Power BI Primer


Recently, I have been doing a lot of research on the evolution of business intelligence within Microsoft 365 and wanted to do a quick primer for others.  The goal of this primer is not to teach you about creating dashboards or reports or any of the awesome stuff; What I do want to share with you in this primer is some information on the constantly evolving landscape within Microsoft 365 that I myself had.  Admittedly, I’m putting the cart before the horse a little here since it all starts with your data sources and client tools like Excel, but I’m saving that stuff for a later post.

What is Power BI?

I couldn’t start a primer without a really big question first, right?  The term Power BI is used so much that it is easy to feel like it means that all business intelligence technologies are now under that umbrella.  However, I really think Microsoft intends the term Power BI to just mean the cloud based Power BI service.  Simple enough right?  Well, not quite because even when we boil it down to this service, there are currently two experiences available that Microsoft is working to unify.

Dueling Experiences

Power BI for Microsoft 365

This is also referred to as the “current” experience, and you can find out more here.  It is available as an app that you add to any SharePoint Site that integrates with Excel and Excel Services.  More technically, it is what is referred to a Provider-Hosted App (PHA).  Essentially, from a SharePoint site you can launch the app and you are redirected to the provider hosted app with a URL similar to https://sites.powerbi.com/sharepointpages/SPIntegration/PowerBI/pages/PowerBI.html?SPHostUrl=https://domainname.sharepoint.com/sites/bicenter. Which might look something like below.

Power BI For SharePoint App

Power BI For Microsoft 365 App

The first thing the app is doing is rolling up the Excel files from the SharePoint document libraries in your site into a more engaging end user experience.  From here, you can do many things including:

  • Enable a workbook to get a nice preview thumbnail generated from the first sheet in the workbook.
  • Mark a workbook as a featured reports to make them more visible to visitors of the app
  • Allow users to favorite the workbooks
  • Add a workbook to Q&A to allow Natural Language Queries against its data

Of those bullets above, the last one to me is the most exciting because anyone that has done much work with business intelligence knows that by its very nature people are going to want to ask new and different questions of the data.  Take the screen shot below, this was not a report I created but simply a question I asked of data that was in one of the workbooks.

Power BI For SharePoint Natural Language Query

Power BI For SharePoint Natural Language Query

The last few things I wanted to mention about Power BI for Microsoft 365 before moving on, is that from what I’ve seen in a desktop browser the typical experience for viewing reports uses Silverlight.  This applies to both asking questions and when launching a report.  Note that launching a report is still rendering using Excel Services just as if you opened it directly from a document library.  When on mobile, launching a report does switch to HTML5 rendering, but asking questions of the data still appears dependent upon Silverlight at this time.  These are relevant when considering mobile and also lead into the “new” experience.”

Power BI Preview

This new experience is more of a standalone service in that it is not dependent upon a SharePoint site and Excel files being placed in document libraries.  The app resides on the URL https://app.powerbi.com.  Also you can launch it outside of Microsoft 365 and login with your Microsoft 365 account and can get to it from a tickler when you are in Power BI for Microsoft 365.  For more imformation here.  This new experience is HTML5 based so it renders well on many form factors and there are even apps available for iOS and Windows Tablets.

Power BI Preview Dashboard

Power BI Preview Dashboard

My first question with the new preview service was, “Can I take an Excel workbook that I’d worked so hard on and just drop it in?”  The answer is a definite “yes”; you can use the Get Data function to bring in all sorts of data sources including Excel files.  In fact, Excel Files are just one of many possible data sources, a list that is constantly growing.  The list of data sources includes things that you’d expect like Excel, Azure SQL and SQL Server Analysis Services, but it also includes things like GitHub, Google Analytics, Salesforce and many others.  Interestingly, there is also support for a Power BI Designer File which comes from a new client tool that is available called Power BI Designer.  I’ll cover it more in another post about the client tools, but it exists for users who may not have Excel 2013 and still want to create reports in Power BI Preview.

The goal with all the data sources is that Power BI Preview becomes your single view for dashboards across all sources of cloud and on-premises data.  With all the available data sources, you don’t necessarily have to first go through Excel like you do with Power BI for Microsoft 365.  Don’t get me wrong, that experience is still great, but who doesn’t love having more options?

In Power BI Preview, you’ll notice your data sources are shown as Datasets and then you have Reports.  These can currently come from Power View in Excel but not PivotTables or PivotCharts.  I suspect this will change overtime though.  You can also create reports by clicking on a dataset and using the Fields and Filters to compose a report or even by starting with a Natural Language Query and building upon it.

Finally, you have Dashboards where things all really come together.  You can compose these by pinning visualizations from Reports such as Power Views from Excel.  You can even pin the results of a Natural Language Query so that it’s easily viewed by others.

What is Not Power BI?

Okay, now that I’ve provided a little about what Power BI is, I also wanted to share a little about what it isn’t just to make sure there isn’t any confusion.  If you’ve been around earlier versions of SharePoint and done much with business intelligence, you’ve probably heard of a BI Center.  The good news is that this still exists and can be used with or without Power BI for Microsoft 365.  You can find a little comparison information in Compare a BI Center site to Power BI for Microsoft 365 sites.  Ultimately, a BI Center was and still is a special type of site in SharePoint.  You can still store and manage BI content such as data sources and Excel workbooks.   Depending on the user license, there are some behavioral differences, particularly as it relates to work book size when viewed online. See File size limits for workbooks in SharePoint Online for more.  There is also a table in the capabilities section of Power BI for Microsoft 365 FAQ that compares feature differences.

Licensing Questions

Let me go on record stating that I don’t sell Microsoft 365 quote licensing or get into that particular area.  I am a technology guy, after all.  Having said that, licensing has still confused me so I thought I would share some of my thoughts and findings to support them.

First, if you are just going “old school” with your business intelligence offering, I think you can take a purely BI Center approach as mentioned in Compare a BI Center site to Power BI for Microsoft 365 sites you just need to have SharePoint Online (Plan 2).  You won’t get some of the cool stuff that comes with Power BI, and you’ll have some constraints, (see “What is Not Power BI above?”) but you also can save some on costs potentially.

Now if you want Power BI it is an add-on to Plan 2 part of a Power BI for Microsoft 365 offering.  You can find those details here Power BI for Microsoft 365 Service Description.  Within Power BI, just as there are two experiences there are two pricing models (Power BI for Microsoft 365 and Power BI Preview) models but according to Power BI Transition these are being consolidated into one model.


I’m not sure why I always have to end on a summary, it just feels like the right thing to do I guess.  Hopefully I have answered some questions you might have and provided some helpful links to dig into things a little further in terms of what matters to you.  I hope to get into more “fun” topics in upcoming posts including building reports, charts and dashboards using all those Power [Whatever] tools like Power Query, PowerPivot, Power View and Power Map.

Bo GeorgePower BI Primer

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