Dashboards and Data: How Power BI connectors help SMBs round out a BI and reporting strategy

May 2 2019

In the April 2019 update to Power BI Desktop, one of the enhancements was a new connector for Solver BI360, a corporate performance management suite. The connector offers BI360 cloud customers the ability to bring financial, budget, and other operational data to Power BI for use in reports and dashboards.

The connector itself was several months in the making, Solver CEO Nils Rasmussen told MSDW in a new interview. As he explained it, Microsoft's success in growing Power BI has created more opportunities for ISV partners like Solver, but it has also introduced new challenges as more organizations raise their expectations around BI capabilities like authoring of dashboards and lowering costs.

As BI and reporting software buyers, including BI360 customers, have invested in solutions like Power BI and top competitors, the dashboarding tools that smaller vendors like Solver had built in years past started to lose their attractiveness. Solver made the decision about three years ago to deprioritize their own web dashboard module in favor of Power BI and to focus on their own more specialized financial reporting, consolidations, budgeting, and data warehousing solution.


Betting on Power BI felt like a risky decision three years ago, Rasmussen said. At the time, Power BI's future as a cloud-based solution was still uncertain. As it has gained market share and has converted more organizations, including SMBs, into believers, the overall impact is positive for Solver as a Corporate Performance Management (CPM) vendor. He explains:

BI360 as a financial reporting and budgeting tool was traditionally the final resting place for your data - budgets, ERP, payroll, etc., and then you use it to write reports, use it as part of the budget process along with historical data from the ERP system and then you were done.

With Power BI, you're not done. After you've finished the data collection, finished budgeting, it's sitting in our data warehouse, so now it is a few clicks to expose the BI360 API, and then use the Power BI connector to load data and dimensions into to your Power BI dashboards.

BI360's Power BI connector adheres to Microsoft guidelines (which is why it was included in an official monthly release) so report designers can connect to their Azure-based BI360 data warehouse in just a few minutes and use its dimensional schema to develop new reports and dashboards in Power BI Desktop. A connector to BI360 private hosted instances is planned for later in 2019.

While the connector will most often be used to bring clean financial data and dimensions into Power BI, Rasmussen believes SMB organization looking to use Power BI will see value in getting more out of their data warehouse solution to simplify the use of Power BI. For example, BI360 can capture rules around currency conversion and eliminations and it offers pre-built connectors of its own for many ERP and CRM systems to combine financial and operational data. He explained:

Power BI needs data and it looks like it's becoming the go-to dashboard tool across departments. The challenge is that companies have an average of five to six data sources:  ERP, time and expense, CRM, legacy systems, and more. And suddenly it's a lot of connectors for Power BI. So we think partners and customers will appreciate that the BI360 database was architected to be a data warehouse and not [just a] financial or budgeting database. In the SMB space, where there have been very few database architects or [big budgets to build data warehouses], it will serve two purposes. First, it will be a corporate performance management tool. And second, [our message is that] there's a data warehouse sitting in BI360, let's simplify our Power BI deployment with the BI360 data warehouse.

Rasmussen also observed that for financial reporting and budgeting in the SMB space, buyers are prioritizing ease of use over greater sophistication. That made a pre-built connector a high priority.

In our experience in working with the partner channel and the SMB space, finance departments these days want it easy. They don't necessarily need a lot more features, functions, training, etc. They want it easy so that they don't need months of implementation and an army of consultants. With this type of connector, it is a five-minute setup and aligns with the vision to make it easy for customers and partners.

Partners are very busy these days, too – retraining their staff to understand cloud ERPs, moving their customer bases to cloud. So if ISVs come in with a bunch of technical tools requiring staff training, they wouldn't work with it. We wouldn't be a good partner to them.

Developing a cloud-based connector that follows Power BI standards also gives BI360 customers a good reason to migrate from their on-prem reporting, budgeting and data warehouse systems to BI360 Cloud on Azure, said Rasmussen. The cloud connector was actually a deciding factor for some whose IT governance allowed for a Microsoft-certified Power BI connector but not a manually configured integration. He explained:

We expect customers to switch over to this approach. Some have been waiting for the connector so they can migrate to BI360 Cloud to combine the power of modern reporting, budgeting and Power BI dashboards for analysis.

With Power BI's low price point and many SMBs now at least looking at it, Rasmussen believes that pre-built connectors from Microsoft and its partners will be a key element to embracing the use of dashboards in this market segment.

It comes back to the fact that a dashboard without data isn't useful. Building the dashboard isn't that hard, but you need to get data, and that process has traditionally been an IT exercise that required the right people. That's what Microsoft has tried to resolve with their connector program with pre-built integrations to popular data sources.  Analysts, controllers, and others who are sitting and tinkering with Power BI don't have to go and find a consultant or IT person to get the data into Power BI. With the connectors, in most cases a business user can get the data into Power BI and start building the dashboard. That's the new revolution in the IT space with rise of dashboards. That technical integration job is becoming something a business person can do, that was last mile to really make it user friendly.

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Prior to co-founding MSDynamicsWorld.com, Jason was a Principal Software Consultant at Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC), where he implemented solutions, trained customers, managed software development, and spent some time in the pre-sales engineering organization. He has also held consulting positions at CSC Consulting and Monitor Group.

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