Category Archives: SQL Server

SQL Server Reporting Services vs Power BI Report Server – What’s the Difference?

Power BI Report Server (PBIRS) was first introduced in May 2017. Based on SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS), it brings the ability to work with Power BI reports completely on premises in addition to all the other capabilities of SSRS. Given this, it would be reasonable to conclude that PBIRS was the next version of, or a replacement for SSRS, but that is not the case. I have heard people state that SSRS is “going away”, but this is simply not the case. SSRS is still a core part of the Microsoft BI stack. So, what are the differences between the two platforms? The differences boil down to features, licensing, and update cadence.

Features

Early builds of SSRS 2017 (V.Next at the time) contained the ability to render Power BI (Interactive) reports in addition to the “classic” RDL (Paginated) reports that SSRS is well known for and the recently added RSMOBILE (Mobile) report types. However, when PBIRS was introduced, SSRS lost that capability, and from a feature standpoint, it really was the only difference between the two. The recent introduction of the Excel report type (Analytical) to PBIRS has further differentiated the two products.

From a features standpoint, the differences between the two products are straightforward. PBIRS is a superset of SSRS. It contains everything that SSRS has, and it ads the ability to render both Interactive (PBIX) and Analytical (XLSX) reports.

Licensing

Licensing is where things get a little more involved. SSRS was always included on the SQL Server installation media, but with SQL Server 2017, this is no longer the case, it’s a separate download (the RC version of SSRS 2017 is currently available for download here). However, the license for SSRS is still tied to your version of SQL Server. Therefore, if you have a license for Standard mode SQL Server, you will be able to use the Standard mode features of SSRS, Enterprise unlocks the Enterprise features, etc. As of the 2017 version, there is also no longer an Integrated mode of SSRS, it’s Native Mode only.

Power BI Report Server is licensed in one of two ways. Purchasing Power BI Premium capacity gives you a license to run the same number of cores as you have in the capacity. This ONLY applies to Premium P SKUs, not any others such as EM. The other way that it can be licensed is by purchasing SQL Server Enterprise Edition + Software Assurance.

Release cadence

Just as with licensing, the timing of releases of SSRS is also tied to that of SQL Server. Whenever a new version of SQL Server is released, a new version of SSRS will be as well. This is not the case for PBIRS. Since PBIRS is considered a standalone product this makes sense, and the constant pace of change in the Power BI service itself necessitates a more frequent update cadence.

As an example, PBIRS first came into General Availability (GA) in June 2017, and as of this writing (Sept 2017) is already in preview for its next release, whereas SSRS 2017 hasn’t yet gone to GA.

How to choose

The choice between which platform to use will likely be straightforward and likely driven by requirements. If your organization only uses paginated reports on premises, you may find that SSRS is a more cost-effective option. If, on the other hand you have the need to render interactive or analytical reports on premises, or you already have SQL Server Enterprise Edition with Software Assurance, then PBIRS will likely be your best choice. There are no circumstances that I can think of where both products will be advisable, if you have PBIRS, you have everything that SSRS offers and more.

Power BI Report Server Completes the Vision for On-Premises Reporting

Microsoft today made available the August 2017 preview of Power BI ReportServer 2017. This preview includes the long awaited support of embedded data models, as well as the ability to render Excel reports natively. This is a major step forward, because with this release, Microsoft has completed its vision for its on-premises reporting platform that it first articulated in October of 2015.

Excel content being rendered in Power BI Reporting Server

The big news at the time was that the platform was stated to be SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). Not SharePoint, not PerformancePoint, but SSRS. SSRS was a mature product that quite competently provided a platform for operational reports. What it needed was some modernization and the addition of some analytical and self-service reporting capabilities. Several of these capabilities were subsequently included with the release of SSRS 2016.

Gone would be the days of configuring complex SharePoint farms just to be able to work with analytical reports (ie Power View, Excel). New Features were being added to SSRS to make it a complete platform for both analytical and operational reports.

The Vision

The roadmap articulated four different report types, 3 of them analytical (by my definition) and one of them operational. These three types line up with reporting tools in the Microsoft BI stack:

Name Type Primary authoring tool ext
Paginated Operational SSRS Report Builder
SQL Server Data Tools
.RDL
Interactive Analytical Power BI Desktop .PBIX
Mobile Analytical Mobile Report Designer .RDLX
Analytical Analytical Excel .XLSX

Therefore, reading between the lines, in order to be a complete reporting platform, SSRS needed to be able to render all of these report types. Paginated reports were of course always native to SSRS, and the roadmap announced that Mobile reports would be included in SSRS 2016 through the integration of Datazen. The roadmap further committed to SSRS being able to render Power BI files in the future.

SSRS 2016

SSRS shipped with some significant modernization improvements, including a much awaited HTML5 rendering engine, and it included Mobile Reports. Mobile reports are delivered through the Power BI mobile application, and SSRS visuals can be pinned to Power BI dashboards.

Significant plumbing was done to move the platform forward in 2016, but it still only rendered 2 of the 4 report types.

In November 2016, it was further announced that the 2016 version of SSRS running in SharePoint Integrated mode would be the last. Moving forward, Reporting Services will only run in Native Mode. In the same announcement. In the same announcement, as I noted in another post, for the first time, the SSRS team committed to providing Excel report rendering capability as well.

Power BI Reporting Server

We first saw the on premises rendering of Power BI reports in the first community preview of SSRS V.Next in the fall of 2016. Those previews required that the reports be directly connected to SSAS tabular models, but they were ground-breaking just the same. A user could be totally disconnected from the web, and still render Power BI reports.

In May of 2017, Power BI Report Server (PBIRS) was announced. A less confusing name could have potentially been SSRS Premium, because that is in essence what it is. PBIRS is everything that SSRS is, plus the ability to render Power BI reports. SSRS will continue forward as a product without Power BI rendering capabilities. It is just a licensing distinction.

The release today of the August 2017 preview of PBIRS allows for embedded data models, and therefore a much wider breadth of capabilities. These models cannot be automatically refreshed yet, but they will upon release. This is, after all, just a preview. If you need automatic refresh of these data models in the meantime, there is an excellent third party solution to do this: PowerPivot Pro’s Power Update.

The inclusion of Excel report rendering capabilities means that PBIRS is a complete report rendering platform, more complete even that the Power BI cloud service.

Moving Forward

Now that the basic on-premises capability has been provided, SSRS/PBIRS needs to pay attention to paying back the debt that it incurred when SharePoint Integrated mode was deprecated. Chief among these features is the SSRS web part. The lack of a decent web part is a blocker for many organizations to move forward with this strategy. Some migration tools to move from Integrated to Native mode (like this one that migrates in the other direction) would be highly useful as well.

Now with on-premises covering all the bases, it’s easy to spot a glaring hole in the cloud Power BI offering. While it supports all three types of analytical reports, there is currently no way to render operational reports in the cloud. Until this capability is provided, it appears that on-premises will have the most complete solution.

Completing the Microsoft Reporting Roadmap

In the recent announcement outlining the SharePoint integration strategy on the SQL Server Reporting Services Team’s blog, there was a statement that was almost hidden that I think deserves more attention. The statement was:

“….in time, we aim to support web-based viewing of Excel workbooks in Native mode…”

This may not sound like a big deal – after all, we’ve been able to serve up Excel workbooks in a browser since Excel Services was initially introduced with SharePoint 2007. However, as per Microsoft’s Reporting Roadmap from October 2015, Reporting Services is their on-premises solution for BI report delivery. If an Excel workbook is to be considered a report, the SSRS absolutely should be able to do it. The roadmap defined four types of reports:

  • Paginated
  • Interactive
  • Analytical
  • Mobile

I tend to see there being two types of reports, Structured and Analytical. In the list above, Structured corresponds with Paginated, and the other 3 types are different subtypes of Analytical. They four categories do, however line up well with the different reporting technologies available.

Report Type File Type
Paginated RDL (Classic SSRS)
Interactive PBIX (Power BI)
Analytical XLSX (Excel)
Mobile RSMOBILE (SSRS Mobile aka Datazen)

The roadmap was primarily concerned with the future of SSRS, but SSRS is Microsoft’s stated report delivery platform for on-premises reporting. The platform for cloud reporting is of course Power BI. There is a third platform for the delivery of “Analytical”, or Excel based reports, and that’s Excel Online. On premises, it’s called Office Online Server, but it is the same technology. The three platforms and their capabilities are shown below.

SSRS

Excel Online/OOS

Power BI

Paginated

Yes

N/A

No

Interactive

Preview

N/A

Yes

Analytical

Announced

Yes

Yes

Mobile

yes

N/A

Yes

The technical preview of Power BI reports in Reporting Services is available for testing, which covers Interactive reports in SSRS, and the above statement indicates that there is a solution to support Analytic reports in SSRS as well. The Power BI platform does this already, and it is done by leveraging the capabilities of Excel Online. Given the fact that Office Online server provides the same capabilities on premises, it makes sense that it would be used by SSRS when the Excel workbook support is added.

It should also be noted that the above comparison shows Mobile reports being supported by Power BI. To be clear, Power BI does not support RSMOBILE files, but regular Power BI reports are inherently mobile and available through the Power BI mobile client. which is also how RSMOBILE reports are delivered to end users.

The Reporting Services team is clearly very close to completing the vision laid out over a year ago, in the Reporting Roadmap for on-premises users. If the goal is to have parity between on-premises and cloud platforms, the only thing remaining (apart from possible support of the RSMOBILE format) is support for Paginated reports in Power BI. There have been no statements made regarding this capability, but its absence is certainly notable.

The Future of Report Integration with SharePoint

Yesterday, Microsoft made official what many, including myself had been suspecting ever since the release of SQL Server 2016 – that SQL Server Reporting Services Integrated mode would not exist in the future. With the announcement, we now know the timeline of when that will happen. SSRS Integrated Mode will not be included with the next version of SQL Server. Instead, SSRS Native mode will be more tightly integrated with SharePoint for those organizations that use both products. As someone that has always approached Business Intelligence from the SharePoint point of view, I see this is a good thing.

This change is another step in the process of de-cluttering and uncomplicating SharePoint. This process started arguably with the move away from fully trusted code running on SharePoint, to the newer app, add-in and now SPFx development models that run with SharePoint. When Excel Services was removed from SharePoint in SharePoint 2016, with its capabilities moved to Office Online Server this process became obvious. A decreased dependency on SharePoint allows for simpler, more streamlined architectures, better options for upgrade management, and better, more targeted performance management.

SSRS SharePoint Integrated mode has been with us in various forms since it was first introduced in SQL Server 2005 SP2. The original goal was to simplify the integration of the two products, and to take advantage of SharePoint’s storage and authorization capabilities. The integration has always worked well, but the very fact that these two products were delivered by two different product teams on different media, often on different release schedules has typically led to a great deal of confusion. The SharePoint prerequisite for Integrated Mode leads to far too many SQL servers having SharePoint installed on them.

Managing SSRS in SharePoint Integrated mode requires a combined skill set to some degree as well, with knowledge of both SSRS and SharePoint. SharePoint administrators tend to be intimidated by SSRS, and SharePoint simply mystifies SQL DBAs.

The fact that the two different modes did not always maintain feature parity is another problem. PowerView and several other features are only available through SharePoint integrated mode. This results in entire SharePoint farms being created for the sole purpose of providing reporting features. Since those performing these installations are typically not familiar with SharePoint best practices, these farms tend to be unreliable. The latest release of SSRS 2016 contains a massive number of new features, but many of them in Native mode only, leaving the SharePoint integrated folks with a decision whether to favour features or integration.

A strategy that reduces the dependency of one platform on the other is therefore to everyone’s advantage.

The two operating modes also represent two different code streams for Microsoft to maintain. Given the finite set of resources that is any development team, resources must be spent on maintaining both of these streams that could otherwise be applied to features. A single code stream is simply more efficient.

Preventing the wholesale move to Native mode are several SharePoint integration features that have been employed over the years that are only available in SharePoint Integrated mode.

There has been a SharePoint Report viewer web part for SSRS Native mode since SharePoint 2003. The trouble is that while it does work, it is deprecated, and hasn’t been updated since SQL Server 2008 R2. It also doesn’t allow for parameter binding, or interface control. For all intents and purposes, it is an iFrame embed of a report. The web part that is available through integrated mode allows for parameter interactivity, and significant control of the look and feel. It has been widely deployed. Integrated mode also allows for the reporting of SharePoint list data, and the ability to publish reports to a SharePoint library on a schedule. These features are well utilized in the market today.

Power View reports (RDLX) built on top of SSAS tabular models, or Excel Power Pivot models also require Integrated mode. Compounding this is the fact that Power View requires Silverlight, which does not work in either the Chrome nor the Microsoft Edge browsers.

These integration features will need to be added to Native mode before it will be possible to fully abandon Integrated mode. The good news is that the announcement commits to doing just that. Report embed, Report viewer web part, and SharePoint library destination capabilities will all be added. For Power View reports, a conversion tool will be provided to convert from RDLX into Power BI Desktop (PBIX). A technical preview is already availably that demonstrated PBIX rendering in SSRS.

This announcement signals the end of SSRS SharePoint Integrated mode, but it does not spell the end of SSRS SharePoint integration. The single mode architecture should be more approachable, simpler, and more efficient. It’s a win all the way around.

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.