DATA ANALYTICS

Why Power BI’s Power is Limited & How Sigma Helps Teams Harness Data’s Full Potential

Julian Alvarado

Sr. Content Marketing Manager, Sigma

Microsoft PowerBI is a popular reporting tool thanks to its robust charting library and effective visualization capabilities (and, of course, its brand recognition). But Power BI has limitations.

It provides only static snapshots of past performance and requires business users to rely on BI professionals for deeper insights. Additionally, data must often be moved outside the cloud warehouse for transformation and modeling before it can be visualized in Power BI. For teams that want to base daily decision-making on data, Power BI’s limitations are a roadblock.

Here we explore how Sigma makes up for Power BI’s limitations and empowers teams to harness their data’s potential at the speed and scale of the cloud. We’ll also look at an example of how one company is using Sigma alongside Power BI to optimize performance, make better technical decisions, and increase revenue.

Why the Cloud is Necessary to Capture Data’s Full Potential

Prior to the advent of the cloud, all data was routed to on-premises data warehouses, where it was cleaned and modeled for use in business intelligence. On-prem data warehouses worked well prior to the advent of the cloud and the mainstreaming of big data. But now that so much data is being generated by so many new sources, including social media platforms, SaaS applications, IoT devices, and mobile devices, on-prem data warehouses, with their scalability limitations, fall short.

Cloud data warehouses, in contrast, were designed to process and store massive amounts of data quickly and affordably as they scale up and down with ease. Using the cloud, companies of any size can afford to put their data to use, no matter where it originates.

Power BI was built for on-prem data warehouses and has been retrofitted for the cloud ecosystem. As a result, it has limited ability to connect directly to cloud data platforms like Amazon Redshift, Google Big Query, and the Snowflake Data Cloud. Today’s organizations need business intelligence tools that allow them to take advantage of the capabilities of the cloud, including the ability to synthesize information from any variety of sources, analyze petabyte-scale data quickly, in a fully-governed manner, and explore billions of rows of live data down to granular, row-level detail.

Sigma vs. Power BI: 5 Ways Sigma Uses the Power of the Cloud for Faster, Better Insights


Enables domain experts to go beyond high-level dashboards

Only so much can be gleaned from static dashboards. Solving complex problems and making impactful business decisions requires the ability to quickly and easily drill into the data underpinning these dashboards to investigate further. Teams must be able to ask ad hoc questions in an iterative manner to uncover the causes of trends and the reasons behind performance numbers.

In Power BI, business teams are limited to working within predefined parameters in a desktop version of Power BI, which often requires the use of a second tool: Power Query. But with Sigma, business teams can transition from viewing a Power BI visualization to exploring the underlying data using Sigma’s familiar spreadsheet-like user interface in just a few clicks. Even non-technical users can dive deeper into the data to answer key follow-up questions.

Keeps data secure and fully governed

Due to the increasing regulations around data privacy, data security is more important now than ever. Extracting data out of the cloud data warehouse opens companies up to the risks involved in security and compliance infractions. Additionally, because Power BI is a desktop tool, each user manages their own experience, creating data silos and multiple versions of the “truth.”

Leveraging Sigma alongside Power BI allows your organization to embrace a more modern approach to data governance — one that strikes an optimal balance between data access and control. Data never leaves the cloud data platform, offering a secure, centrally managed, browser-based environment for everyone to safely access and analyze data according to robust access roles and permissions. This also makes for easier and more secure sharing and collaboration.

Supports limitless exploration

Many business decisions are time-critical. For this reason, teams need the ability to access validated data quickly. Power BI’s online dashboarding tool often requires the use of Power BI Desktop with Power Query to connect, transform, and model data from across sources before it can be used — a process that takes weeks of time and significant data expertise. As a result, business teams must wait on overworked BI teams for the information they need, generating an endless queue of report requests.

In contrast, Sigma offers flexible data modeling functionality that allows advanced users to query warehouse tables directly and join them on the fly. They can also visually curate datasets, define spreadsheet-like calculations, and link sources to give others an endorsed path for limitless exploration. Together, Sigma and Power BI make it possible for business teams to drive more meaningful insight and actions by leveraging their unique domain expertise, all while freeing BI teams to focus on innovative and strategic projects.

Handles massive data sets with speed

One of the primary reasons companies invest in cloud data platforms is to seamlessly manage the massive volumes of data they’re generating across dozens or even hundreds of sources. But since Power BI was built for the desktop, analyzing data in the tool often requires moving it outside the warehouse for transformation and modeling before it can be visualized using the Power BI online service. Power BI is notorious for crashing and running extremely slowly when working with large datasets. This cumbersome workflow means PowerBI can’t take advantage of the cloud’s scale and processing power in these situations, and it forces teams to work with stale extracted data.

On the other hand, Sigma operates on top of your cloud data platform, allowing anyone to explore and query live data directly from the platform in real-time down to row-level detail, with no copies or extracts required. With Sigma, teams can seamlessly integrate and analyze billions of rows of data at once at lightning speed to extract holistic, meaningful insights.

Expands analytics access to more team members with no hidden fees

Power BI Desktop seems quite affordable — after all, it comes free with many Microsoft applications that companies already use. However, hidden charges surface and multiply once users start engaging with the tool. Sharing and consuming visualizations requires a premium license for each user or a separate computer server for approximately every 50 users. When you take into account these hidden fees, Power BI isn’t as affordable as you initially were led to believe.

In contrast, Sigma offers a range of pricing based on administrative rights and the level at which users interact with data. Viewers are free in Sigma, and pricing doesn’t kick in until users begin to actively engage with and manipulate data in Sigma. This pricing structure makes it possible to share critical insights with everyone in the organization at no extra charge. Sigma can affordably handle the capabilities that Power BI charges significant fees to access.

Why Ease and Speed Matters for Business Intelligence

Becoming data-driven is crucial to a company’s success in today’s global competitive landscape. According to Mckinsey Global Institute, data-driven organizations are 23x more likely to acquire customers and 6x as likely to retain customers. And Forrester’s research shows that insight-driven businesses grow at an average of 30%. But when teams are held back by insufficient tools, they’re unable to access the insights they need for timely decision-making.

How a Fortune 500 Manufacturer Accelerates Product Development with Sigma + Power BI

When combined with Sigma, Power BI can deliver truly powerful dashboards that harness the full potential of your company’s data, with the ability to drill into the details behind the visualizations. Let’s take a look at how a Fortune 500 manufacturer is supplementing PowerBI with Sigma to improve product development.

Bottlenecks with Power BI

The Power & Performance Leads (PPL) team at one of the largest semiconductor manufacturers in the U.S. relies on millions of data points housed in Snowflake when building custom data center solutions for their customers. This PPL team is responsible for predictions, modeling, product definitions, locks, customer request matches, tuning, optimization, and verification of the solutions. This team’s role is mission-critical because it can quickly become a multi-million dollar problem if a faulty solution is sent to a customer.

The PPL team uses Power BI to score data across a variety of dimensions and compare it against performance targets. Due to the volume of data they’re working with, reports have to be launched at the end of each day and reviewed the following morning. These reports only provide the high-level picture though. If a variant falls outside the acceptable window, data has to be extracted into several Excel worksheets for analysis because the team lacks the technical skills needed to use Power BI. This disjointed workflow wasn’t scalable and led to bottlenecks, wasted time, and slow product cycles. Additionally, they had many unplanned ad hoc requests and constant reprioritization of tasks, which often became chaotic and led to analyst frustration. The PPL team was logging hours well into the evenings and on the weekends.

Faster product cycles and happier employees with Sigma

The company added Sigma to their analytics toolset, enabling the PPL team to immediately access row-level data as soon as an issue is identified and quickly analyze all of the data together via a familiar spreadsheet-like interface. This new capability accelerated product cycles and resulted in much happier employees. The company is now in the process of deploying Sigma across all the product teams and leveraging Sigma for cost modeling. Here are three key capabilities that the PPL team is enjoying thanks to Sigma:

Direct access to Snowflake

Sigma was purpose-built for Snowflake and cloud data warehouses. The PPL team now has direct access to live data in Snowflake so they no longer have to wait for extracts from the BI team and the data stays safe in Snowflake – no more stale extracts or data sprawl.

Unlimited scale and speed

Sigma is a cloud-native solution delivering unlimited scale at cloud speed – no summaries or aggregates necessary. The PPL team can now easily analyze and filter all of the testing data in a single pane, eliminating disjointed datasets and minimizing the potential for errors.

Self-service data exploration

Sigma’s spreadsheet interface makes iterative ad hoc analytics possible for anyone. Today, the PPL team quickly analyzes data in Sigma, just as they had in Excel, so they can easily address potential issues before they become serious problems.

Sigma + Power BI = Faster Insights, Better Security

The cloud’s speed and scale are empowering companies to compete in ways never before imagined. But for business teams to benefit from the cloud’s features and benefits, they must have tools designed to utilize them. Analytics tools created during the on-prem era (like Power BI) just aren’t built for the cloud. Unlike Power BI, Sigma is purpose-built to take full advantage of everything the cloud has to offer. But if your organization uses Power BI, you can extend its capabilities and make your teams more data-driven by adding Sigma. Sigma truly transforms your teams’ ability to work with data, empowering fast and easy access and analytics.

Interested in discovering what your organization can accomplish with Sigma and Power BI?

Sign up for a free trial account, and download the self-paced Hands-On Lab guide to get started.