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by Rob Collie

Power BI, Definition #1: An Umbrella Term for all of the Power Tools

Power BI, Definition #1:  An “Umbrella” Term for all of the “Power *” Tools
(Click for Full-Size Version)

An Overdue Treatment

I’ve posted before about Power Pivot vs. Power View and then later I added Power Query and other technologies to the explanation, but I’ve never just straight-on tackled the question of “What is Power BI?”  So let’s get that off the list…

…And clean up my prior visuals while we are at it.  (Can you believe that Power Query doesn’t have an icon/logo yet?  Well, boom – I just gave it one.  You’re welcome, Microsoft – although really it was just from one of the buttons already in PQ.)

Unofficial Definition = “Umbrella Term for the ‘Power *’ Tools”

#1, Power BI is an “umbrella” term that is used to describe all of the various “Power” data tools that Microsoft offers us.  This is NOT the definition that you will typically hear from Microsoft, but colloquially, when someone says “Power BI,” there’s a good chance this is what they mean.

Official Definition = “The Cloud Publish & Manage Service from MS”

But I think Microsoft would say, more officially, that Power BI is their paid cloud service for publishing, sharing, managing, and consuming the results of those tools pictured above.

For instance, Microsoft sales reps today are measured, in part, by their customers’ adoption of precisely that online subscription service.  They are NOT measured by how many of their customers are simply using the “free” desktop tools included in the Power BI “umbrella” term.

So… Why Do You Need a Publish & Manage Service?

Everything you do with Power Pivot and its “Power Cousins” gets saved into a workbook:

Excel Workbooks are the Storage Format for Power Pivot and Power BI

Excel Workbooks are the Storage Format for all of the Power Tools –
So How Do You Share The Workbooks?

Hey, it’s a file!  And email is humanity’s “go-to” method for sharing and publishing files.  So, naturally, that’s where we start.  But…

…Email Sucks as a Delivery Vehicle for Our Awesome Work!

Email is a passable sharing/publishing mechanism for some things, but there are definite drawbacks that become apparent over time:

email delivery of power pivot or power bi workbooks is non ideal

Analogy:  YouTube

I’m going to put on my “grumpy old man hat” (I got it for my 40th birthday this summer!) and take you back to the 1990’s.

Back then, if you wanted to share a video file with someone, it was VERY difficult.  The files were too big for email (usually), but even when you circumvented that obstacle, the person receiving the video had at BEST a 50% chance of being able to view it.  For instance, if the video was produced on a Mac and the viewer only had a PC, they very often had to go track down and install additional software.  Even if it was PC to PC, though, you often lacked the right codec.

So only the most dedicated nerds managed to share video files.  I remember crowding into someone office at Microsoft in the late 90’s to watch The Spirit of Christmas:  Jesus vs. Santa with about five coworkers.  Despite being the underground prequel to the cartoon series South Park, no one outside of technology circles ever saw it.  (And before you ask, no, I am not really a South Park fan, even though I did laugh my ass off at the prequel).

Eventually You Need the Equivalent of YouTube for Your Power Pivot Workbooks

Eventually, You Will Need/Want the Equivalent of YouTube
For Your Power Pivot Workbooks

You see where this is going:  YouTube changed all of that.  No more sending large files.  No more worrying about what the technology installed on the viewers’ desktops.  Video sharing EXPLODED.

Guess what?  Power Pivot / Power BI Workbooks benefit from cloud/server sharing even MORE than video!  Security and hands-free automatic data refresh are NOT things that typically matter for video.  But oh boy, do they matter for reports, dashboards, and data models.

There are few things cooler than uploading a 100 MB workbook and then sending a link to a colleague who can suddenly start interacting with your report/dashboard – clicking slicers etc. – on their iPad, without downloading anything!

Back to the “Official” Definition of Power BI

So, Microsoft wants you to equate “Power BI” with their paid “YouTube for Workbooks” cloud service.  (OK, they would never allow themselves to use a Google property in official communications, but it’s their cloud sharing service that they want you to pay for).  That cloud service is the whole reason why the “Power BI” name even exists.

So is that Power BI service a good thing?  Absolutely, although I am not certain Microsoft is targeting the right crowd with it.  It seems like an awkward fit for large enterprises, which is where MS makes most of its money.  Targeting smaller companies and/or departments within enterprises would yield better results IMO.  (As a side note, PowerPivotPro is not a recognized MS partner/reseller for things like Power BI, because Microsoft’s certifications are still stuck in 2005 and require us to pass tests that are completely irrelevant to today’s landscape.  They will straighten that out eventually.)

Are there alternatives to Power BI?  Absolutely, including installing your own SharePoint servers, but this is a topic for another day.  I’ve been working on a flowchart to help people navigate the transition from email to cloud/server delivery, but it’s not done yet.  Stay tuned.

Fancy Flowchart Preview


Stay Tuned for the FlowChart 🙂

Rob Collie

Rob Collie

One of the original engineering leaders behind Power BI and Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, Rob Collie founded a consulting company in 2013 that is 100% devoted to “the new way forward” made possible by Power BI and its related technologies. Since 2013, PowerPivotPro has rapidly grown to become the leading firm in the industry, pioneering an agile, results-first methodology never before seen in the Business Intelligence space. A sought-after public speaker and author of the #1-selling Power BI book, Rob and his team would like to help you revolutionize your business and your career.

This Post Has 29 Comments
  1. You forgot the all important “Oh, you are using the workbook I emailed on TUESDAY? No, no… you need the one I emailed Wednesday afternoon… Not Wednesday morning…”

  2. Ok,

    I am looking at the power BI offering by MS and the Pivotstream offering.

    They are different in many ways, but both offerings are based on Sharepoint. Now we could agree that SP is a great ‘platform’.

    But, using your YouTube analogy, we are looking for a ‘simple’ way to share our excel apps.

    Pivotstream has made a good effort to simplify/ standardize the landing page. But if one goes 1 or 2 steps further, you get dazzled with all the SP options.

    Would it not be great to have a really simple website with a landing page like Pivotstream with a simple content manager, where we can let Excel do all the magic?

    1. Hey, triple word score for using the name of my former company (PIvotstream, aka PS) so many times in a comment – this will be good for their SEO 🙂

      The simplified portal experience you describe at PS was/is my creation so of course I think it’s a FANTASTIC idea. In fact I also advised MS to mimic it when they were building Power BI – advice that was partially followed but not completely. Perhaps future versions will be more complete.

      Anyone considering PS’s services should ask themselves why Rob Collie would leave such a place. I cannot personally comment on such matters but it’s a fact that many current and former PS customers are not bashful about approaching me to share their experiences – stories that make me sad on one hand but which reinforce that I made a good decision.

      If you’d like to talk to any of those former customers, drop me an email and I will connect you privately.

    2. Our friend over in Australia also offers Excel Power Pivot workbook hosting

      So does Plex Hosted:
      I have no experience with either of those. But you may want to check them out. I am sure there would be other parties offering this service.

      I agree a simple portal would be a good idea. However as Rob states in this post, Microsoft seems to be going after the Large Enterprise crowd and taking on the some of the innovation leader in BI Space (Tableau, Qlikview). I hope that does not come at the expense of forgetting about the large existing Excel user base which IMHO can benefit the most from the new Power* Tools.

      1. Fully agree, also: Qlikview is doing a smart job by offering a free version for single users, so the early adaptors are able to convince their managers. Or small business owners to start.

    1. Let’s say you build a workbook, and some of the data is imported via PQ. Everything’s great. You click Refresh in the Power Pivot window on your desktop, and everything refreshes flawlessly.

      But then you upload it to a SharePoint server. You have heard that SharePoint allows you to schedule workbooks to refresh themselves automatically. But unless that server is a Power BI cloud server from Microsoft, your PQ connections will NOT refresh – the workbook will fail to autorefresh because the PQ engine does not exist on SharePoint servers today (unless, again, those servers are the MS Power BI cloud servers).

      This is a shame, because PQ is *insanely* useful – it’s my second favorite member of the Power BI family (behind PP) but 99% of the time, we cannot recommend it to our clients because it traps them in a place where autorefresh is not possible for them. Even if they currently lack SharePoint, if they are even considering it for the future, I advise them to avoid getting hooked on PQ (unless they are pretty sure they are going with Power BI).

      Hopefully MS will soon release a server-side version of PQ that runs outside of the Power BI cloud service. That would be a glorious development.

      1. Not to add a totally useless +1, but…

        This is HYPER frustrating me lately. The ability to unpivot columns in a few clicks is FREAKING AWESOME at optimizing many power pivot models, especially if they didn’t come from a SQL source (where the unpivot can be done there, with some confusing syntax). Telling clients they can’t USE that power… oh, it hurts, it hurts me so bad.

  3. Thanks for the detailed answer….Sorry for my question but didn’t think Sharepoint on premises…I was thinking Power BI…cloud…
    I couldn’t agree more with you in microsoft’s target market..It is best suited for companies that hasn’t made already big investments in on-premises hardware & software.(SQL,Sharepoint etc)
    I enhance the “insanely” usability as you can combine external sources that isn’t possible with PowerPivot connection (mostly web ) due to transformations needed ( unpivot,pivot,select certain rows ,a lot more) and creation of lookup tables..(you have written about)

    Look forward your FlowChart…

  4. Power Map will not render in the Power-BI-YouTube-for-Workbooks (yet). I’ve produced very interesting interactive maps that I would love to share with others, but I am forced to lose the interactivity and produce the tour as a video and post to the real YouTube.
    It just feels typical that MS puts Power Map “in” the umbrella, but not really “under” the umbrella.

      1. Q&A don’t live in the workbook but takes life from workbook in order to answer questions well & needs specific data modelling..(star schema synonyms,field names,table properties etc – thanks Marco for that). At least before the cloud Power BI optimization settings (phrasing etc)

        Unfortunately you can share the URL only with Power BI users (have Power BI subscription ) and not with invited external users and sharepoint users (at least regarding sharepoint online )

  5. Looking at that first graphic… Wouldn’t Power Model be a better name than Power Pivot? Power Query -> Power Model -> Power View/Map?

  6. Great overview of the Power * landscape. I have often struggled with how all of the pieces fit together, especially the sharing piece. MS should put more muscle behind explaining how you can integrate all of these pieces and share the insights (e.g. Tableau).

  7. Great picture explaining PowerPivot world. Could I paste it here with a slight modification showing an arrow from excel/pivot/charts/grid towards raw data and another towards power pivot!

  8. I’m completely newbie in this word of BI and i’m trying to get my bearings… I have a question that might be completely stupid but i will ask anyway 🙂

    When we are working with power pivot, we can drag and drop fields from the “Pivot Table fields” and we see the information in the way we want(if relationships are working properly ofc :P).
    When i upload my document to power bi, i dont have access to this fields and therefore there is no drag and drop game..

    Is this normal ?

  9. I am trying to figure out the difference between Power BI ( and Excel add-ins (power query/pivot/view). Here are my understandins: ( please correct me if I am wrong)
    Power BI is a cloud based tool and the other three are just add-ons to Excel; they do the same things.

      1. Please to me as well. I’m newbie in this word of BI and needs some understanding relating the Power Map on the Excell 2016 with Power BI tools and sharing.

  10. Young professional with a lot of ideas and not a lot of experience, so sorry if this is an obvious/weird question. To be vague as possible, I work in security so we can’t do any cloud but Power BI seemed like exactly what we needed for reporting based on SharePoint data (I’ve only recently found out more about it’s backend/the rest or the power*s) so I jumped through hoops to get the desktop version for a couple machines here. Issue is, since it’s only the local version we don’t have any type of dashboard or way to keep data updated between reports we make with it. My question is is there any way for the data to run from our SharePoint servers through the power* magic and straight back to a display on the site that stays current?

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