At the Microsoft Data Insight Summit on 22nd March 2016, Microsoft announced that Power BI had 5 million registered users. This is a pretty impressive milestone considering its relative recency to the market and maturity.
However, Microsoft are far more ambitious than 5 million users – Microsoft won’t be happy until they “bring big data analytics to a billion people.” So, how can they significantly increase their user base and market share against their competition?
One strategy is to continue broadening the offering with more features, innovations, connections in a hope to tempt more users to the platform through sheer breadth. (Arguably their strategy to date). Another is to focus on depth and start to shore up, dare I say ‘finish’ some of the features, innovations and connectivity they have already released. A third strategy, and by no means a cop-out, or poor relation, is to fall back on their tried and tested method of relying on their extensive and established community of developers, ISVs and Partners to drive adoption through extensibility, application and service development. Power BI Embedded is at the heart of this third strategy.
Despite some frustrations, I am a fan of Power BI. I love the journey it has taken and the direction it is going but when you start to use it in anger you do find (arguably several) areas where it falls short – these areas, I have no doubt will be addressed in time but as a Partner at the forefront that focuses on Microsoft Data Analytics at its core, we are a little bruised and battered from navigating our way around shortcomings, through pitfalls and the need to invent workarounds, constrained by the SaaS model.
One of these shortcomings and one of the most common requested features by our customers was to expose Power BI to external users such as customers and partners. Whilst this was technically possible through various guises, licencing, costs and agreements were not clear therefore unforeseen costs and/or non-compliance always loomed.
For anyone, even remotely close to Power BI, the arrival of external access was an easy prediction. However, I will admit, I thought Microsoft would implement it differently. As the Power BI Pro service is linked to Active Directory and SharePoint Online, I speculated that external access would be via SharePoint Online External Users. Technically, this is a seemingly straightforward mechanism for exposing Power BI to external users but possibly complicates licencing as we are no longer limited to SharePoint content what with the mash-up capabilities Power BI affords.
Instead, Microsoft have delivered Power BI Embedded. Power BI Embedded is specifically targeted at these external access use cases. In fact, it’s exclusively for external access – you are prohibited from developing applications and solutions that utilise Power BI Embedded for internal consumption. Typical scenarios include the following:
- Embed interactive reports (authored in Power BI Desktop) within your own customer facing applications
- Use the Power BI Visualisation Framework to create custom visualisations thus extending Power BI
- Provide up-to-date, real-time interactive dashboard and reporting to customers through the Power BI Embedded Service framework
Power BI Embedded is an Azure Service. This is an important point. It is not an additional, broadening feature of the Power BI Service as we know it – it’s a distinct offering that falls under the Azure umbrella, decoupled from the Power BI Service.
Licencing and costs
This decoupling allows Microsoft to control and modify two key elements that made everything tricky for external access under the existing Power BI service. The Authentication method is different (users do not need to be part of AD. Your custom application utilises Application Authentication Tokens) and therefore the licencing model can be (and is) completely different.
Licencing is not on a per user per month basis. It’s on a per render basis. What’s a render? A render is a visual element that results in a query to the service. The point to stress here is “..that results in a query to the service”. Power BI Embedded utilises caching so if an embedded a report contains half a dozen data visualisations you will not automatically incur half a dozen renders each time the report is viewed. If the service can obtain the visualisation details from cache then you avoid incurring a render. Following the initial render, a filter, for example, is likely to incur an additional render as that will, certainly initially, result an additional query to the service.
As a Power BI Embedded Service owner you are able to control the extent to which users can drive new queries to minimise and limit costs but it remains to be seen how much control this provides. Accurate prediction of render cost is likely to be extremely difficult until your solution is active and monitored.
At the time of writing (April 2016), Power BI Embedded is in preview and free until 1st May 2016. Beyond this, there are two pricing tiers. A Freemium model, allowing up to 1,000 renders per month and a Standard model that is charged at £1.5273 per 1,000 renders.
During the preview, connectivity is limited. There’s no indication of what will become available as it moves to General Availability and beyond but as it stands there are two modes, Direct Query and Cached:
Direct Query mode supports connections to cloud services only including:
- SQL Azure DW
- SQL Azure
- Spark on HD Insight
Datasets can be loaded into Power BI Embedded service but they become static datasets. You cannot refresh cached data once it has been loaded into the service. Anything that relies on either the Personal or Enterprise Gateway cannot be kept up-to-date for use with Power BI Embedded (yet?). This rules out on premise and hybrid (for example utilising IaaS) scenarios.
There is no indication as to the maximum size of the cached model the service will support. The assumption is this will match that of the Power BI Service, currently 250MB.
- Report and Dashboard rendering is through an IFRAME.
- Power BI Embedded APIs are based on REST
- Rendering is [currently] limited to interactive reports therefore you cannot expose ad-hoc drag drop style reporting over your dataset using Power BI Embedded
- The Power BI Embedded Service is currently only available in the South Central US Region
Power BI Embedded is a great strategy for customers, partners and of course Microsoft; it will likely drive additional adoption of the Power BI Service pushing Power BI on past the current 5 million user base. The Power BI Service will drive external access (and therefore Power BI Embedded) and Power BI Embedded will drive internal usage (The Power BI Service). One billion users anyone ?!