The Power BI Premium Pricing Model – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

*Update – October 2017* – This post is still valid but more options are now available. I have another post outlining the changes here

On May 3, Microsoft announced sweeping changes to the pricing of Power BI by introducing a new “Power BI Premium” SKU. The announcement itself can be found here, and there a number of other related resources worth that I am listing here for convenience:

Distribute to large audiences with Power BI apps
Changes to Power BI embedded
Power BI Premium White Paper
Power BI Pricing
Premium pricing calculator
Introducing Power BI Report Server

Power BI Premium is intended to address deficiencies in the current pricing model primarily with respect to sharing content. In my opinion, the new model succeeds in this goal for the most part, but it leaves a significant number of customers behind, and it also leaves many unanswered questions. These problems need to be addressed for Power BI to succeed in its goal of bringing BI to the masses. Overall, I like what Microsoft is trying to do with this new pricing model, and with a few tweaks, I think that it can resonate.

First, we need to understand the new model, and to do that, we need to understand the former model and the need for Premium. Given that the former model (consisting of free and Pro licenses) has not been replaced (although it is changing significantly), we will refer to it as the original model, and when Premium is added to it, we will refer to that as the Premium model. The original model is still completely relevant moving forward.

The original model and the need for change

The original model is relatively simple, and relatively unique to the industry. Power BI users are licensed for either free or Pro features. If a report contains any Pro capabilities, any consuming user requires a Pro license. A free user can create a report that uses Pro features, but that same user will not be able to consume that report in the free service. This is a very important distinction to understand. The author of a report (using Power BI Desktop) could be a free user, use a Pro feature, and after deploying the report to the service, be unable to use it in the service.

Difference between free and Pro from a feature standpoint is no longer (as of this writing) available on the Power BI pricing page, however, prior to June 1, 2017 it is the list below.

Therefore, if a report is configured to be refreshed more than once per day, or even if the time of day is specified, or if the report uses on-premises data, then all users accessing that report require a Pro license. Given that Power BI is all about bringing Business Intelligence to the masses, when each one of those masses needs to pay $10/month, it tends to constrain adoption, particularly if a report’s audience is organization wide, and you are in a very large organization.

Report sharing is also relatively limited. Reports can be shared anonymously, which is insecure. Dashboards and their constituent reports can be shared either internally or externally, but they are read only. Finally, both dashboards and reports can be shared through Group workspaces (now app workspaces). Currently, Group workspaces do not allow for external sharing, but they are the preferred means of sharing. However, they too require Pro licenses, which constrains adoption. For the free user, anonymous and dashboard sharing are the only real options.

New model

The introduction of Power BI Premium aims to solve some of the sharing issues listed above, and therefore to help drive adoption. Premium capacity is an add on to a Power BI tenant (organization), and is different that free or Pro licenses which are assigned to users. An organization can purchase Premium capacity, and then a Pro user (this is restricted to Pro) can move or publish content to the Premium capacity. Once the content is in Premium storage, all users can utilize all the features in the dashboards and reports. Premium effectively removes all feature barriers from the reports.

Premium storage also brings many performance enhancements, such as the ability to refresh data up to 48 times per day (vs the previous 8), and the effective removal of data model size limits.

Without Premium, there are also several changes to the original licensing model. According to the May 3 Announcement FAQ on the Power BI community site:

Beginning June 1, the free service will have capabilities equivalent to Power BI Pro. This includes the same 1 GB workbook size limit, up to 8 daily scheduled refreshes for datasets, and maximum 1 million rows/hour streaming data rate. We’re also providing access to all data sources, including those available through the on-premises data gateway. Peer-to-peer dashboard sharing, group workspaces (now called app workspaces), export to PowerPoint, export to CSV/Excel, and analyze in Excel with Power BI apps are capabilities limited to Power BI Pro.”

Therefore, after June 1, 2017, Pro features are effectively an addition to the free features, and the feature differences should be as below:

From the May 3, 2017 announcement:

“Going forward, we will improve the free service to have the same functionality as Power BI Pro, but will limit sharing and collaboration features to only Power BI Pro users.”

The only features that Pro will have that free will not are those that are related to sharing. The above feature list reflects that.

Power BI Embedded

Power BI Embedded is the way that developers can embed Power BI in their applications. Using Power BI Embedded, until now, developers build reports, deploy them to their Azure instance, and call them from their applications. End users do not need any sort of Power BI licenses, and the developers are charged per report “render session”. This charging model has been one of the criticisms of Power BI embedded in that it is very difficult to predict costs. ISVs are at the mercy of the end users viewing reports, and any measure that is put into place to curb these render sessions is by definition a disincentive to adoption.

The fact that Embedded runs in a different namespace than the core Power BI service is another, leading to differences between the capabilities of Power BI Embedded and the core Power BI service. For example, the current iteration of Power BI Embedded cannot use the On-Premises Data Gateway, which can be quite restrictive.

Power BI Embedded is changing to use the new Premium capacity model. ISVs will purchase Premium capacity, and serve reports to their end users from that space. There will only be a single namespace for all Power BI content.

What’s Good

Power BI Premium solves to sharing problem for organizations that want to distribute their BI assets across the organization. If organizations would be accessing on premises data, a key feature of Power BI for enterprises, the Pro license requirement has discouraged adoption. With Premium capacity, an report publisher can share content with as many users as necessary without worrying about licensing the target users. Even better, those target users can be external, further extending the reach of that content.

For large enterprises, this has the potential to turn Power BI from a niche solution to something that is used by everyone.

The changes to the original model also makes things clearer for report designers and publishers. These publishers can work with the full range of Power BI features while the report is being built, and while they are themselves using it. When it comes time to share the report to a wider audience, they can publish it to Premium capacity where anyone can access it. If the organization has not purchased Premium, then the original model applies, and all recipients will still require a Pro license.

On the Power BI Embedded side, switching to Premium capacity completely eliminates the unpredictability of the current model. The fact that the reports will be rendered from the core Power BI service means that it will be fully on par with other Power BI reports, and developers will be able to take advantage of the full spectrum of Power BI features as they appear in the service.

What’s not so good

If you are a large company, there is very little not to like with this new model. It was large organizations that felt most of the pain with the original model, and it is they that benefit most from the Premium model. In fact, in my opinion, they are the only ones that benefit from the Premium model. Well, they and organizations that have no sharing requirements. The issue here is cost.

The Premium pricing estimator can be found online, but at present, it boils down to this. The smallest block of capacity that can be purchased by an organization is “P1”. To publish content to Premium capacity, you must also have a Power BI Pro license. Therefore, the minimum cost of entry is $4,995 (P1) plus $9.99 (Pro) for a total of $5,004.99 per month. This is well out of the reach of most small to medium sized organizations. In fact, an organization needs to be larger that 500 users (and those would be active Power BI users) for Premium to begin to make sense from a licensing perspective. The model size limit removal and the increased refresh frequency are also compelling reasons to move to Premium, but it’s easy to see that Premium is only for larger organizations.

Compounding this issue for small to medium sized organizations is the fact that as of June 30, dashboard sharing has been removed from the free SKU of the original pricing model. Any dashboards that had previously been shared broadly to free users will cease to function as of the cut-off date. If Premium does not make sense for these organizations, then they do have the option of purchasing Pro for the consumer. To help ease this transition, Microsoft is offering a year’s worth of Power BI Pro to all active free users that signed up prior to May 3, 2017.

However, dashboards can be shared with external users, and it’s a pretty tall order to expect an external user to subscribe to Pro just to be able to read your report.

With Power BI Embedded switching to the Premium model, the ISV now needs to buy Premium capacity. Given that the entry price for Premium is so high, it is (in my opinion) out of reach of most of the services that would rely on it, not to mention those developers that simply want to get up to speed on it or do some testing. There has recently been some indications on the forums that the barrier to entry won’t be as high for developers, but even a figure as low at $600/month may still be too high for many to swallow.

Conclusions

Overall, I think that the Premium pricing model solves a problem that desperately needed to be solved. This approach opens the door to Power BI truly democratizing Business Intelligence and becoming almost as ubiquitous as Excel. The opening up of features to the free SKU and focusing the Pro SKU on sharing means less confusion for report designers.

Unfortunately, for the moment price stands in the way of that goal of many small-medium sized businesses. These businesses may be small in stature, but they are many in number. The removal of sharing from the free SKU actually represents a step backward for them. The floodgates have been opened for large businesses, but the stream has been dammed for smaller ones.

Fortunately, pricing is a simple problem to solve. My hope is that the entry point for Premium comes down to something that would make sense for even a 10-person company, and that the cost for developers using Embedded could scale with far more elasticity, starting at $0 to encourage investment. These changes would, in my opinion, truly set the stage for Power BI dominance.

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SQL Server 2016–Which Edition Do You Need for Business Intelligence?

For the past several releases, SQL Server has come in 6 possible editions. Developer, Express, Web, Standard, Business Intelligence, and Enterprise. Developer, Express and Web are for specific workloads, which leaves Standard, BI, and Enterprise. The choice of which edition to use would seem to be obvious – the one named Business Intelligence. However, Enterprise contained all of the features that the BI edition did, and in many cases, wound up being a better choice from a licensing perspective. Standard mode also provided many BI capabilities, but not all.

The biggest difference (but not the only one) from a BI standpoint between Standard, and either BI or Enterprise edition was the support of the Tabular Mode in SQL Server Analysis Services. For those unaware, Tabular Mode is the engine behind PowerPivot, and increasingly importantly, Power BI. From a price standpoint the difference between Standard and either BI or Enterprise is quite significant. This has put the Tabular model out of reach for some small and medium sized businesses which is unfortunate, given that tabular is at the center of Microsoft’s future BI efforts.

SQL Server 2016 removes the BI Edition as an option, leaving us with a choice between only Standard and Enterprise. The biggest news in my opinion from a licensing perspective with 2016 is that Tabular Mode will now be supported in Standard Edition. This puts the tabular model within the reach of all organizations, and closes the licensing gap in the BI stack. This is fantastic news.

There are of course limitations with Standard mode. Tabular in Standard Mode is restricted to 16 GB of RAM, which may seem like a lot, but keep in mind that tabular is an in-memory technology. It’s possible to bump into this limit fairly quickly, but it’s a limit that serves the small/medium business space rather well.

PowerPivot for SharePoint also remains an Enterprise only feature. However, given the capabilities available in Power BI, and the upcoming rendering capabilities of SSRS, this may be less important than it previously was.

Given that it’s relatively simple to move from Standard to Enterprise (from a technology perspective), this approach allows organizations to get up and running, and then scale up if necessary. It removes that up front Enterprise cost barrier. It’s much easier to get budget for and Enterprise license when its value has already been proven.

Another difference between Standard and Enterprise in SSAS is that Standard mode does not support partitioning, perspectives or DirectQuery. DirectQuery allows for real-time analytical reports, which removes the cached data storage from the picture. All queries go directly back to the source. An explanation of partitions and perspectives is beyond the scope of this post, but if you don’t know what they are, the chances are that you don’t need them.

From an SSRS standpoint, the traditional differences between Standard and Enterprise are still in place. These include data alerting, data driven subscriptions, PowerView support  and scale out capability. All of the new features of SSRS 2016 are available in both Standard and Enterprise modes with one very notable exception. The new Mobile Reports are only available with Enterprise.

Mobile reports are the result of last year’s acquisition of Datazen, which has been fully integrated into SSRS. It allows on-premises SSRS servers to provide rich mobile reports on a variety of platforms. If your organization is using Power BI already, then you likely have a mobile solution, but if not, Mobile reports may fill that gap.

A complete summary of the differences between all of the different SQL Server editions can be found here. A quick PDF chart of what’s new in SQL Server can be found here.

In summary, both Standard and Enterprise editions of SQL Server 2016 are now suitable for use in business Intelligence solutions. The decision to move to Enterprise can now be based on scale and enterprise requirements, not on basic functionality. This, in my opinion, is all to the good. 

Power BI Licencing Demystified

Well, that’s a pretty ambitious title.

Power BI is currently an add-on to Office 365 and requires SharePoint Online in order to work. In January 2015, a new version of the Power BI Service was announced that removes the dependency on SharePoint Online, but will continue to leverage it if it is available. At the same time, a complete overhaul to the licensing model was announced. The licensing changes were widely welcomed, but they do raise a number of questions as to what license will be required when. The new version of the dashboard will be launched in the second half of 2015, so for now, we are still dealing with the original licencing model. Update – Power BI for Office 365 pricing has been updated to reflect the new model pricing and is available now (May 2015)

Power BI v1 Licensing

Power BI v1 is an add-on to SharePoint Online in Office 365 that among other things, adds the ability for Excel Online to work with data models larger than 30 MB (originally this limit was 10 MB) up to 250 MB, and to be able to automatically update data models stored in Excel from cloud based data sources, or from on-premises data through the Data Management Gateway. In order to take advantage of this capability, the end user needs a Power BI license, and this license carried a cost of approximately $20/user/month. I have seen it reported in many places that the cost of Power BI was $40/user/month. Indeed, there was a Power BI SKU that cost approximately this much (it’s referred to as Standalone), but this SKU also included a license for SharePoint Online, so really, the licenses were one and the same. You either have a license for Power BI or you don’t. Details of the Power BI for Office 365 are here, and they have already been updated to reflect the new pricing.

If you found yourself in an organization that had some users with licenses, and some without, you may have discovered some interesting behaviour. The Power BI service always leverages workbooks stored in SharePoint document libraries. These workbooks are available to all Office 365 users, whether or not they have a license. Users without a license can’t use the mobile client, Power Q&A, the gallery view or schedule data refreshes, but they certainly can open the workbook and interact with it. Well, they can until they hit the data size limit. Beyond 30 MB, the unlicensed users will receive a message indicating that their license is insufficient to view that file in a browser. However they can always download a copy and work with it that way.

This is an important distinction to note, because in this scenario, a licensed user can Power BI enable a workbook and schedule a daily data refresh. Once that data is refreshed, the unlicensed user gains the benefit from the refresh, and can interact with the workbook in a browser if it is smaller than 30 MB, or in the Excel client if it is larger.

Power BI v2 Licensing

When Power BI v2 (or Power BI Dashboards) was announced in January 2015, a new freemium pricing model was introduced. Power BI was available in a standalone fashion (no longer shackled to SharePoint Online), and could be had for either free, or for $9.99/user/month for the Pro edition. The detail and differences for the two editions can be found here. In addition, because Power BI will also continue to work with SharePoint Online, there will also be a SKU for the “Standalone” version at $17.99/user/month. I find the term “standalone” to be highly confusing here because this is in fact a license that contains a SharePoint Online licence – pretty much the opposite of standalone, but I digress. The comparisons leave a number of unanswered questions, which I hope to answer here.

One of the new concepts introduced with this new model is the Data capacity limit. This limit bears explanation. It is a per-user limit and it is cumulative. Free users are allocated 1 GB and Pro users are allocated 10 GB. Previously, the only limit was per-model (file by file), and that limit was 250 MB, and there was no total capacity limit per user. This is a significant difference.

Another thing worth pointing out here is that the 250 MB model size limit still exists. As with the Office 365 service, no single model can be larger than 250 MB.

What do you do if your model is larger than 250 MB? This new version of Power BI will allow connections to on-premises data. At the moment, on-premises connections are restricted to SSAS tabular models only through the SSAS connector, but more are coming. On-premises data connections don’t count toward any of the capacity limits. However, on-prem connections will require a Pro edition license.

The per-user capacity limits are cumulative, which is simple enough to understand for one given user. A user with a free license could have 4 x 250 MB models and reach their limit. A Pro user would need to have 40 of the same model to reach their limit. However, what happens when a user shares a dashboard with another user? Since it is really just the connection that is being shared, and the models are still being created per-user, the consuming user will need to utilize their own storage, and therefore it will be counted against their limit. If I share my 250 MB model with you, it will count against your total capacity limit.

What happens when a Pro user shares content with a free user? There are two possible outcomes – it will either work, or not. If the data model utilizes any of the Pro only features, the free user will not be able to consume it. For example, if the workbook has been scheduled to receive updates more than once per day, receives data from on-premises sources (SSAS Connector, Data Management Gateway) or utilizes any Pro only features, the consuming user will not be able to access it.

There are still a few unanswered questions with this new model, and as they are addressed, I’ll try to keep this post up to date.