There's so much content online you can basically attend anywhere in the world. The competition for that space is much more rigorous. No longer competing geographically but globally… We deliver the content of course because that's the glue that holds the community together. But side conversations have been lost and are literally not possible. It is hurting our user group, no question about it. I have no doubt that it will return to the way it was as soon as we can return to some normal congregation. Worldwide, it's sad to see the demise of the Professional Association of SQL Server [PASS]. Power BI was part of that by default because of Tabular Services. They ceased operating in January 2021. Large global events like SQL Saturday are now all gone.

Fortunately, in addition to training, Allington also does consulting which has stayed relatively steady. After experiencing a 30 percent surge in training demand in late 2019, the end of 2020 brought a nearly 20 percent drop in training as some companies held off on training spend.

The riddle of licensing

During 2020, Microsoft introduced a new type of licensing, Power BI Premium Per User. It supports a small numbers of users with Premium capacity and capabilities. According to Allington, it probably is not a game changer and still leaves gaps where small and medium enterprises are concerned.

If you've got 10,000 users, Power BI Premium is great, paying by actual usage. But the opposite of the sweet spot is the "valley of death" where you have 600 users. That's not enough to make Power BI Premium affordable and is too many to make Power BI Pro affordable. Now, Premium Per User does not address this. If Power BI Pro doesn't work for 600 neither will the new version. I think there's a very small market for Premium Per User. It might work if you're a small company needing something like incremental refresh from premium features.

Making sense of new releases

Microsoft premiered its 2020 release wave 2 feature set in December and will soon begin rolling out 2021 release wave 1 for Power BI and the rest of the Microsoft business applications and services. Allington recommends users set up an RSS feed to the Microsoft Power BI blog as a central point to learn about announcements.

He says he is particularly interested to see the introduction of the Paginated Report visual feature.

"This will allow users to leverage paginated reports directly from Power BI, including the ability to export and print.  This will make it a lot easier to export and print structured reports when the report does not fit on the screen without a scroll bar."

Looking at the December updates, Allington discussed new composite models. Even before the composite model premiere, users were able to create a model, publish it and then create a secondary report linked back to it.

What's changed is that the author of the secondary report can extend the model, keeping access to the primary model. They can load new tables of data and extend for local needs. This is a game changer. Everything started as self-service, much like Excel. Microsoft added Enterprise, and this new feature composite models lets you do both…Previously for a user to do that you had to export to Excel and use Excel from there on…Local users always wanted to mash up some sort of solution that wasn't supported by the enterprise tool. Enterprise tools can never meet every need of every user because of bespoke needs. With this model, users can create robust self-service versions, write models, create new relationships, and live in their own version of the new world.

Power BI is about to mark its sixth anniversary and many of its component technologies like Power Pivot and Power Query are close to a decade old—or older.

There are not many enhancements to the DAX language coming through. The big releases may start to taper off, but on the flipside a lot may need to be polished around the edges. Microsoft does have a concept called Power BI Ideas where you can raise new features you want.

When asked whether Power BI "fits" with the other services in the Power Platform portfolio, Allington had this to say:

Yes and no… If you think about those three products, they're all very different, plus Dynamics. But they serve a common purpose of helping businesses run. Those four collectively are competing against SAP. I think it makes absolute business sense. It seems like a winning strategy. Just pushing Dynamics aside, then yes I think Power BI belongs because from a plumbing perspective the three Power Platform products need to operate as one.

Where I think it makes less sense is when you come down to the community level. Microsoft used to have Data Insights Summit, an annual event for a couple of years solely focused on Power BI. But somewhere along the way it became Power Platform Summit. Even though they make sense at a business strategy level, at community level they should have a prime re-focus. The people operating at the community or product level tend to focus on one of the four areas. It's very common to have a second focus. I major in Power BI and minor in Power Automate, dabbling in that area. To go to a community event that's big on Power Automate isn't very valuable to me. I would prefer to see community-based events for all four of those product families.

FREE Membership Required to View Full Content:

Become a MemberLogin
Joining MSDynamicsWorld.com gives you free, unlimited access to news, analysis, white papers, case studies, product brochures, and more, and it’s all FREE. You’ll also have the option to receive periodic email newsletters with the latest relevant articles and content updates. Learn more about us here
About Eamon McCarthy Earls

As the assistant editor at MSDynamicsWorld.com and MSCloudNews.com, Eamon helps to oversee editorial content on the site and supports site management and strategy. He can be reached at eearls@msdynamicsworld.com.

Before joining MSDynamicsWorld.com, Eamon was editor for SearchNetworking.com at TechTarget, where he covered networking technology, IoT, and cybersecurity. He is also the author of multiple books and previously contributed to publications such as the Boston Globe, Milford Daily News, and DefenceWeb.

More about Eamon McCarthy Earls