The Road Ahead for SQL Server Reporting Services and Power BI Report Server

Power BI has garnered a lot of attention in the past few years as the “place to be” for Microsoft business intelligence. Power BI is of course Microsoft’s cloud platform for dashboarding and reporting. On premises, Microsoft’s reporting platform has traditionally been SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) and is now joined by Power BI Reporting Server (PBIRS). While there are differences between the two in the way that they are licensed and distributed, the main technical difference is that PBIRS includes SSRS, plus the ability to render both Power BI reports (pbix) and Excel based reports through Excel Online.

PBIRS is therefore able to render all four report types as defined by Microsoft:

Paginated

RDL (classic SSRS style reports)

Interactive

PBIX (Power BI Desktop)

Mobile

RDLX or PBIX (Datazen and Power BI Desktop)

Analytical

XLSX (Excel)

Given that PBIRS is the on-premises reporting platform, and Power BI is the cloud platform, they should theoretically be able to perform the same task. However, this isn’t the case. Currently, there is no way to render paginated (or as I like to refer to them, operational) reports in the cloud. PBIRS can render all report types, but today, the Power BI Service cannot.

Jason Himmelstein and I recently hosted Riccardo Muti, Microsoft Group Program Manager for Power BI Report Server on our BI Focal podcast (you can hear the whole show here) and we asked him a few questions about the future of paginated reports.

While it has been hinted at before, Riccardo explicitly stated that the ability to render paginated reports in the cloud was not only on the roadmap, but it was actively being worked on. This will complete the picture for BI in both the cloud and on premises. This is important because I the ideal world, the choice of on-prem, cloud, or hybrid should be related to the data in question, not the available features. No more standing up an Azure virtual machine to be able to get printable, paginated structured reports.

Riccardo sees this service rolling out in three distinct phases. Initially for the preview, RDL reports will be able to connect to cloud data sources like Azure SQL Database, Azure Data Warehouse, Azure Analysis Services, and Power BI data models. The next stage will leverage the On Premises Data Gateway in order to connect to on-premises data like SQL Server, Oracle, Teradata and more. The next phase will begin to leverage Power Query to connect to the world of data sources that Power Query Offers.

With paginated reports adopting Power Query, and Excel having moved to Power Query as a default, it is hard to argue with making an investment in learning Power Query. It all seems to be coming together.

One of the top requested features for SSRS on-premises for year has been the ability to authenticate to it with claims-based authentication. This will be the native authentication mechanism for paginated reports in the service. When this is combined with the fact that these reports will ultimately leverage Power Query, and the vast number of data connection options that it brings, it’s not hard to wonder when these features will be coming down to the on-premises product. When asked about this, Riccardo confirmed that this is certainly the vision for the product.

The future looks bright for both cloud based, and on-premises reporting.

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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.