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Power BI Licencing Demystified

Well, that’s a pretty ambitious title.

Power BI is currently an add-on to Office 365 and requires SharePoint Online in order to work. In January 2015, a new version of the Power BI Service was announced that removes the dependency on SharePoint Online, but will continue to leverage it if it is available. At the same time, a complete overhaul to the licensing model was announced. The licensing changes were widely welcomed, but they do raise a number of questions as to what license will be required when. The new version of the dashboard will be launched in the second half of 2015, so for now, we are still dealing with the original licencing model. Update – Power BI for Office 365 pricing has been updated to reflect the new model pricing and is available now (May 2015)

Power BI v1 Licensing

Power BI v1 is an add-on to SharePoint Online in Office 365 that among other things, adds the ability for Excel Online to work with data models larger than 30 MB (originally this limit was 10 MB) up to 250 MB, and to be able to automatically update data models stored in Excel from cloud based data sources, or from on-premises data through the Data Management Gateway. In order to take advantage of this capability, the end user needs a Power BI license, and this license carried a cost of approximately $20/user/month. I have seen it reported in many places that the cost of Power BI was $40/user/month. Indeed, there was a Power BI SKU that cost approximately this much (it’s referred to as Standalone), but this SKU also included a license for SharePoint Online, so really, the licenses were one and the same. You either have a license for Power BI or you don’t. Details of the Power BI for Office 365 are here, and they have already been updated to reflect the new pricing.

If you found yourself in an organization that had some users with licenses, and some without, you may have discovered some interesting behaviour. The Power BI service always leverages workbooks stored in SharePoint document libraries. These workbooks are available to all Office 365 users, whether or not they have a license. Users without a license can’t use the mobile client, Power Q&A, the gallery view or schedule data refreshes, but they certainly can open the workbook and interact with it. Well, they can until they hit the data size limit. Beyond 30 MB, the unlicensed users will receive a message indicating that their license is insufficient to view that file in a browser. However they can always download a copy and work with it that way.

This is an important distinction to note, because in this scenario, a licensed user can Power BI enable a workbook and schedule a daily data refresh. Once that data is refreshed, the unlicensed user gains the benefit from the refresh, and can interact with the workbook in a browser if it is smaller than 30 MB, or in the Excel client if it is larger.

Power BI v2 Licensing

When Power BI v2 (or Power BI Dashboards) was announced in January 2015, a new freemium pricing model was introduced. Power BI was available in a standalone fashion (no longer shackled to SharePoint Online), and could be had for either free, or for $9.99/user/month for the Pro edition. The detail and differences for the two editions can be found here. In addition, because Power BI will also continue to work with SharePoint Online, there will also be a SKU for the “Standalone” version at $17.99/user/month. I find the term “standalone” to be highly confusing here because this is in fact a license that contains a SharePoint Online licence – pretty much the opposite of standalone, but I digress. The comparisons leave a number of unanswered questions, which I hope to answer here.

One of the new concepts introduced with this new model is the Data capacity limit. This limit bears explanation. It is a per-user limit and it is cumulative. Free users are allocated 1 GB and Pro users are allocated 10 GB. Previously, the only limit was per-model (file by file), and that limit was 250 MB, and there was no total capacity limit per user. This is a significant difference.

Another thing worth pointing out here is that the 250 MB model size limit still exists. As with the Office 365 service, no single model can be larger than 250 MB.

What do you do if your model is larger than 250 MB? This new version of Power BI will allow connections to on-premises data. At the moment, on-premises connections are restricted to SSAS tabular models only through the SSAS connector, but more are coming. On-premises data connections don’t count toward any of the capacity limits. However, on-prem connections will require a Pro edition license.

The per-user capacity limits are cumulative, which is simple enough to understand for one given user. A user with a free license could have 4 x 250 MB models and reach their limit. A Pro user would need to have 40 of the same model to reach their limit. However, what happens when a user shares a dashboard with another user? Since it is really just the connection that is being shared, and the models are still being created per-user, the consuming user will need to utilize their own storage, and therefore it will be counted against their limit. If I share my 250 MB model with you, it will count against your total capacity limit.

What happens when a Pro user shares content with a free user? There are two possible outcomes – it will either work, or not. If the data model utilizes any of the Pro only features, the free user will not be able to consume it. For example, if the workbook has been scheduled to receive updates more than once per day, receives data from on-premises sources (SSAS Connector, Data Management Gateway) or utilizes any Pro only features, the consuming user will not be able to access it.

There are still a few unanswered questions with this new model, and as they are addressed, I’ll try to keep this post up to date.


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Hi John, thank you for great summary. I have a question regarding model sharing – if I share my model (say 100MB) with another 100 colleagues, does it mean that is is physically replicated and processed for every single one of them? This sounds little weird, isn’t there anything like per-organisation model?


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