When it comes to self-service business analytics and data analysis, Power BI is the current cream of the crop - and for good reason.
Note: This blog has been updated in June 2020.
Data analysis, modelling and reporting is usually associated with business analysts or data scientists, but over the years Microsoft's Power BI has proven it can enable users of all skill levels to create reports, pull data from disparate cloud and on-premises sources and easily build data models, enhanced by a wide range of visualisations and filters.
Presently, there are three types of Power BI currently available for business users, in addition to mobile-responsive apps, and we talk to many customers who want to know the differences between Power BI Desktop, Power BI Pro and Power BI Premium.
In this article, our team has taken the time to detail what they each include and what type of organisation they best suit. Be sure to bookmark this page for the latest news and updates to Power BI’s three service tiers.
What is Power BI Desktop?
Power BI Desktop is the free version of Power BI that you can install on your local computer as a program, and acts as a companion desktop application to the full version of Power BI. If you need to consolidate your data sources, create your own reports and conduct your own analysis or test it’s capabilities, it’s the perfect version to start with for all skill levels - whether you’re non-IT and want to make your reports more interactive, or analysts seeking richer detail, it's one of the best business analytics tools to use.
An example of the Power BI Desktop report canvas, viewing an IT spend dashboard.
Despite its free nature, you may be surprised at what Microsoft has included with Power BI Desktop:
- You can connect and import data from over 70 cloud-based and on-premises sources
- The same rich visualisations and filters from Power BI Pro
- Auto-detect that finds and creates data relationships between tables and formats
- Export your reports to CSV, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint and PDF
- Python support
- Save, upload and publish your reports to the Web and the full Power BI service
- Storage limit of 10 GB per user
Naturally, there are some feature limitations with the free Power BI Desktop that give further incentive to upgrade.
- Can’t share created reports with non-Power BI Pro users
- No App Workspaces
- No API embedding
- No email subscriptions
- No peer-to-peer-sharing
- No support to analyse in Excel within Power BI Desktop
To be very clear: All of Power BI’s basic features - cleaning and preparing data, connectors to data sources, custom reports, visualisations and exports to Microsoft apps are included in Power BI Desktop. Thus, whatever core functionality or features are available in Power BI Desktop are also standard in the higher-tier, paid versions.
How do I get Power BI Desktop?
You don’t need a Microsoft Office 365 subscription of any sort to use Power BI Desktop.
As of the time of writing, Power BI Desktop is a free download available directly from Microsoft as a MSI package, with Windows 10, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2 operating systems currently supported.
You can also download and install the Power BI Desktop app from the Microsoft Store, which offers additional benefits such as automatic updates whenever feature upgrades or patches are released by the development team. You can’t, however, have both versions installed at this time.
What is Power BI Pro?
Image via Microsoft
Power BI Pro is the full version of Power BI, complete with the ability to use Power BI for both building dashboards and reports and unlimited viewing, sharing and consumption of your created reports (and reports shared by others) - the latter not possible with Power BI Desktop.
A breakdown of Power BI Pro’s differences against Power BI Desktop:
- Ability to embed Power BI visuals into apps (PowerApps, SharePoint, Teams, etc)
- Native integration with other Microsoft solutions (Azure Data Services)
- Share datasets, dashboards and reports with other Power BI Pro users
- Can create App Workspaces and peer-to-peer sharing
Power BI Pro is licensed by individual user. For example, if your organisation has 20 people that need to full capabilities of self-service BI to create dashboards and reports, you need 20 licenses of Power BI Pro, which gives these users full access to creation of reports and unlimited consumption (viewing) of any created content.
If you have a lot of users, Power BI Pro can obviously become quite expensive - but there’s a better option if you have more users that need to consume reports than use Power BI for creating reports, which we detail below.
What is Power BI Premium?
Power BI Premium is the most expensive tier of Power BI currently available and very distinct from the other two versions available on the market.
On top of the features and functionality standard to all versions of the service, users of Power BI Premium get:
- Increased data capacity limits and maximum performance
- Access to one API surface
- Ability to embed Power BI visuals into apps (PowerApps, SharePoint, Teams, etc)
- Larger storage sizes for extended deployments
- Geo distribution, higher refresh rates, isolation, pin to memory, read-only replicas
- Power BI Report Server
Power BI Premium differs from the free version and Power BI pro in its licensing model, which only suits a specific size and type of organisation and business scenario. You can purchase Premium in a range of capacity sizes that offer different numbers of memory and virtual cores that can scale as your data analysis requirements change.
With Power BI Premium, you are licensing capacity for your datasets, dashboards and reports, not just licensing all users of that content. In other words, you’re not buying individual licenses, you’re buying them in bulk to allow a large number of your users to use Power BI to view reports. All of your content is stored in Premium and can then be viewed by as many users in your organisation as you want, without additional per-user costs.
What is Power BI Report Server?
Power BI Report Server is an on-premises server that lets your business build your BI initiatives on local hardware, and publish and share both Power BI reports and traditional paginated reports created with SQL Server Reporting Services from within your organisation’s firewall.
This option is included with Power BI Premium and suits businesses who want to build their reporting infrastructure on-premises, apply their own governance and policies, and have an investment in a cloud-ready data analytics solution that will seamlessly scale with a future move to the cloud. Power BI Report Server also lets you use the same number of virtual cores provisioned in the cloud on-premises, without the need to split capacity.
If you want Power BI Report Server but don’t want to purchase Power BI Premium, it’s also available part of SQL Server Enterprise Edition - but only if you have active Software Assurance
Where does Power BI Mobile fit?
By default, all of Power BI’s versions - Desktop, Pro and Premium - are mobile responsive.
There are also native smartphone and tablet Power BI Mobile applications for Android, iOS and Windows devices. These apps act as a complimentary service to view your reports on-the-go.
However, you can also import data and embed reports into existing apps and sites on the mobile app as well.
Which version of Power BI should I get?
Our Power BI experts break-down which of the three service tiers you should consider, depending on your unique business needs, internal expertise and data analysis requirements.
You’re still in the early stages of self-service BI
Power BI Desktop is suitable for the end-user or analyst who mostly consumes reports or does their own analysis without the need to share it with other end-users on a larger scale.
The free version’s feature-set is enough to easily create customised reports that suit every type of expertise level and analysis need, and it has the same visualisations as the Pro version.
You need Power BI’s full business intelligence & data analysis capabilities
Power BI Pro is for heavy business analytics users who use Power BI regularly for both creation and consumption and wish to share data, dashboards and reports with other Pro users.
For small and large deployments, Power BI Pro is optimal to deliver full business intelligence capabilities to all users. Staff across multiple departments and roles can use Pro for ad-hoc analysis, dashboard sharing and report publishing, and analysis collaboration much more freely.
They can then export, share and publish their reports for non self-service BI users (i.e. staff who only need to view report, not edit or create any) who can access it via Power BI Desktop.
Microsoft currently offers a trial, making it easy to try Pro for yourself and determine whether or not you need the additional functionality over the free version and see for yourself if the additional investment is worth it - especially compared to competitors.
When you need to scale users to the data, you have more users viewing reports than using self-service BI
Power BI Premium is best as it suits large enterprise organisations that need a large number of people across the business to be able use Power BI to view dashboards and reports.
Premium grants all users in the workplace a license (unlike Power BI Pro, which is an individual license), supports larger data volumes (you can publish datasets up to 10GB) and sports greater performance (refresh up to 48x per day) but most critically lets your self-service Power BI Pro users share dashboards and reports without needing per-user licenses for the people viewing your content.
It’s easiest to think of Premium as a super upgrade rather than a user licensing model; it enables maximum performance and other features, as well as lets the widest number of users view reports, but it’s also very expensive.
For enterprises who have in excess of 500 users, Power BI Premium is the best for your investment. Depending on the scale, the pricing could range anywhere from AU $5,000 - $20,000 per month, so it’s only worthwhile if Power BI is core to your company’s business intelligence initiatives and will be cheaper on scale that Power BI Pro.
Power BI Pro vs Power BI Premium key differences
Power BI Pro and and Power BI Premium's differences mostly come down to aforementioned performance - if you're using Premium, you will actually need to have a large number of users to make it worthwhile.
The reason is simple: Power BI Premium only lets your users consume Power BI content rather than actually create reports. Consume refers to viewing Power BI custom-built dashboards and reports published on the Web, Power BI mobile apps, or reports embedded in internally-developed applications (such as PowerApps) and portals.
It’s important to understand that even with a Power BI Premium license, your organisation’s self-service BI users (i.e. the guys actually building reports and not just consuming them using Power BI) still require their own Power BI Pro licenses to create reports for consumption for the rest of your users (those just viewing) covered by Premium.
By having a Premium license, your smaller number of Pro users unlock more capacity (larger storage sizes) and higher limits (refresh rates, isolation, etc) - so it's not totally a case of only having one or the other - unless...
Power BI Pro vs Power BI Premium - Which one?
The choice between only having either Power BI Pro and Power BI Premium comes down to a comprehensive assessment of your total organisation size, identifying the amount of staff that need access to the full capabilities of Power BI Pro, and determining those users that only need to have access to view your dashboards and reports.
If you’re a large company with more users that need to consume your reports than create them, Power BI Premium is the optimal choice, and you can purchase a lesser amount of Pro licenses for your self-service team.
However, if you have more self-service BI users that need to be able to create reports than those who actually need to view them, Power BI Pro’s individual licensing model on its own may be more cost-effective BI option.
Here is a business case example used by Microsoft to help illustrate Power BI Pro vs Premium suitability:
1) If an organisation consists of more than 250 total users – 200 are engaging in self-service BI, while the remaining 50 are limited to viewing BI content – Power BI Pro is the most economical deployment option for all users within the organisation.
2) However, if the organisation consists of 700 total users – 100 are engaging in self-service BI, while the remaining 600 occasionally view BI content – the most economical deployment option would be to license Power BI Pro for the 100 users engaging in self-service BI and to license Power BI Premium for the 600 seeking occasional access to view BI content.
3) If the organisation instead consists of 5,000 total users – 4,000 are engaging in self-service BI, while the remaining 1,000 occasionally view BI content – the best deployment option would be for the organisation to license Power BI Pro for the 4,000 users engaging in self-service BI and to license Power BI Premium for the 1,000 seeking occasional access to view BI content.
Take the time to assess each tier of Power BI currently available, identify how many users in your organisation need to build reports and view them, and examine your current data estate to determine whether your data platform is mature enough to properly take advantage of Power BI’s features and benefits. But before determining which Power BI version is best for your company, it's first important to understand the wider benefits of business intelligence and how it can fit your needs.
To complement this blog, we have released a whitepaper to support this topic. This has further information on how to be successful with Business Intelligence.