…that is the question.
Heck, never mind PowerBI…I’ve only recently started using PowerPivot and PowerQuery. (Not because I’m a slow adopter mind, but rather because the places I’ve been working have been slow adopters.) And yet here I am considering waging war on a new front entirely. Will PowerBI let me make considerable further gains without imposing considerable future cost to my organization’s long-term budget? Or can a large part of what PowerBI offers be achieved at much lower cost using my modern version of Excel, in conjunction with models and dashboards being built by my colleagues using the SQL Server stack – technology we already own?
On that first point, I found Matt Allington’s post Which To Use – PowerBI Or Excel? immensely helpful. On that second point, being a purely Excel guy, I’ve never learned much more about SQL Server other than how to write TQSL queries to get the data I need into a PivotTable. I’ve often heard other MS SQL Server terms such as SSRS, SSAS, and SSIS bandied around by IT types, but they have never really meant anything much to me, and so have always gone over my head. I’m just an Excel guy, after all. So here I come along talking about this thing called PowerBI that can be used to easily share data and insights, and my colleague doing stuff in the SQL stack says “Hmm…sounds awfully like this SSRS/SSAS/SSIS thing that I’m using. Compared to SSRS/SSAS/SSIS, what exactly *is* PowerBI?”
Not being an expert in either product, I couldn’t answer. So I did the next best thing: got the boss to pay for getting it certified on our IT system, and then got it installed on all my unit’s PCs, so that she could find out, and then explain it to me. It took my colleague just 5 minutes to understand what PowerBI is…or in her words:
OMG. I know what this PowerBI thing is. It’s easy.
So there’s your answer: PowerBI is much easier and quicker than developing in the SQL Server stack. But of course, while you can easily develop reports using the completely free client tool (i.e. PowerBI Desktop), you’ve still got to share those reports with end users. So what does that cost? $9.99 per user per month, regardless whether that user is a Rob Collie/Matt Allington type, or the cleaner (and I’m not talking about Harvey Keitel here). Yup, everybody has to have the pro license in order to consume shared reports, regardless of whether they are star developers, or occasional peekers.
That $9.99 per user per month is incredible value if you’re providing dashboards with the kind of people like us: Folk who put the ‘intelligence’ in Business Intelligence’. But that is pretty expensive across a whole bunch of non-self-service BI types, who only want to look at things occasionally that are already filtered to show only what is relevant to them. And who perhaps only glance at a handful of reports, a handful of times per year. So it’s hard to justify an organisational roll-out at great cost of a promising new technology. Currently, I can produce and distribute on-demand static reports for these folk for free, using Excel, VBA, and Outlook. When you don’t intend to click on filters, a PDF will work just fine.
This left me puzzled as to how to justify a much easier development tool to the bean counters. Quite coincidentally, yesterday MS announced the release of their PowerBI Premium plan. I thought this might help the business case for our organisation, but unfortunately it offers even worse value for mid-sized organisations than the $9.99-per-month flat rate that I’ll already struggle to get across the line with. Under the premium plan, you still pay that the $9.99-per-month flat rate for each developer, as this gives them the pro version of PowerBI that they need to create shareable reports. But in addition you also effectively buy a lump of capacity on a reporting server (either on premise or in the cloud) big enough to handle the load from servicing the demands of the folk actually consuming these reports. But those lumps are pretty big: they come in $60,000-per-year clumps. Yikes!
You can take a look at the pricing via Microsofts online calculator here. Here’s a cut-down view of how it looks:
Let’s look at the default view shown in the calculator above: An organisation of 5000 users, 20% of which are pro, 35% ‘Frequent’, and the remaining 45% ‘Occasional’. MS estimate the number of nodes you’d consume given this mix is 3, at $4,995/Node/Month. When you do the math, 45% of that $25k total is due to the Pro User licesces, and the remaining 55% is effictively the cost of sharing the reports with the wider organisation.
The bottom line here is that:
- Premium is an add-on to PowerBI Pro.You still need pro licences for your developers.
- Setting aside performance benefits, Premium is effectively the cost of sharing your reports with users without Pro licences.
- The break-even point between the old plan and this enterprise plan under Microsoft’s modelling is 625 users.
- You are not licensed per user, but for capacity. So as guavaq says over at the powerbi community site, if your users and data sets do not require a lot of compute power, you could potentially have a large userbase on the base level hardware (BUT IT ALL DEPENDS on your workloads and users). In other words, that break-even point above is only a very rough guestimate.
I agree with Matt Allington’s excellent post-mortum of this pricing announcement that while this might offer better value for very large customers, it’s completely unaffordable for medium-sized organisations. The middle guy is left out in the cold.
So how do MS work out the number of nodes you’re likely to need, given your Total User count and the split between user types? I did a bit of reverse engineering to determine that Microsoft’s calculator is based on:
- 1 node for every 1000 pro users
- 1 node for every 1430 Frequent users
- 1 nodes for every 3030 Occasional users
Note the disclaimer from MS below the calculator: This calculator provides a rough and conservative estimate based on simple usage logic. Actual needs to support a given workload could significantly vary based on data models, data volumes, number of queries and their complexities, refresh rates, usage distribution and pattern changes over time, and other factors. This estimate should be regarded only as guidance and is not providing any guarantee of performance.
With these node calculations in hand, I rolled my own calculator, using Excel. Try it out in the web app below. (Orange cells are input cells).
So will we proceed down the PowerBI path? Maybe. But I’m tempted to stick with my current ‘old-school’ approach of building Dashboards in Excel, and then using VBA to automatically filter them, PDF them, and email them to the cleaners. Rather than being taken to the cleaners, courtesy of Microsoft’s licensing.