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.

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SSRS 2016 – Integrated or Native Mode – Which one should you use?

The answer to the SQL Server Reporting Services Integrated vs. Native mode question used to be very simple. Once upon a time, if you had a SharePoint environment, you would want to deploy SharePoint Integrated mode, and if you didn’t, you would pick Native. Integrated mode would leverage your pre-existing security model in SharePoint, it would allow reports to look like documents in SharePoint making them more user friendly, and you would be able to use the advanced features of the SSRS web parts in SharePoint. Non-SharePoint users were able to do what they needed around security and report storage with Native mode. Everyone was happy.

SQL Server 2012 changed that a little bit. Power View reports were first introduced in SQL Server 2012 as a part of SSRS. These reports leveraged the tabular (PowerPivot) data models available in SSAS 2012 and provided some very user friendly tools for self service analytical reporting. However, one of the catches introduced was that Power View reports were only available in SharePoint Integrated mode. Suddenly, the choice of mode became feature based. This suited those with SharePoint environments just fine, but those without SharePoint would now need to stand up a SharePoint farm just to gain access to Power View. This is a daunting prospect, especially for those unfamiliar with SharePoint. This requirement, coupled with the minimal investment into new features for core SSRS in SQL Server 2012 had the effect of making the Native mode users feel abandoned. After all, we know what typically happens when Microsoft stops investing in a product. The balance was heavily tilted in the favour of Integrated mode.

The new normal

This situation remained exactly the same in SQL Server 2014, but has changed dramatically with SQL Server 2016. SSRS in SQL Server 2016 contains significant advancements, chief among them are a new HTML5 rendering engine, a new report portal, mobile reports, and (soon) Power BI Desktop rendering. This is fantastic news, but it also changes the game significantly with respect to the Integrated/Native mode decision. With SSRS 2016, most of the new investments are in Native mode only – the balance has shifted. The table below shows an (incomplete) list of new features, and their supported modes.

Feature Integrated Mode Native Mode
HTML 5 based rendering engine X X
New chart types X X
PDF based printing (no ActiveX) X X
PowerPoint rendering and export X X
New UI for Report Builder X X
Customizable parameters pane X
New web portal X
Mobile reports X
KPIs X
Pint to Power BI X
Render Power BI reports* X

* Coming soon

You can see above that the balance has shifted very heavily in favour of Native mode. The folks using Native mode are very happy about this move – they are no longer having SharePoint forced on them in order to access new features. However, now it’s the SharePoint folks turn to feel abandoned, but they really don’t need to. SSRS Integrated mode is still getting a significant enhancement in 2016, it’s just not as significant as the improvement to Native Mode. Integrated mode is also still required for rendering Power View reports. Last fall’s Reporting Roadmap reconfirmed Microsoft’s commitment to SharePoint as a platform -“We will continue to support embedding of BI content into SharePoint”. SharePoint has a bright future as an report destination. The only question is how that will be brought about.

It may well be that the features had to go into Native mode first in order to meet the shipping schedules, and that they’ll be brought along eventually. I suspect however that this is not the case. I think that this is either the last, or penultimate version of SSRS to contain Integrated mode. If the same level of embedding into SharePoint could be provided by Native mode, and the user experience improved (as it has been in the new report portal) then there is very little real need for Integrated mode at all.

Building shared service applications in SharePoint is a non-trivial task, and those resources could likely be better spent on features for SSRS. A new embedding model could support both SharePoint on-premises (as it currently does) and SharePoint Online (as it currently doesn’t). The same mechanism could be used to embed Power BI reports. We’ve already seen glimpses of this hybrid interoperability in the SSRS and Excel pin visual to Power BI capability. I suspect that over time we’ll see SSRS Native mode and its reporting portal also assume the role currently played by PerformancePoint Services as well. For all of these reasons, I think that SSRS Native mode is the only future for SSRS.

But that’s the future. What about the present?

When I first learned of these developments, I suspected that I would be recommending Native mode for anyone moving forward. However, as I discuss in an earlier article, the SSRS web parts for Native mode are deprecated, and missing key pieces of functionality, parameters being first among them. They are really little more than iframes, and they certainly can’t replace the Integrated mode web parts. If you’re going to use reporting in SharePoint in any meaningful way, or you are looking to upgrade an existing SharePoint farm with SSRS integration to 2016, you’re going to need Integrated mode. That means no mobile reports, report manager, or Power BI integration.

So why choose?

There is nothing stopping you (apart from possibly licensing) from running both modes. Using Integrated mode, you can take advantage of the new rendering engine, etc, and a separate Native mode server can be used for Report Manager, mobile reports, and Power BI integration. Over time, more reports can be brought over to Native mode and the embedding story improves. Once they are all brought over in “the future”, the Integrated mode service can be simply removed. This provides for a smooth, gradual migration. In fact, you can set up an SSRS 2016 Native mode server along side an existing SharePoint 2013 farm with SSRS 2014 or earlier Integrated mode to get started. Your SharePoint reports won’t have any of the new features, but your Native mode certainly will.

We are clearly in a transitional stage when it comes to on-premises reporting technologies from Microsoft. There are significant, bold steps forward, but there is also a legacy of technology to support. The current lineup of technologies allows for both approaches for organizations to embrace at their own pace.

Rethinking Business Intelligence in SharePoint and SQL Server 2016

SharePoint 2016 and SQL Server 2016 will both be released in 2016, adding to the changing Business Intelligence landscape already being disrupted by Power BI. Many of them will be incremental, but some are significant architectural changes that require a rethink of how we will approach on premises and cloud based Business Intelligence.

All of the bits to deploy the SharePoint based BI components are now available. With the December 8, 2015 publication of the white paper “Deploying SQL Server 2016 PowerPivot and Power View in SharePoint 2016” white paper, it’s possible to kick the tires and to come to a few conclusions. I will be posting a number of “how to” posts in the coming weeks, but I felt that it was important to set the context for them first. The Business Intelligence ground has shifted significantly, and this greatly affects the way that we think of, design and use Business Intelligence tools with SharePoint. For the record, there is quite a bit of opinion in here, and I want to make it crystal clear that the opinion is mine, and not stated by Microsoft.

Excel and Excel Services

In August 2015, Microsoft announced that Excel Services would not be a part of SharePoint in 2016, which came as a big shock to the community. Excel has always been one of the main pillars of BI in SharePoint, the other two being SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) in SharePoint integrated mode, which we’ll get to below, and PerformancePoint. As I’ve argued before, PerformancePoint, while still included in SharePoint 2016, has been dormant for several versions, and likely doesn’t have much of a future. It’s been exposed to the elements, and has gotten quite rusty. I wouldn’t put much weight on that particular pillar. In this context, Microsoft’s decision to remove Excel Services, (the only BI component delivered by the Office team) seems like a big deal.

In reality, it’s not such a big deal in itself. Microsoft has, for the most part, shifted the functionality of Excel Services to Office Online Server (OOS). I explained in another post that despite its name, OOS is NOT a cloud service, but in reality is the new name for the Office Web Apps server – the server that allows for browser-based editing and viewing of Excel documents. The difference between Excel Services and Office Web Apps Server has always been confusing to users and a configuration headache for administrators using both. I believe that Microsoft’s consolidation of Excel Services and OOS makes a great deal of sense.

BI professionals need to understand the change to options and components with this new model, and they need to understand that the change Microsoft has made does not represent a net loss in functionality. In fact, I think you will see a net gain because users can make changes to workbooks with data connections and embedded data models directly from a browser.

PowerPivot for SharePoint

Microsoft will continue to deliver PowerPivot for SharePoint as a SharePoint Service application, and a special instance of Analysis Service. However, Microsoft has significantly changed the installation process. Previously to install PowerPivot for SharePoint you had a separate installation mode for SQL Server, which would install either SSAS in SharePoint mode alone or SSAS in SharePoint mode along with the PowerPivot for SharePoint bits if you wanted to install it on a SharePoint server. With SQL Server 2016, it’s simply one of the modes for the SSAS install (called PowerPivot mode), and the PP4SP bits are installed separately (always). You’ll also need to perform separate configuration steps to connect the OOS server to the PowerPivot mode instance.

Installing SSAS in PowerPivot mode in SQL Server 2016 CTP 3.1

Installing PowerPivot for SharePoint SQL Server 2014

Microsoft did not make very many changes to PowerPivot for SharePoint 2016. Users will note one big improvement—they can refresh Power Query-based connections. While this improvement is not currently in the preview s, Microsoft has promised this feature for the final release. Until now, PowerPivot for SharePoint could update workbooks with new data, but only if those workbooks contained standard Excel-based or PowerPivot-based connections. If you had used Power Query to import data, you were out of luck. This contrasts sharply with Microsoft’s cloud based Power BI service , which can only use Power Query to import and refresh many data sources. It was impossible to answer the question “which tool should I use for data import” without being aware of the destination platform. Now, it is simple. Use Power Query, and your workbooks will work on all platforms.

When I mention that there aren’t many changes, this includes the PowerPivot Gallery. The Gallery is a specialized SharePoint document library template that allows you to see thumbnails of your Excel and Power View reports, and gives easy access to refresh options and self-service reporting options. As with prior versions of the Gallery, it is delivered as a Silverlight application on a SharePoint view page. As I will discuss later, the Silverlight dependency could be construed as a problem, but it is not necessary to use the Gallery in order to interact with Power Pivot workbooks. You can switch to a more standard library view and still have access to workbook refresh options.

The fact that Power Query refreshes PowerPivot-based and Excel-based connections may be reason alone to update existing PowerPivot for SharePoint installations to the 2016 versions. If you navigate to the Feature pack page for SQL Server 2016 CTP 3.1, you’ll see add-ins for both SharePoint 2016 and 2013, so this will be possible, for SharePoint 2013 at least (and no, you will not need your database server to be SQL 2016 as well). Correspondingly, the SSRS Integrated mode from SQL Server 2016 will work on all SharePoint from 2013 and up (but will need the new 2016 add-in).

Power View

Power View first debuted with SSRS in SQL Server 2012. Microsoft developed Power View to become the future self-service BI reporting tool that SSRS itself never really was. Initially, Power View has very specific requirements to use it, so specific that very few people did. You needed to be running SSRS in SharePoint integrated mode (it wasn’t available in native mode), and it needed to connect to a SQL Server 2012 SSAS tabular mode instance. Once that was set up, you would create a BISM connection file and then use it to launch Power View from a SharePoint Library. When Excel 2013 debuted, it contained a version of Power View that could work with embedded data models, which greatly increased its adoption. In all cases, Power View interaction required Silverlight in order to access it using a browser.

The Silverlight dependency was a clear problem, as it prevented mobile users from working with it, and Silverlight’s “retirement” meant that realistically, no new features would be added. Microsoft addressed this problem fairly quickly in Office 365 with the addition of an HTML5-based rendering engine that would be invoked if the browser machine did not have Silverlight. These HTML 5 enhancements never made it into the on-premises version of SharePoint. While Microsoft initially put a lot of energy into the HTML5 rendering engine, but Microsoft appeared to stop adding new features at about the same time that it achieved feature parity with Silverlight.

This stoppage, combined with recent moves, indicate to me that Power View has no future. I can think of three major developments that lead me to this conclusion, and you can find these developments in Power BI, Excel 2016, and the Office Online Server.

The original Power BI Service, originally introduced in 2012 and retired on Dec 31, 2015, was based on Office 365 and Excel, and leveraged Power View for self-service reporting. Microsoft introduced a new version of the Power BI Service in July 2015; it is a standalone service that connects to Excel among many other sources. The visuals in the new Power BI service are similar to, but not the same as Power View. Realistically, they are the logical evolution of what Power View started, and are based on the D3 JavaScript engine. I think Microsoft could have made it less confusing had they just called these visuals Power View V2, but it is what it is. The open architecture allows Power BI to quickly implement new visualizations, whether they come from Microsoft or from the community. You can see the many new visuals in the Power BI Visuals gallery, most of which have been submitted by the community. When you import models and Power View from a workbook into Power BI, any Power View reports are converted to the new version, and it’s a one-way street. In this environment, Power View is clearly considered a legacy technology.

Microsoft first included Power View in Excel as a ribbon item in 2013. During the test phase of Excel 2016, it disappeared from the ribbon. Power View still exists in the product, and you can add it back to the ribbon as I describe in this article. However, I wonder why Microsoft removed it. In my opinion, the reason is simple. Microsoft wants people to stop using embedded Power View in Excel, and to start using Power BI for self-service reporting. This just makes sense from where I’m standing. Excel has a rich set of native visuals that can connect to embedded data models, and most of the Power View visuals aren’t as mature as these are. Having Power View in Excel never made much sense, except possibly from a usability standpoint. If an analyst wants to live within Excel, they can use Excel Visuals and expose them as an Excel report in Power BI. For self-service reporting, we can connect to an Excel file and use Power BI visuals. There’s simply no longer any need for Power View as an Excel embedded tool.

Finally, let’s look at the new Office Online Server 2016. When OOS renders an Excel workbook that has an embedded Power View report, it will use Silverlight to do so. That’s right… OOS 2016 will require Silverlight for Power View rendering. We know that Microsoft has already updated the Power View rendering engine for HTML5 with some of the visuals for Office 365, so we know that it was possible to do so. The only reason that I can think of that Microsoft didn’t do this entirely through Power View is to discourage people from using it, or the effort was too great for a technology that was being replaced. In addition, now in order to user Power View with OOS, you’ll need to use Kerberos constrained delegation. Microsoft did not require this in the past because Excel Services was running on the same server as SharePoint itself and could pass the User Principal Name through to the backing SSAS server that used EffectiveUserName. Now Kerberos is required for this.

So why doesn’t Microsoft just state that Power View is at end of life? Microsoft didn’t say that, but that was the message I heard at the October 2015 PASS summit. I think that the reason is that so far, Power BI is a cloud service only. In order to replace Power View fully with Power BI, customers need to embrace cloud services to some level, and there are organizations that are still not ready to do this. Very soon, after Microsoft releases SQL Server 2016, SSRS will support direct rendering of PBIX reports. (The file format for Power BI Designer and the new visuals.) At that point, the new visuals, and the new self-service reporting tools will be available on premises, but for now Power View is the only tool that can function in an on-premises only environment. It doesn’t really have a future, but it’s still necessary. It’s certainly not the only technology to exist in this state – both InfoPath and PerformancePoint serve similar roles. Microsoft still supports them and PerformancePoint, while dormant, could come back any time should Microsoft choose to do so.

SQL Server Reporting Services

Microsoft has included SSRS as a core part of the Business Intelligence workload in SharePoint since SharePoint 2003. SQL Server 2005 SP1 introduced SSRS in SharePoint integrated mode, which allowed administrators to replace the web server and storage functions of the SSRS server with that of SharePoint’s, making it easier to administer. With SQL Server 2012, you had the option to deploy SSRS as a SharePoint service application, further simplifying administration and scaling. During this period, the native mode SSRS server was always still available for those that didn’t use SharePoint, but over time, it lagged behind its sibling from a features standpoint. Many people wondered aloud if native mode SSRS had a future at all, and if SharePoint would become a required component. They needn’t have worried.

At the same time, in the past few years we’ve seen a marked shift in the way that Microsoft has positioned SharePoint, from being at the center of everything to being more a set of services. The first hint of this was the new app (now add-in) model for SharePoint, and more recently with the wholesale shifting of services, of which the Excel Services change is a prime example. This shift, combined with a renewal of emphasis on SSRS for structured reporting is cause for re-evaluation.

At the PASS summit, Microsoft rolled out its reporting roadmap. It’s comprehensive, well thought out, and exciting. I’ve pointed out before that it doesn’t include the name “PerformancePoint”, but you know what else doesn’t feature prominently? SharePoint. Microsoft committed to SharePoint integration but they offered few details.

With SQL Server 2016, customers will still deploy SSRS through both native and SharePoint integrated modes. However, for the first time, the feature set will be significantly greater in native mode at least on initial release. With the roadmap, Microsoft defined four report types:

  1. Paginated Reports – I call these operational, or structured reports. These are “classic” SSRS reports.
  2. Interactive Reports – These reports are built with Power BI Desktop, and will run in SSRS and Power BI Web. I call these “Analytical reports” and this role would previously been performed by Power View.
  3. Mobile Reports – These reports are aimed at mobile devices, and are what was previously known as Datazen.
  4. Analytical Reports and Charts – Excel workbooks.

SSRS 2016 will be the delivery mechanism for 3 of these 4 report types, but only in native mode initially. Integrated mode will support these report types one way or another down the road, but we just don’t know when. Microsoft is investing in quite a few new areas in SSRS, and it’s worthwhile to break down exactly which of the new features will be available in the two different Reporting Services modes at release. For a definition of these features, please refer to Microsoft’s roadmap announcement.

Feature Native Mode SharePoint Integrated Mode
Paginated Reports

X

X

Interactive Reports

X*

Mobile Reports

X

New Reporting Portal

X

New visuals

X

X

HTML5 rendering

X

X

Pin and link SSRS visuals to Power BI dashboards

X

*Shortly after initial release

It’s pretty clear that the tables have turned. Power View reports are now the only thing that is uniquely offered in SharePoint integrated mode. If you have SharePoint and you decide to use native mode SSRS, no functionality is lost – you can still use the SSRS web part in SharePoint for report rendering and dashboards. Reports will be stored in the SSRS server, and you’ll need to set up security separately. On the plus side, you can leave these tasks to a Reporting admin, who will not need to know how the SharePoint security model works. The biggest issue that I can see is that while integrated mode allows you to work with a single authentication provider, the SSRS native mode server requires its own, making a direct connection with it necessary, at design time at least.

These downsides aside, this shift to a focus on native mode fits with what is happening with Excel on the Office side. The two become peers that work together, as opposed to being dependent on one another. The increased functionality makes native mode compelling, even if you are running a SharePoint farm. If you are creating a new BI environment and you want to take advantage of the new SSRS features, and/or you are looking to the future for your BI investments, my recommendation is now to provision a native mode SSRS server whether or not you have SharePoint in most cases. If you already have an investment in integrated mode Reporting Services, don’t panic. Patience will be a virtue here. You will gain all of the new visuals and appearances immediately, and the other pieces will come in over time. Microsoft has not yet clearly stated the roadmap for integrated mode beyond the release of 2016.

Summary

So, to summarize, all of this represents a shift away from SharePoint as a dependency and to it as an interface option. Instead of these tools working “on” SharePoint, moving forward they will work “with” it. Overall:

  1. Power View can now be considered a legacy product.

    Power View was the future of the past. The future is now Power BI. If it helps, think of the visual elements in Power BI as being Power View V2, which in effect they are. If you’re thinking about using Power View to build a report, please consider Power BI Desktop. If it’s not possible, the good news is that if you use Excel to build it, you will be able to easily import it into Power BI Desktop – it has a migration path forward, and on premises PBIX support is also on the way.

  2. SQL Server Reporting Services should be deployed in Native mode

    Whether or not you have a SharePoint farm, native mode SSRS is the way to go for a new deployment, even if you’re not yet ready for SQL Server 2016 SSRS. The reason for this is that migrating reports between the two modes is not simple.

  3. Excel Reporting is alive and well

    Excel is still well supported and Microsoft is investing in it. It is the tool for analysts and model builders and is easily portable to Power BI and to SSAS. The removal of Excel services in SharePoint is simply and architectural shift, not a functional one, and Excel reports are very well supported in Power BI.

  4. Power BI and Power BI Desktop are the preferred tools for self-service reporting

    Self-service reporting is clearly the domain of Power BI. The legacy options are still available for current on-premises customers, but if you want to future-proof your investments, look to Power BI.

Analysis Services Power Pivot Mode in SQL Server 2016

It is fairly well known that ever since SQL Server 2012, users have been able to install SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) in one of two modes – either “Multidimensional or Data Mining Mode” or “Tabular Mode”. Multidimensional is the traditional SSAS mode that supports OLAP cubes, and Tabular is the new engine that supports in memory xVelocity (or PowerPivot) models. Any given instance can only run in one of the two modes, but multiple instances/modes can exist on the same server. SQL Server 2016 (available as CTP2 as of this writing) is adding a third mode to SSAS – PowerPivot Mode.

What’s PowerPivot mode all about? Well, to start with, it’s actually not new – it’s actually older than Tabular mode. It has been available since SQL Server 2008 R2, but was never installed the same way as the other two modes, and had a couple of other different names. To my mind, this has led to a great deal of confusion that this change aims to fix. What it truly is, is a special instance of Tabular mode that exists solely to support PowerPivot for SharePoint. Up until now, this instance was installed during the installation of SQL Server Power Pivot for SharePoint, as can be seen in the screen below.

From the initial release of SQL Server 2008 R2 until (but not including) SQL Server 2012 SP1, this component needed to be installed on a SharePoint server, which is to say a server that had the basic SharePoint bits installed and had been joined to the farm. This requirement led to more than a few instances of SharePoint being installed on SQL Servers, but I digress. The correct way place to install this was on a SharePoint server that was already part of the farm. When this option was selected, what actually got installed was two things. First, a special instance of Analysis Services (it didn’t really have a name at the time), and a SharePoint service application that handled automatic refresh among other things.

The problem with this is that it forced the SharePoint server in question to also perform all of the Analysis Services functions. It wasn’t possible to scale out the analysis capabilities separately from the SharePoint server(s) themselves. This changed with the combination of SharePoint 2013 and SQL Server 2012 SP1. SharePoint Server 2013 allows for Excel Services to utilize one or more instances of what was now known as Analysis Services SharePoint Mode. This can be configure through Excel Services in the Data Model configuration options.

One can add any number of SSAS servers to the service allowing you to scale out in a limitless fashion. These SSAS servers must be running in “SharePoint mode”. The problem is that it’s not immediately obvious as to how to run an SSAS server in SharePoint Mode. The way that this is done is by installing “PowerPivot for SharePoint” on a server. With SQL Server 2012 SP1, this installation no longer requires a SharePoint server. However, if it is installed on a SharePoint server its behaviour is different. When installed on a server without SharePoint, a standalone instance of Analysis Services SharePoint mode will be installed. You can then connect to it using the Excel Services configuration shown above. However, when installed on a server with SharePoint, both the SSAS SP mode instance and the service application will be installed (as with prior versions).

While this behaviour makes sense, it’s certainly not intuitively obvious as to what’s going on. The Data Model Settings in SSAS only refer to registering “SQL Server Analysis Services”, and makes no mention of SharePoint mode. Regular SSAS servers will not work for this capability. On the SQL Side, it’s also not obvious that “PowerPivot for SharePoint” is the installation option for SSAS SharePoint mode, or that there are different behaviours when installed on farm joined servers or not. Finally, the name SSAS SharePoint mode isn’t particularly descriptive – the server in question is there exclusive to support PowerPivot for SharePoint.

Given all of this, the new installation option in SQL Server 2016 becomes clear, and should go a long way to help clear up confusion. PowerPivot mode is that same specific instance of SSAS Tabular mode that was previously referred to as “Analysis Services SharePoint Mode”. To complete the picture, the language in the PowerPivot for SharePoint configuration tool has also been updated for clarity. It may not be completely consistent, but it’s easier to understand.

While none of this represents any major shifts in functionality or capability, it does help to understand the various components of the overall solution. Hopefully the language in Excel Services in SharePoint 2016 will also be updated accordingly.

Ignite 2015 Impressions

I don’t normally do conference summaries, but Ignite was just so big, and there was so much information that I felt the need to record my thoughts around it, and decided to share. Ignite was very much cross product, which is in line with where Microsoft seems to be headed – a focus on the function, not the tooling. With around 24,000 people in attendance, the conference, and the logistical issues that it imposed was too big for my taste, but the amount of information was excellent, and I imagine that I’ll be digesting it for some time to come. For now, here’s how I interpreted it all.

Azure and Office 365

Cloud services are killing it.

Between Azure’s Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Infrastructiure as a Service (IaaS) and Office 365’s Software as a Service (SaaS), Azure Active Directory is already sporting over 450 million active users. Azure Active Directory is what is used by Office 365, and the accounts within are otherwise known as Organizational Accounts. It’s an important metric because I believe that the Microsoft strategy is to own identity online. It makes sense when you look at what they seem to be doing.

For years, they absolutely dominated operating systems. Nothing to this day has ever really touched them on the desktop, but Apple changed the base with mobile, and developers flocked there. Google tried to do the same thing to Apple, and has been quite successful, but not fully so. While Android is in the majority in the mobile space, iOS is still quite strong, and shows no signs of diminishing. Windows isn’t really a factor in mobile, but still dominates the desktop which remains significant (about 300 million units/year), and is a factor on tablets. Microsoft got flanked by Apple and Android, and is holding the fort, but not conquering any new territory.

Microsoft now seems to be focusing on cloud services, and they don’t care what platform is being used to consume them. I think that at the core of this strategy is cloud identity – whether it is consumer (Microsoft Account) or enterprise (Azure Active Directory). With this identity strategy, Microsoft is attempting to again change the base – to outflank both Apple and Google and make the operating system almost irrelevant. Every app they’re putting out now is usually for iOS first, then Android, then Windows Phone. The new Universal app platform likely means that they will come out for Windows (desktop, phone, whatever) at initial launch with iOS, but the bottom line is that an awful lot of effort is going into supporting all platforms all the time. If the apps work well across platforms, then the choice of operating system simply becomes one of personal preference, not of features. It gets marginalized, and Microsoft owns the back end service. That’s why I think that so much effort has gone into this strategy.

Another thing that I sensed at the show was that in the past, all of the talk around identity and federation (ADFS) was about bringing your on-premises identities into the cloud to support a few new services. Now, there seems to have been a real shift, and the reason for adopting ADFS is to bring the Azure Active Directory identities back down on-premises to where legacy applications can use them. It’s a subtle shift, but discernable.

One of the more interesting product introduced into Azure recently is Logic Apps. As far as I can tell, Logic Apps are the cloud manifestation of BizTalk, which is an excellent product with a steep learning curve. Logic apps remove the learning curve and allow you to quickly connect and flow data through multiple systems. The session on logic apps can be seen here:

SharePoint 2016

In the past, SharePoint announcements would warrant their own post, but now SharePoint is probably best seen as part of a greater whole. Details on SharePoint 2016 details were first announced at Ignite, and I feel that the most informative session was Bill Baer’s on Wednesday morning where he outlined the major architectural changes:

Not surprisingly, this release will be very much about hybrid Sharepoint/Office 365 scenarios. Some of the notable items from the talk are:

  • SharePoint Server 2016 Will require 64 bit Windows Server 2012 or Widows Server 10, and SQL Server 2014 SP1 as a minimum
  • Standalone installations are no longer supported. It will be possible to install SharePoint and SQL Server on the same machine, but full SQL Server will be required, and SQL Express will no longer be supported. This obviously raises questions about whether or not there will be a free SharePoint Foundation SKU with the next release.
  • PerformancePoint will in fact be included with SharePoint 2016. I doubt very much that there will be any investments in it at all, but it will at least be there. I’d view this as legacy support.
  • SharePoint 2016 will support SAML claims as a first class citizen. That means that it will be possible to login with Azure Active Directory credentials, and is an example of bringing cloud identities on prem. However, don’t trash that domain controller just yet, I’m sure that service accounts will still need to be NTLM – SQL Server needs it.
  • There will be a new Roles Based installation. It will be much simpler to install and maintain servers with specific roles such as web front end, search, etc. BI will be one of the roles.
  • There will be new boundaries. Content databases up to Terabyte sizes, 10 GB file size limit, list thresholds of much greater than 5000 items (although how much greater was not specified)
  • No more FIM. The user profile engine that we’ve all grown to….. deal with from SharePoint 2010 and 2013 is no longer embedded. The full Forefront Information Manager can be used, but the default profile import mechanism will be the good ol’ User import from SharePoint 2007.
  • Durable resource based links. Every object in SharePoint will receive its own resource based URL. That means that it can be moved around in the farm, and reference URLs will still work. This is like permalinks in WordPress.
  • While not final, a preview was shown of some operational reporting. This is primarily “speeds and feeds” type information that would interest a farm administrator, although simple usage reporting could be seen.
  • Integration with the Office Graph – see below section on Delve.

SQL Server 2016

The next release of SQL Server was announces at Ignite. Its chock full of new things, focused primarily at hybrid operation and analytics. One of the more interesting concepts in this version is the ability to “stretch” a database into the cloud. With this, you can take an on-premises database, and extend it into Azure SQL, specifying rules to determine which data goes where. Given that online storage is significantly cheaper than on-premises, this makes total sense, and they’ve figured out a way to make it work reliably. The overall SQL Server keynote can be found here:

I’m very interested in the analytics capabilities, and the session outlining the improvements to SQL Server BI is found here:

I found the following items particularly notable:

  • A comment was made during the BI session that Microsoft is “Super Committed” to SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS). Hopefully this helps quell the naysayers. SSRS is receiving a major facelift in this version, bringing a modern design experience. In addition, the parameters pane has received a great deal of attention, adding, among other things, support for cascaded dropdowns.
  • Datazen is a visualization company based in Toronto that was recently acquired by Microsoft. There is a good demo of Datazen in the session, and I highly recommend watching it. It will be included with SQL Server 2016.
  • Datazen has KPIs. It also has “sub-KPIs”. I’m not sure about you, but that sounds a lot like a scorecard to me. This may sound the eventual (see the SharePoint section) death knell for PerformancePoint, given that that’s about all that it uniquely provides to the BI stack.
  • Tabular models in SSAS (and presumably PowerPivot) will support many-many relationships and a host of other new features.
  • Tabular models in SSAS and PowerPivot will have time intelligence built in. No longer will separate time intelligence tables be required. It’s an open question however as to how extensible they will be and when.
  • SharePoint will allow browser editing on PowerPivot embedded workbooks. Currently, you need to launch Excel to edit a PowerPivot embedded workbook.

Office 365 Groups

I attended the roadmap on Office 365 Groups:

(video unavailable as of posting – should be shortly)

During this session, the light really went on for me. Groups was (were? Not sure about the grammar on this…it’s a name) introduced last year and appeared to be a glorified distribution list with Sharepoint artifacts. However, its about to become the center of the Office 365 collaborative experience. It ties together Azure Active Directory objects, a SharePoint site collection, One Note, Skype, and OneDrive into a single cohesive, non-customizable experience. It currently uses Exchange exclusively for social conversations, but full Yammer integration is promised. No date was given for the integration, but my guess is that the target is early 2016.

The current User interface is limited – too limited for my own use at the moment, but during the demonstration, a rather useful interface was shown that is coming soon. You can access groups presently through the Outlook web client in Office 365. I’m running Office 2016 preview on my laptop, and there is a very nice interface contained there. There was chatter, particularly in the Yammer community about confusion as to what tool should be used when, but I think that the coming deep integration of Yammer into Groups will render this point moot’

The next UI, demonstrated in the above session looks really good, and offers a lot of benefits. There is also a mobile app coming very shortly for, you guessed it, iOS and Windows Universal, then Android.

One unanswered question from the show is whether Groups would be available on-premises.

Power BI

Power BI content was sort of sprinkled throughout the conference, without specific focus. There was a session on the new DAX features available in Power BI Designer that is worth a watch from a modeling perspective:

One talk that really impressed me was by Lukasz Pawlowski and Josh Caplan entitled Power BI for Developers:

They cover content packs are mentioned, real time analytics, and an in depth analysis of the “how old” app that went viral during Build.

It was also announced in the SQL BI session that SSRS will in fact be included in Power BI shortly, although little detail was provided. Finally, for development, the best place to get started is http://dev.powerbi.com.

It should also be noted that Power BI was at the center of almost any analytics discussion during the conference. This is by no means a little side project.

Delve/Office Graph

Delve is a newer product in Office 365 that provides insights around what content is relevant in an organization, and how people interact with it. It’s available directly from the app launcher in Office 365, and recently, user profiles have moved to the Delve application. It’s powered by the Office Graph, which in essence an advanced index that contains content from Exchange and SharePoint, and will very shortly, be extensible for multiple content types. The roadmap session for Delve/Graph is available here:

During the session, it was stated that “Delve is the evolution of Enterprise Search”. Given that all of the work on Delve and the Graph is coming from Oslo and the former team from FAST search, this just makes sense. One of the major announcements around SharePoint 2016 was that SharePoint 2016 content can be crawled by the Office Graph to provide both search results and Delve results in Office Graph. The reverse will also be true in that the on-premises crawler will be able to index Office 365 content for search results, but Delve and the Graph will remain in Office 365. The surprise here was that later this year, it will be possible to do the same thing with Sharepoint 2013 through a coming enhancement.

Much of this Graph goodness can also now be accessed through the new Office 365 Universal API:

tyGraph

tyGraph is our product that provides advanced analytics for Yammer. It had something of a coming out party at Ignite, and while we didn’t have a booth or any launch sessions, we were fortunate enough to have several folks, customers and thought leaders present talks that at least in part featured tyGraph. If you’re interested in analytics for your Yammer network, I recommend that you watch some or all of these sessions:

Enterprise Social, from “Ooh, Shiny” to Business Success – Melanie Hohertz, Cargill

The Microsoft Enterprise Social Journey: How We Did It – Chris Slemp, Microsoft

Gain Organizational Insights with Yammer Data Mining and Analytics – Steve Nguyen, Microsoft and Tammy Young Heck, EY

Yammer Mining: Dig in and “Listen” to What Your Big *Social* Data Is Saying – Richard diZerega, Microsoft