Having just been re-affirmed by Gartner as a leader in Data Management Solutions for Analytics, Microsoft’s intelligence visualisation offering, Power BI, continues to make leaps in the BI market. One of its strengths against competition like Tableau is the low-cost threshold to get started (with Tableau’s lowest tier starting at $35 after a 14-day trial). Power BI comes in two licensing tiers: Free and Pro with an additional Enterprise option called Premium (more on this later) though these tiers and their benefits aren’t always clear, especially as the platform is evolving so rapidly.

Rate of Change

With regular, monthly updates to the Power BI desktop application and the platform itself I find myself coming across conflicting licensing information from even a month prior. This agile evolution is great for users, with Microsoft often implementing features most requested by the community. The drawback being that online help more than a few months old is often no longer relevant and often misleading.

Microsoft’s documentation and pricing page provide a good outline of what you can expect at each tier but lacks details on specific features. Most of the differences between Free and Pro centre around the sharing of content. Free users can’t access content in shared Workspaces* or create them. Pro is also required for email subscriptions. Core aspects like what data sources you can use, setting data alerts and export mediums are the same across all license options which won’t hamper your ability to take Power BI for a test drive. Whereas even dataset refreshes are also equally set for both Free and Pro (at 8 per day), only increasing to unrestricted when you attach a Premium license.

*Free users can access content in shared workspaces backed by Premium Capacity.

A Simple Approach

A simplified illustration of the key features and abilities of each tier is shown. This highlights the focus Microsoft has placed on sharing and collaboration within their paid, Pro tier.


Power BI Premium is not the “Third Tier”

There are some misconceptions that Power BI Premium is another level of licensing, meaning each user would be a Free user, Pro or Premium when in fact Premium is an extension of Pro and provides a more Enterprise focussed offering which also benefits an organisation’s free users as well. Think of it like Economy, First and owning the plane. Premium also isn’t licensed by user like Free and Pro but by Capacity with 5 capacity options (SKUs) now available. (P1 – P5)

Premium allows your organisation to essentially silo workspaces on dedicated resources, providing you with better performance. This is described as Premium Capacity and is denoted by a Diamond next to the workspace.

Because of this separation, you will no longer be restricted to 8 refreshes of datasets per day. Premium also allows larger datasets to be uploaded, scaling up to 10GB in size with the P3 SKU.

Another feature of Premium licensing that has only just been announced is the ability to upload paginated reports from SQL Server Reporting Services, a corner stone of traditional Business Intelligence within many organisations.

Your free tier users will also benefit from being able to access shared workspaces that are backed by Premium Capacity without additional license costs.

This lays out a rich offering to suit many organisations, enabling their power users while not burdening them with licensing costs for casual data consumers.

On Premises Power BI

A key benefit of Power BI Premium is the on-premises offering of Power BI. This sits alongside Reporting Services as a web interface-based application giving you a platform to publish Power BI reports and datasets within your own organisation. It’s not as feature rich as the Power BI service but provides a good starting platform for cloud engagement.

What’s Best for me?

Microsoft has really focused on the needs of their customers with Power BI. You won’t need to commit to high licensing costs before you know what you need. Get a feel for the service with Power BI desktop, pick up a few Pro licenses to enable your power users to start creating and sharing content then expand as needed. If you’re a large organisation or working with significant datasets, consider the premium capacity.

There are other ways to expand and improve performance with Power BI without moving to Premium though. Let Azure Analysis Services handle your data model and you now have a single version of the truth with a significant performance and capacity gain compared to models built into individual Power BI reports which encourage data silos across your organisation. You also have the capability to build your Analysis Services model from an existing Power BI report model making the transition simpler.

Community Resources

Jason Thomas @sqlJason has put together a great Power BI report to help forecast licensing costs  across all of the available options and help you find the sweet spot for your business. This is a more in-depth approach compared to the calculator provided by Microsoft and it’s a nice demo of Power BI to boot.



Gartner recognizes Microsoft as a leader in Analytics and BI platforms for 11 consecutive years – https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/gartner-recognizes-microsoft-as-a-leader-in-analytics-and-bi-platforms-for-11-consecutive-years/

Power BI Free vs Pro – https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/power-bi/service-free-vs-pro

Microsoft Power BI Pricing – https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/

Power BI Premium P4 & P5 Announced – https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/power-bi-service-and-mobile-february-2018-feature-summary/#P4-and-P5-on-Premium

Jason Thomas’ Licensing Forecaster – http://sqljason.com/2018/03/power-bi-licensing-cost-forecast-guide.html

Power BI Pricing Calculator – https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/calculator/