IBM Cognos Analytics vs. Microsoft Power BI

If you are in the market for a business intelligence (BI) solution these days, you have surely come across, and perhaps have even shortlisted, Microsoft Power BI.  Microsoft seems to have adapted a similar marketing strategy to that used to flood the market with Microsoft Word back in the early 80’s.  Bundling MS Word with other Microsoft software to overtake the competition was indeed successful with MS Word (who uses WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3 anymore?).  Microsoft had much less success, however, with their attempt to do the same with Microsoft System Center Service Manager (SCSM), though some companies may still be using it if their Microsoft salesperson rolled it in their license contract for free.

Even though Power BI is a solid product and has become a powerhouse in the BI industry, buyers should proceed with caution and be aware of the major pros and cons of Microsoft Power BI.


Affordability: You cannot beat free – users can access a no cost, basic version on their desktops, and the power user version only costs $9.99 USD per user, per month;

Major Brand Association: Being part of the Microsoft suite of business products, Microsoft’s BI tool has tight integration with its other business tools such as Microsoft Excel, Azure, and SQL Server;

Excel-User friendly: the tool’s navigation is very similar to MS Excel;

Good Reporting Visualization Capabilities: A reasonable amount of chart types are currently available to represent your data in various formats and visualizations;

Microsoft’s constant investment: Plenty of new features have become available in recent releases, so even though the product may not have all of the bells and whistles that other BI products currently on the market have, it doesn’t mean that more advanced features won’t become available in future releases;

Extensive Database Connectivity: connects to most types of on-premise databases and have a growing list of cloud-based connections.


Best for Excel Power-Users: the tool is challenging to use for the average business user.  It is quite easy to create a new Power BI Desktop file, import data into it and create reports that show valuable insights.  However, learning Data Analysis Expressions (DAX) is required to solve any basic calculation and data analysis problems in Power BI.  DAX is a collection of functions, operators, and constants that can be used in a formula, or expression, to calculate and return one or more values.  Such tasks as analyzing growth percentage across product categories and for different date ranges, or calculating year-over-year growth compared to market trends requires the use of DAX formulas.  Those adept with creating formulas in Microsoft Excel will be able to get the most out of their data once they learn DAX, however learning a new language could be a tricky endeavor for the average business user who does not have the bandwidth to acquire these skills in order to effectively use MS Power BI;

Limited Ability to Handle Large Data Sources: MS Power BI users will experience a lot of time-outs and slow performance when there are huge sets of data to analyze;

Complex Product Options: It’s very difficult to understand what exactly of the many available components of Power BI you may need, as there is Power BI desktop, the Power BI Gateway, Power BI Services, and the list goes on and on.  In addition, the ecosystem of Power BI is such that at some point in your BI evolution, your company may inevitably require the use of PowerView, PowerMap or PowerQuery in the solution mix.

Consequently, a lot of time needs to be spent to understand each of the many moving parts of this software.  This also means that there are more parts of the software that can malfunction or be subject to bugs, making troubleshooting more difficult.  This ends up adding to the total cost of ownership.  For companies who currently have a Microsoft infrastructure (including a Microsoft support infrastructure), then Power BI may be appear to be a good fit, however, for companies who are basing their decision on the initial price tag and marketing hype alone, they definitely need to consider the big picture.

Cloud-Based Only: Companies using Power BI are forced to store their data solely in the Cloud (assuming you’re not just using the free desktop tool).  For many companies, storing data in the cloud isn’t a viable option.  For those who can’t or just don’t want to do it, the on premise installation of Cognos Analytics (aka Cognos 11) is an attractive option.

Additional limitations include:

  • Limited graphical abilities restrict performing complex analyses;
  • Forecasting is not supported;
  • Comparing data in various categories is limited as examining more than two categories at a time is not supported;
  • Offline analysis is not supported;
  • Absence of narration on data storyboards;
  • ‘What-if’ analysis is not supported.

Since its release in December 2015, Cognos Analytics (aka Cognos 11) releases an updated version every quarter, and continues to add more features that allow users to bring their data to life, make their data work for them and provide them with analytics they can trust.  Read more about the latest release.

Bottom Line

Often when companies come to NewIntelligence and are deciding between Cognos Analytics or Power BI for their business intelligence solution, it is the company’s IT consultants – not its end users – who are evaluating both solutions for them. When potential customers decide to go with Power BI, it is generally because their consultants emphasized its low cost.

It is important to note, however, that by choosing Power BI, companies do not automatically get away from paying for extra tech support costs to not only properly set up the solution, but also for its maintenance.

Some additional points to consider are the fact that MS Power BI is an office tool versus a fully-integrated solution consisting of a three-tier architecture. Power BI lacks access to a web portal, audit capability, ability to manage report distribution, and a central data model. Security is limited with Power BI and the option to convert a report to .pdf format is not available.

Still need help deciding between MS Power BI and Cognos Analytics?  NewIntelligence will examine the ‘build versus buy’ question in more detail with you.  We pride ourselves on our tried-and-true customer methodology that focuses on leveraging your team’s available in-house skills base, while in turn back-filling any missing expertise your team lacks and simultaneously transferring knowledge to assist you in becoming more self-sufficient, allowing you to maximize your return on your investment in your BI solution.  Reach out to us today for your no-cost, no obligation BI needs assessment.

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