Working With Power BI, Office 365 and File Size Limits

Note – this article was written during the preview cycle of Power BI, and certain behaviours and screens may change by final release.

Quick, what’s the biggest file that you can upload into SharePoint? As with anything SharePoint, of course it depends. This article explains some of the file size boundaries in SharePoint and Office 365, how they impact Power BI, how to take advantage of the storage changes that Power BI provides, and some of the intricacies of using the xVelocity model with Power BI.

The maximum file upload size is 250 Mb by default with SharePoint 2013, and 50 with prior versions. This setting can be changed on an application by application basis within Central Administration, and once set, is a hard limit. If your file exceeds it, you won’t be able to upload it into SharePoint.

If you use Excel Services, you may also note that the default maximum size for an Excel workbook is 10 Mb. This too can be changed in Central Administration (it’s a property of trusted file locations). If you upload a workbook that exceeds this limit, Excel Services won’t be able to render it, and you’ll need to use the Excel client. Depending on performance limitations, I often like to adjust this setting to match the maximum file upload size to avoid end user confusion.

SharePoint Online in Office 365 works a little bit differently. Until recently, the default upload limit was unchangeable. Recently however, SharePoint Online removed the upload limit altogether, so now the maximum file upload size is 2 Gb, which represents the maximum file size that SharePoint can store. For Excel Services Online there are settings that can be adjusted, but the maximum workbook size isn’t one of them. With Excel Services in Office 365, the maximum workbook size is 10 MB. Period.

If you use Power Pivot to do analysis, data is brought into the data model that is embedded within the workbook. That workbook is then stored in SharePoint, and on first use of the model (clicking a slicer, expanding a dimension, or anything requiring the retrieval of data from the model), an instance of the model is created in a backing Analysis Services engine by Excel Services.

Given that all of this is wrapped up into a single workbook file (xlsx), 10 MB would seem to be pretty constraining for data storage, and it is. The data model is very efficient, and data is highly compressed, but 10MB is simply too small for most involved analyses. This isn’t a problem on premises, where additional resources can be allocated and the limit increased, but in Office 365, you’re simply stuck with the 10 MB limit.

Enter BI Sites, the recently announced Office 365 based Business Intelligence app that is part of the Power BI application suite. BI Sites is a SharePoint app that provides additional capability to workbooks with embedded models stored in SharePoint Online libraries. BI sites allows for data models as large as 250MB. The BI Sites app doesn’t actually store content, it just renders it, and provides additional capability such as automatic data refresh. BI Sites also relies on Excel Services to render the content, so does a Power BI subscription increase that workbook limit to 250 Mb? Nope – that limit is still firmly in place. So how does it get around this limit?

As mentioned above, when a model is accessed by a user by forcing a data retrieval from the model, Excel Services creates an instance of the model in the backing Analysis Services instance, if it hasn’t already been created. Subsequent calls just utilize the backing version. What Power BI does is it preloads this model, and then drops the model from the workbook (it is reconstituted on download). Given that the model is the large part of the workbook this drops the file size considerably, allowing it to work within the limits imposed by Excel Services.

Notice that the limit of 250 Mb above is specified for the model, NOT for the workbook. The workbook limit is still 10 Mb, and this is quite visible if you do things in the wrong order, at least in the Power BI preview. To demonstrate we will work with a model that is similar to the one that I created in this article, which is a rudimentary budget analysis with Great Plains data. There are three versions of the analysis file for demonstration purposes.

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In the first version, the data was first imported into Excel worksheets using Power Query, and then loaded into the model before the model was edited. It is obviously the largest of the 3, as it contains both the original data, and the more optimized model. In the second file, the data was loaded directly into the model with Power Query. After model edits, the analysis was created using a simple pivot table and pivot chart. It is the smallest of the three, as the data is contained exclusively within the optimized model. In the last version of the file, the data was imported into Excel worksheets using Power Query. Take note of the fact that the file is 12 MB, 50% larger that the model only version, and all of which is counted when considering the Excel Services limit.

After uploading these three files to an Office 365 site, Only the EnbGPDataModelOnly file can be accessed via Excel Services directly. This makes sense because the other two are larger than the 10 MB limit, and Excel Services can’t do anything with them at all, resulting in the error below:

Sorry, we can't open your workbook in Excel Web App because it exceeds the file size limit. You'll need to open this in Excel.

If we now navigate into the Power BI application, We will see a warning symbol on the tiles for our workbooks. This is because they have not yet been optimized for viewing on the web. What does that mean? It means that the model has not yet been extracted from the workbook, and attached to the Analysis Services engine.

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To do this, click the ellipsis on the tile, and then select Enable. After confirming, the model will be extracted, and you receive a confirmation. In our case, the only one that will be successfully enabled is our EnbGPDataModelOnly file, but the reason is different for the other two files. In the case of EnbGPExcelOnly, the data model was never populated, and results in “This Workbook could not be enabled for web viewing because it does not contain a data model”.

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This makes perfect sense, but it does mean that all of the features available through the BI Sites feature are unavailable to workbooks that don’t use data models. There is one exception to this however. The Power BI app for Windows 8 and iOS can render workbooks without models, provided that they are within the 10MB limit.

If we try to enable the EnbGPDataModelandExcel file, which does contain a data model, we get the error “This workbook could not be enabled in Power BI for Office 365 because the worksheet contents (the contents of the workbook that are not contained in the data model) exceed the allowed size.

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If we look at the file size with only the model, it’s about 8.7 MB. The file without the model is 12 Mb, so even with the model extracted, the limit is exceeded, and the enablement process detects this.

On a side note, I think that these error messages have some interesting language. They make reference to “Power BI for Office 365”. This implies, to my mind at least, that there may be a version coming that isn’t for Office 365. No on premises version of Power BI has ever been mentioned by Microsoft, but this may hint at it.

When complete, the failed and successful enablements are easy to spot.

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Clicking on the middle tile will successfully render the workbook.

Next, let’s work with a file that can benefit from these new features. I created a model that’s identical to the “model only” version with the only difference that I import all of the data from the 3 tables, not just the selected columns. The resultant file (named EnbGPBigModel.xlsx) is 54 MB on disk – well above the 10 MB Excel Services limit, but below the 250 MB Power BI limit. However, Once uploaded, clicking on it directly in the library gives the “file size exceeded” error message. What’s up with that?

The reason is that Excel Services just sees that it is too big, and gives up. In order to extract the model, we must first enable it in Power BI before we can work with it in Excel Services. To do that, we simply repeat the above process by navigating to the Power BI app, and enabling it.

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Once this has been done, the workbook can be accessed by clicking on it within the Power BI app here, in the Power BI mobile app, or by navigating back to the source library and using it directly with Excel Services.

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Therefore, when building models, it is vitally important to distinguish between the size of the model, and the size of the rest of the workbook. While the model can grow to 250 MB, the sum of the rest of the content cannot exceed 10 MB. Note to Microsoft – we could really use a good term here, as opposed to “rest of the workbook”. Let’s call it the spreadsheets for our purposes right now.

So, how do we know the size of the model vs the size of the spreadsheets? Well, an Excel file (xlsx) is really just a zip file in disguise. In fact, if we rename the file to end in a .zip extension, we can crack it open with a ZIP viewer (or as a folder in Windows). If we do so with our file that contains both the spreadsheets and the model, open it up, and then drill down to the xlmodel folder we’ll see the file item.data.

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This file is your data model. in this case, it is 7.8 MB in size. Subtract that value from the size of the overall xlsx file, and you have the size of your spreadsheets, which is the part that must fit within the 10 MB limit. When done, just rename the extension xlsx.

If we continue to have a problem, or as a matter of good practice, an excellent tool to use is the Workbook Size Optimizer tool from Microsoft – available here. This is (yet another) Excel add-in that will help to further optimize your model and to help reduce the file size. Just open your workbook, run the add in, and follow the prompts.

We can see that although the 250 MB model size in Power BI helps to make Office 365 a viable BI platform, it does still require a certain awareness on the part of users. The most important lesson to learn from this is to try to avoid importing data directly into Excel. Whenever possible, bring the data directly into the model, bypassing any Excel storage. This is a good idea in any event, but Power BI further underscores the need for it. When using Power Pivot, it’s fairly straightforward, but the data acquisition interface available in Power Query tends to prefer Data import. When using Power Query, care must be taken to avoid Excel import, and I’ll be posting another article on how to do this shortly. 

8 thoughts on “Working With Power BI, Office 365 and File Size Limits

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  2. Dany Hoter

    Good summary of the Excel file size considerations
    A few comments:
    – You can upload files directly to the BI sites and when you do so the upload and enable parts are done in one step
    – As part of the enabling process a thumbnail is extracted from the active sheet (Currently only if it is a Power View sheet) and this thumbnail is visually representing the Workbook in the site
    – The tool mentioned that can help in optimizing the model can do the actual changes only if the data comes from SQL Server , the principles that are used are good for any source and are explained in :

    http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/excel-help/create-a-memory-efficient-data-model-using-excel-2013-and-the-power-pivot-add-in-HA103981538.aspx

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  8. Anonymous

    Thanks for this article. I have a 20 MB PowerBI Excel workbook which I would like to host on Sharepoint Online/BI Sites. The 10 MB workbook is such a painful restriction. Really Microsoft, surely you can do better in this age of Big or growing data?!

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