Difference between Power BI Service and Power BI Report Server

To my surprise, I’ve met many non-tech people and even some from IT who are confused between the two “same same but different” versions of Microsoft Power BI: Power BI Service (cloud version) and Power BI Report Server (on-premise version[1]) .


In this post, I’ll share some tips for non-BI people to identify which version they are using. Then, I’ll provide a holistic comparison of the two versions, hoping to make you more informed of choosing the version that suits your situation best.

From now on, I’ll use “cloud option” and “Power BI Service” interchangeably, and likewise with “on-premise (on-prem) option” and “Power BI Report Server”, as I think, sometimes, it’s intuitive for people to also think in terms of the modern cloud and its old brother on-prem.

TIPS to identify THE OPtions

Summary flowchart: How to distinguish the Power BI versions in web-browser and Microsoft Teams (Image by author)

In the WEB-browser

Tip 1: If you view the Power BI report in a web-browser, and the URL contains “app.powerbi.com“, it’s the cloud version.

If the URL does not contain the aforementioned string, it’s the on-prem one.

Tip 2: Furthermore, you may notice that the toolbar areas highlighted are different in two versions, which gives more hints to tell them apart.

IN Microsoft teams

The URL is hidden in Teams, so the Tip 1 cannot be used directly to distinguish the two versions. In that case, you can click on the active tab as in the screenshot below, then

1. Click the down arrow, and

2. Select “Settings”.

A new window pops up, and if the icon you see on the top left corner is Power BI icon, it’s the cloud version. If the icon is the Website icon, you can use the method with the URL in the Web-browser that I explain earlier to identify which version you are using.

If you put the string “?rc:Toolbar=false” (excluding the “” mark) at the end of the URL of the Power BI Repor Server’s report, you can hide its toolbar.

THE DIFFERENCE

There are many differences between the two versions. However, in this post, I’ll share my personal views on the three most important ones, based on my years of extensive working experience with the 2 options.

THE popularity

The cloud version is absolutely the more popular one. Many people don’t even know the existence of the on-prem version. Even the most wanted Microsoft Certified: Data Analyst Associate certification for Data Analyst using Power BI measures the knowledge of Power BI Service, but not Power BI Report Server.

Needless to say, Microsoft gives much more spotlight to the cloud option, and the on-prem one is somewhat underrated. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the cloud version with its latest and cool features, but the on-prem option sometimes just suits specific needs of users better.

As shown in the summary flowchart below, most of the time, we can use the Power BI Service version. Only when you have Power BI Report Server available in your enterprise environment, you want to save cost, and the features in Power BI Report Server are good enough for your use case (most of the time they are), the on-prem one can be a good fit. I will elaborate more in the next parts.

Summary flowchart: When to identify which version to use? (Image by author)

the features

The cloud version is updated monthly, while its counterpart has the update every 4 months (January, May, and September).

Microsoft has already released a comprehensive document comparing the features of these 2 versions in this link, so please check it out if you’d want more details.

The prominent different features can be “Analyze in Excel”, “Composite models”, “Dashboards”[2], “Real-time streaming”, “Power BI shared datasets”, “Python & R scripts and visuals”, etc. In my opinion, not all of those features are must-haves. In practice, some of them can be replaced by a few steps of workarounds, some should not even be used (e.g. Python & R scripts and visuals), as they aren’t very well supported yet by Microsoft (at the time the this post is written).

Another important feature neglected in the link above is the support for data sources. In this regard, the cloud version is still the winner, in terms of the number of connectors, the storage mode (Import, Direct Query, Dual, or Live connection), and the (schedule) refresh enablement for those connectors. For more details, please refer to Power BI data sources in Power BI Service, and Power BI data sources in Power BI Report Server.

Furthermore, Power BI Report Server can host the traditional Paginated reports (SSRS), which Power BI Severice can ofter only through Premium licenses[3]. So, if your enterprise has needs for SSRS, Power BI Report Server can be a good consideration.

As you may wonder, the cloud version is always the winner in terms of features (except for the Paginated report), so, why on earth do we care about the on-prem one? The two reasons that I can think of are: security, and the cost.

  • Security: This is an important factor when the organization hesitates to put things on cloud, but still wants to use Power BI to publish and view nice and interactive reports. They can manage and maintain the Report Sever on their own premises and publish their Power BI reports there.
  • Cost: In some cases, the cost can be the selling point for the on-prem version (more details are discussed below).

the COST

Summary table: Costs of the two versions (Image by author)

You can use the cloud version and enjoy its latest and cool features for free if it’s only for personal use, or you want to share your reports with the world[4].

But if you want to share the reports securely, the license required is called Pro license, and it costs $10/user/month[5]. It’s worth mentioning that the viewers of your reports also have to purchase the Pro licenses. So, the cost can add up quickly. The only good thing about the cloud version is that you don’t have to pay any cost to start using it.

Contrastingly, the on-prem option has different business models, where you don’t have to pay for any extra viewers or report developers[6], but the initial cost can be really expensive. Specifically, your company has to purchase SQL Server Enterprise with active Software Assurance, or Power BI Premium to deploy the Power BI Report Server.

With the summary table above, you can do some quick calculations to find out the most economical one. In reality, many companies already purchased the SQL server for their database needs, and the Power BI Report Server is just an extra benefit. In that case, after subtracting the Fixed cost, we have a “free” Power BI Report Server that can be a stand alone system, or be used along with the PBI S version.

That being said, if the organization happens to have 2 versions available, it not only benefits from more features of the cloud option, but can also save costs and adapts better to security requirements from the on-prem option. You can always start with the Power BI Report Server version, share the report with your colleagues “for free”. At some point in the future, if you really need some features that you can’t avoid Power BI Service, and you can’t find any workaround, you may switch easily to Power BI Service and publish it there without having to recreate the report [7].

In a nutshell, I have shared some tips of how to recognize which version of Power BI you are viewing, and some points for your consideration to decide which version suits your needs the most. If you have any comments, feel free to raise your voice below.


[1] The on-prem Power BI Report Server can be either a physical server on the organization’s premises, or a server deployed in an Azure Virtual Machine (hosted cloud).

[2] In Power BI world, dashboards and reports are two totally different things.

[3] Microsoft offers other options as well. They are Power BI Premium per capacity, which costs your organization a minimum of $60,000 per year, or the brand new Power BI Premium per user, as a low-price access to all the premium Power BI features. To make the full shopping list, there is also Power BI Embedded option, which works a bit differently and requires more web-development experience.

For me and other Power BI fans, these options are super wonderful and can serve many specific needs perfectly. But I tend to ignore them in the discussion with non-BI people, unless it’s really necessary. The Microsoft’s licensing of these options is quite complex, let alone the differences and the overlaps between their features.

[4] You can create reports and share them with the world (sometimes unintentionally) through the “Publish to Web” feature of Power BI. It can be scary when you have an unintentional data leakage. Your organization’s admin should disable this feature by default, unless you don’t mind making your organization’s information public to the world.
It’s a common misconception that nobody can open their “Published to Web” reports if they don’t give the outsiders the link. In fact, if you google: site:app.powerbi.com, you will find these “Published to Web” reports. Please make sure that your organization’s reports are not unconsciously there in that Google result list. At the time of writing this post, there are 44,000 results in 0,26 seconds in my search. Approximately one year ago, I did a similar search, and it was 30,000 results. So the number is still increasing! I hope that it’s only for a good reason!

[5] The license cost can vary based on your type of contract and countries. You can also try a free trial for 60 days.
[6] It’s not true anymore that the report devlopers need Pro licenses to publish on the on-prem version.
[7] PBI Report Report Server and Power BI Service have separate tools to develop reports. The easiest way, in my opinion, is to click the “Download” icon that you can find on the top right corner on the toolbar of both versions.

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