Ian Littlejohn

Power BI is Microsoft’s business intelligence product suite, giving users the ability to connect to various data sources and create interactive reports that give insight into the underlying data.  

Power BI was initially conceptualized in late 2010 and made available under the codename “Project Crescent” in the following year.  The platform was rebranded “Power BI” (BI standing for Business Intelligence) in 2013.  Initially, the product was based on Excel’s Power Query, Power Pivot and Power View add-ins.  

Today, Power BI is a suite of software apps and services for businesses to get to grips with what their data is saying. Those familiar with Excel will still find elements of Power BI to be familiar ground, but Power BI now offers an analysis and visualization solution that goes far beyond what Excel is capable of doing. The Power BI product suite consists of the following elements:

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Let’s delve into some of these elements in a bit more detail to understand the role each part plays. 

Power BI Desktop

As the name suggests, Power BI Desktop is available for the desktop PC. This software is not currently available for Mac. The software is free but does have some minimum hardware & software requirements

Screenshot showing Power BI Desktop. Image from Microsoft’s Power BI Website

The Power BI Desktop software allows a user to connect to various types of data. It has built-in connectors to a great number of data sources. These include:

A few of the connector options available in Power BI Desktop

In broad terms, the process of using Power BI Desktop to perform data analysis is:

  1. Build a data model by connecting to one or more data sources, and create the relationships between these sources where appropriate. 
  2. Enrich this data with new calculated columns and measures (using Power BI’s built-in formula language called Data Analysis Expressions or DAX).  
  3. Build interactive reports using a variety of visualizations, tables, Pivot Tables, KPIs and other elements.  
  4. Optionally, combine elements of various reports into interactive dashboards.  
  5. Share the output with colleagues and/or customers.

The end result is an interactive report where a user can click on elements within the report to filter through the data and focus on information relevant to them. This makes the report come to life and deliver value for a wide range of needs. 

Power BI reports are interactive, allowing users to click on elements to filter and drill down. Image from Microsoft’s Power BI Blog

Power BI Service

The Power BI Service is an online (cloud-based) space for storing components of Power BI reports. It is also possible to actually build reports and dashboards in the online Power BI Service, albeit with limited functionality compared to using the Power BI Desktop service. 

Image from Microsoft’s Power BI website.

When a user connects to the Power BI Service, they are presented with their workspaces. “My Workspaces” is typically used as a personal “scratch patch” for personal work. 

Then there is the “Workspaces” area, where a user can create any number of workspaces dedicated to specific projects or areas, as their needs dictate. Any workspaces that are shared with the user will also be shown here. 

Within each workspace, there are five sections:

Power BI Mobile Apps

For many users, it is critical to be able to view reports and dashboards via a mobile device. Power BI has this covered with Power BI Mobile Apps. The Power BI Mobile App is available on devices powered by Android, iOS & Microsoft. With the appropriate credentials, the user can log into the Power BI service account and interact with the reports, dashboards and other elements that are available. 

Using the Power BI App, users are able to browse the Power BI service and view reports & dashboards on their mobile devices. Image from Microsoft’s Power BI Website

Power BI Report Server

In certain cases, businesses may not wish to share data to the cloud-based Power BI Service, but may still want to share reports. In such cases, the Power BI Report Server is required as a repository for the reports and essentially takes the place of the Power BI Service behind a corporate firewall. The Power BI Report Server is part of Power BI Premium which is discussed in more detail in the section about licensing. 

Power BI Report server deployment in a typical corporate environment. Users outside the firewall require security credentials to access Power BI reports & dashboards. 


One of the major considerations when choosing a BI tool is the cost of implementation and licensing. Power BI licensing is considered affordable compared to many competing products in the market, particularly for smaller businesses that typically don’t require a Power BI Premium license. 

Power BI Pro LicensePower BI Premium License
Choose this option if you need self-service BI. Power BI Pro provides:Self-service and modern BI in the cloudCollaboration, publishing, sharing, and ad-hoc analysisFully managed by MicrosoftChoose this option if you need advanced analytics, big data support, and on-premises and cloud reporting?  Power BI Premium providesEnterprise BI, big data analytics, cloud and on-premises reportingAdvanced administration and deployment controlsDedicated cloud compute and storage resourcesAllows any user to consume Power BI content
$9.99 per user per month$4,995 per month per dedicated cloud compute and storage resource with an annual subscription

For a comprehensive & up-to-date breakdown of Power BI’s costs and licensing, please consult the Power BI documentation

But isn’t Excel good enough? 

This is a common retort when users realize the cost of a dedicated BI solution. For many companies, the first tool users turn to for BI is Microsoft Excel. Excel’s impressive power & flexibility means it can be used to do a fair degree of data analysis and visualization. But Excel is not a BI tool. Excel has some serious limitations when it comes to BI, including:

It is common that as these limitations become more problematic, users start looking for a dedicated, full-featured BI tool. 

Why choose Power BI?

So far, we’ve learned a lot about the Power BI world. But if we consider why users might select Power BI, the following list may provide the answer:

Power (BI) to the people

Power BI has evolved over the past decade from a limited product set to a fully-fledged data analysis and visualization tool. Its strength is that it allows users to build powerful data reports without the need for hardcore data science skills.  But equally, for those with more sophisticated skills, it can provide an effective space to explore more complex analysis with DAX, R, Python and advanced machine learning.  

With the ubiquity of Microsoft’s Office tools, many users will be partially familiar with the interface which reduces the time users take to become proficient users.  Additionally, the tool integrates into the overall Microsoft product portfolio including popular products like Azure, SQL & Excel. 

Power BI competes effectively with the best business intelligence tools on the market. Power BI (along with the broader Microsoft Ecosystem) has evolved to the point of having no serious weaknesses and a number of outstanding features and this goes to explain the growth of the product in the market. This means that for anyone who wishes to learn a marketable skill, studying Power BI is an excellent place to start. A quick search on any jobs portal for Power BI developers will underscore this statement.  Udemy has a wide range of courses covering Power BI catering for beginners to experts.  If you’re looking for topics to upskill in, you could do a lot worse than studying Power BI.

Page Last Updated: October 2020

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