Recently, I have come across several situations where people are confused about where Power BI fits in a solution scenario. There is a fair bit of confusion as to precisely what the product is and what it does. The problem is that Power BI isn’t really a product at all, but instead a collection of different products and services. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some of these products require a Power BI license, while others do not. In fact some of these products are actually embedded in other products.
Power BI is Microsoft’s cloud based Business Intelligence solution billed as “Self service analytics for all of your data”. In reality, it’s a little more than self service, it also is a great solution for team BI as it’s based on Office 365. That’s all well and good, but what is it really? What does it consist of, and how does it work? If you look at the main product site for Power BI, it’s not immediately obvious at what you get when you purchase it, or what you need to run it. This post is an attempt to demystify the product.
To start, let’s break it down by its constituent components. Today Power BI consists of the following parts.
Unfortunately, this can be rather confusing from a product perspective. Looking first at the on-premises components, Power Query, Power View, and Power Map are all Excel plug ins. Excel is therefore a prerequisite for Power BI. All of these add ins also require (or in the case of Power Query, support) the embedded xVelocity data model, and therefore Power Pivot is a prerequisite. Power Pivot is included in Excel 2013 (Professional Plus), but it can also be downloaded for free for Excel 2010.
Also included in Excel 2013 is Power View, and, with Office 2013 SP1, Power Map. Power Query is downloaded separately, but is free. This is where much of the confusion arises. Due to the fact that these three add ins are included in the product definition of Power BI, it is often assumed that a Power BI license is required to use them. It is not. These products have a life of their own, and can be fully (or almost fully) used within Excel without any association with a Power BI license.
Power Query contains a few features that will only work with a Power BI tenant, mostly involved around the creation and maintenance of shared queries. Since this is part of the cloud service, this makes complete sense, but none of the other features of the product are in any way reduced in the absence of a license. Power View is enhanced through a Power BI license, but only because this makes Power View reports available within the mobile client(s). Indeed, Power Map has no use whatsoever of a Power BI license. Power Maps cannot be viewed at all within a browser – they are a client side feature only. In my opinion, they shouldn’t even be included under the Power BI umbrella, but that’s just my opinion.
Thus far, I have been talking about the modelling and visualization creation aspects of the tools, but what about pure consumption clients? The whole idea of power BI is that designers can create these models and users can interact with them. The workbooks containing these models are stored within Office 365, so do casual users need a license?
The answer is of course maybe. If these users are going to take advantage of any of the services specifically offered by Power BI, then the answer is yes. For example, any user can open a workbook in a browser in Office 365. However, if they want to interact with that model, by using a slicer, pivot table, etc, and that model is larger than 10 MB, then the answer is yes. Obviously, if the user wants to use the Power Q&A features, then the answer is also yes.
For the record, I don’t like this answer. To my mind, designers and content creators should require a license, but consumers should not. This would greatly encourage adoption of the product, so I do hope for some changes in this area.
So, precisely what do you get when you purchase a Power BI license? These are the things that you will absolutely need a Power BI license for.
- Opening workbooks in a browser with models larger than 30 MB on Office 365
- Interacting with (slicers, pivot tables, etc) workbooks in a browser with models larger that 10 MB on Office 365
- Automatic refresh of on premises data
- Sharing of Power Query queries
- Refresh of Power Query queries
- Power Q&A – Natural language queries
- Power BI mobile application
and that’s it.
In fact, if you check out my earlier article “Whither Power Pivot for SharePoint”, you’ll see that many of the features of Power BI are already available in Power Pivot for SharePoint.
To my mind, the product “Power BI” should not include the Excel add ins, but only list them as a requirement, much like Excel itself is a requirement. This would help to reduce confusion. The next version of Power will support their inclusion. If you’re interested in this new version, you can sign up for the preview when it’s ready here. I’ll be writing more about that shortly.