Ultimate Power BI Licensing Guide – Part 1: Power BI Free

4 Mar 2020

by Robert French,
Data Consultant, Eyecademy

Power BI is the new kid on the block. Everyone is talking about and getting very excited, and why shouldn’t they?

This suite of tools has transformed the landscape of reporting options for those who use Microsoft technologies. Before the launch of Project Cresent (the official code name for Power BI), the one and only reporting choice for reporting from Microsoft was SSRS (SQL Server Reporting Services). While SSRS is an amazing product and worthy of investing the necessary time into learning, Power BI speaks more to the business user of the organisation, with a much more accessible and familiar interface. The latest new lovely tools, like Tableau, QlikView and others have the flair that have caught the eyes of the C-level Executives, but Power BI seems to have the looks and features that the Executives are looking for.

So, Power BI fits with my existing software such as Office 365, and it’s more familiar for my current staff? Fantastic, how much does it cost?

Well, you might not be surprised that it’s difficult to get a clear answer to this question. So, let’s dive in to the pricing options available to help you make a decision! To do that in this series of blogs, we will look the price and functionality of several options:

  • Free – everyone likes free, and this is best place to start if looking at Power BI for the first time.
  • Power BI Pro – can be considered the entry level choice at cost for exploring Power BI.
  • Power BI Embedded – this option will allow an organisation to share reports with many users.
  • Power BI Premium – the option with all the features any organisation could ask for and the most expensive.

Before we start looking at what will cost you money in later blog posts, let’s see what features you get for FREE.

Power BI Desktop

For those unfamiliar, Power BI Desktop is the tool lets you build Power BI reports. It might not seem like much to look at, yet it manages to tread the fine line between ease of use and superior functionality well, with more than a few advanced features included to keep power users happy.  You can connect to a large and growing number of data sources, Excel spreadsheets, many flavours of database (SQL Server, Oracle, Hadoop, MySQL to name a few), Dynamics CRM, or SharePoint. There are even options to easily connect to sources you might not think of, such as Sage.  The fun doesn’t just stop there as there are plenty more features to explore; Power BI Desktop can also extract, and transform the data, with some very impressive features that are often only available in paid tools.

Most people will love using the drag and drop report designer, who could not? Microsoft uses the phrase “5 Mins to Wow”, meaning that anyone can create amazing reports from their data in just 5 mins. The simple, clean, clear interface will allow anyone to explore their data and apply different charts (visualisations) easily and simply. Using Power BI Desktop is so simple that it is better seen than described, so download the free desktop version and take it for a spin.

Yes, this tool is very easy to use, but there are also many tools and features built into the product that many power users will want to explore. These include:

  • Data Preparation – Extract from a wide variety of sources, cleanse, and transform the data ready for reporting
  • Data Modelling – full-featured data modelling engine, able to integrate data into a unified coherent data model
  • Open Source Visualisation – users can create own data visualisations and incorporate into Power BI reports
  • R and Python Scripts – both languages can use used to process and visualise data
  • Community Built Free Visualisations – many open source visualisations available for free, complete with source code.
  • Q&A – asking questions about data using natural language
  • Advanced Analytics – forecasting, automated insights into to, close integration with Azure ML Services

Power BI Online

With the free Power BI license, any reports created in Power BI Desktop can also be exported to the Power BI Online service. With Power BI Online, you can view your reports online in any browser for free.  Once you have published the report to Power BI service, another step you can take is to ‘Publish to the web’, which generates a URL to the report that can be accessed by anyone for free.

While this is a great feature to showcase demos, share example report formats and allow anyone to interact with the report, this option also means that anyone with the URL can access the report and data.  So, we suggest care should be taken if using this option not to expose any confidential information.  While nifty, this free feature might not be useful for many Power BI users in a private organisation.  Below is an example of a report created by one of our consultants showing data for the Tour De France bike race (click the image to visit the Power BI Online report).

Or you can email you colleague with the Power BI file, so they work on it as well, if you want.

Positives to Power BI Free

  • Free
  • Can explore existing data from many different data sources combining them in one place, e.g. customer details from CRM, combined with accounting details, and sales orders, all within single place location and reporting source
  • The formula language feels very familiar to Excel users
  • Familiar user interface for Microsoft Office Users
  • Integrated in Microsoft technology stack and Azure

Negatives to Power BI Free

  • Not easy to share with large number of colleagues
  • Cannot sign up with certain email addresses e.g. outlook.com, hotmail.com, gmail.com, and others
  • Formula language can appear to be inflexible and unintuitive.
  • Integrated in Microsoft technology stack and Azure
  • Limited support with the free version, large and growing support community, with many online resources

Overall, Power BI Desktop and Online offer a great deal of functionality, all of which you can get started with for free, including some of the more advanced technical features mentioned. With a boatload of features, Power BI Desktop is wonderful value for money, even if there are some drawbacks to sharing reports privately. 

If you’re looking for a little more sharing power and advanced features, you may find what you’re looking for with Power BI Pro, which we will take a look at in our next Ultimate Guide post.

Any questions on Power BI Desktop and Online so far? Let us know down in the comments! 

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