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What is Power BI? - Beginner's Guide to Power BI

Learn about the origins and development of this revolutionary business intelligence tool. Discover why industries across the globe rely on Power BI to visualize their data and inform their decision-making.
Updated Dec 2023  · 12 min read

In 2021, the global datasphere held around 80 zettabytes of data. If trends continue as they are, by 2025, that number will nearly double. 

In today's rapidly evolving digital landscape, the ability to harness and interpret this vast amount of data is not just a competitive advantage—it's a necessity. Businesses and organizations are increasingly relying on data visualization and business intelligence tools to make sense of complex datasets, transforming raw numbers into actionable insights. 

Power BI, Microsoft’s premier business intelligence and visualization tool, stands at the forefront of this revolution. This cloud-based suite of apps, software, and connectors not only aggregates and contextualizes raw business data but also converts it into interactive visual dashboards.

With more than 250,000 organizations, including 97 percent of Fortune 500 companies, depending on Power BI, it's evident that this tool is playing an instrumental role in how we understand and utilize data.

A Brief History of Power BI

Power BI began like many great inventions do, as a top-secret project with a cool code name! It started in 2006 as the brainchild of Thierry D’hers and Amir Netz from Microsoft’s SQL Server Reporting Services Team. At the time, it was a classified project with the code name “Gemini.”

Project Gemini harnessed the power of Microsoft’s SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and transformed it into an in-memory storage engine.

Gemini debuted in 2009 under the name “PowerPivot,” which was a free Excel extension. However, it remained more or less undiscovered by the data science community until Microsoft PowerPivot expert Rob Collie blogged about it to Excel users. 

Then, the company added Data Explorer (later renamed “Power Query”) to its menu of Excel add-ins. Unfortunately, even though PowerPivot and Power Query were widely accessible and wildly popular, emailing massive Excel files proved to be a problem. In addition, there was no way to schedule data refreshes. 

In 2015, Microsoft paired the two add-ins and renamed the business intelligence tool “Power BI.” Even before the application hit the virtual shelves, it garnered enough excitement that over 500,000 unique users signed on to test and help design the revolutionary new product. Then, just months later, Power BI went public. 

The rest, they say, is history. But it’s also the future. 

The project went on to win multiple People’s Choice awards and 2018’s PUG Data Visualization Shootout award. Eventually, the overwhelming majority of business leaders wouldn’t dream of making strategic decisions without the insights provided by Power BI.

What is Power BI?

At its highest level, Power BI enables organizations to pull raw data from numerous cloud-based (SaaS) systems and transform it into actionable data using a powerful, interactive, and easy-to-use user interface (UI). In addition, the platform isolates what’s essential to provide invaluable insights into the metrics individual users need.

Top Features

Power BI is feature-rich and agile, making it one of the best BI tools on the market. Its most popular features include:

  • Direct connectivity to Excel and easily integrates with other Microsoft products
  • Ability to compress data and extract insight from large datasets – up to 100 million rows as opposed to just over 1 million for Excel.
  • Customizability using R and Python
  • Enabling users to build interactive maps
  • Using Power Query to import, filter and translate data
  • Availability of the mobile app in all versions
  • Enabling users to re-use datasets across multiple platforms and reports (Pro and Premium versions) 
  • An adaptive and friendly user experience.  Through its active and dynamic online community, Microsoft listens to user input and adapts Power BI accordingly with monthly updates.
  • Power BI also gets its data from OneLake, allowing you to connect to your data stored in OneLake to Power BI. 

Why Power BI is Different

Business leaders have multiple business intelligence tools to choose from, so why do 97 percent of them use Power BI? Of course, Power BI provides reports. In fact, with just a few clicks, any user can generate dynamic reports.  But, it also features data discovery, data transformation, and perhaps most importantly, data modeling.

The simple UI lets users create and visualize reports via a centralized mobile or desktop dashboard and, because Power BI is SaaS, there are no hardware costs or ongoing upgrade costs. Power BI is scalable and portable and its upgrades are automatic. 

Finally, for businesses looking to integrate machine learning tools into their workplace, it gives users access to a catalog of pre-trained but customizable machine learning models. These machine learning algorithms produce real-time results and actionable insights. 

Power BI vs Excel

As we know, Power BI's roots were as an Excel add-in, but today it stands on its own. Those who are uninitiated to Power BI might wonder why Microsoft offers two seemingly competitive data analysis applications. Still, when you dig a little deeper, it’s clear that the two applications are very different. Below is a comparison of strengths and weaknesses:

Excel Strengths

  • Fast calculations. You can’t beat Excel’s speed and ease in making calculations, operations, and creating formulas. 
  • Multiple uses. Excel is not just a data science application. Organizations use Excel in accounting, human resources, operations management, and of course, business analysis. Excel tasks include data entry and scraping data from a website without switching apps.
  • Wide variety of templates. While the application is fully customizable, there are several included templates, many of which require no previous Excel training.
  • Great for creating tabular reports. Excel provides a structured way to present data in rows and columns, making it ideal for generating detailed reports.
  • Advanced calculation tables. Excel allows users to create complex personalized calculation tables.

Excel Weaknesses

  • Collaboration is awkward. To collaborate in Excel, a file needs to be saved in the cloud or manually shared.
  • Data limits. Excel is limited to 1 million rows of data.

Power BI Strengths

  • Assortment of visualizations. Power BI’s visualizations are interactive, intuitive, and gorgeous! It features drop-and-drag functionality, letting even relatively new users modify the looks of a report. Users can also apply filters and interact directly with the app. Administrators can purchase and download custom visuals from Microsoft Marketplace. Options include maps, charts, graphs, KPIs, R script visuals, etc.
  • Powerful collaboration. Power BI lets users collaborate in real-time, and with Power BI Service, multiple people can work on the same file at the same time.
  • Connectivity. Power BI connects to multiple data sources, including Excel, SQL Server databases, Google Analytics, social media analytics, Azure sources, cloud-based sources, etc. Power BI can also access multiple Big Data sources.
  • Excel integration. Users can upload and view Power BI data in Excel; this is especially beneficial when using tabular reports.
  • Unprecedented connectivity. Power BI is cloud-based and can access and extract data from nearly any system or application.
  • Seamless on-premises data integration. With Personal Gateway, users can keep their reports and dashboards up-to-date with the latest data from on-premises sources without moving the data to the cloud.
  • Robust data capacity. Power BI can handle 100 million rows of data.
  • Intelligent, automatic updates. Power BI updates automatically after taking real user experiences into account.
  • Integration into apps and websites. Power BI Embedded lets developers embed or add Power BI reports to apps and websites.
  • Ideal for reporting. Because of Power BI's strength in visualizations and data integration, it is idea for key performance indicators and dashboards

Power BI Weaknesses

  • Not designed for complex tables. Power BI has trouble handling multiple links between tables. Users need to ensure that additional data models have unique fields, or Power BI could end up confusing the tables.
  • Bulky UI. Power BI’s user interface appears busy with icons and options, sometimes blocking the view of dashboards and reports.
  • Difficult to configure visuals. Microsoft includes a wide variety of visuals with Power BI. However, while users rarely need to configure visuals, customization options are limited.
  • Power BI’s DAX formula is sometimes called rigid. Power BI is built around DAX as an expression language. DAX can be challenging. Concatenating more than two elements requires nesting statements.
  • Complex. On its own, Power BI is an intuitive, relatively simple tool to import data and create reports. However, multiple interrelated tools add to its complexity.
  • Closed-source. As with all Microsoft Office suite products, Power BI is closed-source.

While both Power BI and Excel are databases, they are designed for integration. Most organizations use Excel for tabular reports with limited data requirements, and Power BI for data analysis and visualizations. 

Of course, there are other BI tools out there, Tableau being the main one. Check out our Power BI vs Tableau guide for a comparison of both for your data science and analytics needs.

What Are the Three Types of Power BI Licenses?

Power BI offers a desktop version along with Pro and Premium versions.  

Power BI Desktop – Free Version

  • Best for individuals
  • Supports all developmental functionalities
  • Cannot share the content on the cloud
  • Builds reports on a desktop or laptop computer (local machine)
  • Integrates with multiple data sources
  • 1GB cloud storage for reports and data
  • Exports to Excel, PowerPoint or .pdf
  • Visualizes data using Python
  • Builds visualizations with R

Power BI Pro

At $10 per user per month, Power BI Pro offers all of the functionality of the Power BI Desktop version, plus:

  • Ability to share data and reports with other Pro users
  • 1GB dataset limit
  • Up to 10GB storage per user
  • Can export reports onto a SharePoint site or website
  • Maximum 8 scheduled refreshes per day

Power BI Premium

Power BI Premium has two options: Individual and Enterprise. An individual Power BI Premium license costs $20 per user per month. Both subscription options offer all the functionality of Power BI Pro with increased storage, sharing, and scheduled refresh options. Larger organizations might opt for the Power BI Premium enterprise subscription, which starts at $4,995 per organization per month. However, there are some differences between the two subscription options.

Power BI Premium Individual

  • 10GB dataset limit
  • 100TB storage limit
  • Maximum 48 scheduled refreshes per day

Power BI Premium Enterprise

  • Sharable and usable for every authorized member of an organization
  • 100TB of storage and eight vCOREs
  • Free users can view and analyze reports, but without input 

Power BI Through Microsoft Fabric

Microsoft Fabric empowers business professionals within your organization to harness vital data and insights, essential for informed decision-making. Seamlessly integrated with Power BI, Fabric enables users to effortlessly transition from raw data in a data lake to creating visually impactful Power BI representations, all within the familiar environment of a Microsoft 365 application.

Who Uses Power BI?

With versions to suit most individual and business needs, anyone is a potential Power BI user. As a result, all business segments use Power BI. Its customers include powerhouses such as Nestle, Adobe, Ricoh, HP, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Carnegie Mellon University, BP, and thousands of other major global organizations. 

Although any authorized user can create valuable reports for their department, Power BI is best suited for power users, those for whom Excel is insufficient. In addition, Power BI is closed-source, which means many data scientists find it limiting. However, it is an excellent tool for data analysts. 

How Can I Learn Power BI?

Power BI is robust and complex with out-of-the-box functionality, but there is a learning curve. Programming experience is not required. However, Excel fluency and data analysis experience are helpful.

DataCamp’s curriculum includes a series of Power BI classes that, in just weeks, can transform a novice into an expert.

Introduction to Power BI

Introduction to Power BI is a free class that introduces the uninitiated to Power BI and teaches them formatting and even map-making.

Data Visualization with Power BI

Data Visualization with Power BI is for those who are familiar with the basics of Power BI and want to advance to the next level. In the course, users learn to create visually compelling and easy-to-digest reports. 

DAX Functions in Power BI

This course teaches you how to utilize Microsoft’s formula language, DAX, to better control visuals and reports.

Data Modeling in Power BI

Using actual life data from the US Census Bureau, Data Modeling in Power BI teaches intermediate users to clean, shape, and load data modeling techniques. The class also explores the differences between Power Query and Power BI. It also discusses best practices and teaches users to customize their data models using DAX.

Once you're comfortable with Power BI, applying your skills by working on case studies is a great way to build experience and your analyst portfolio. This guide on Power BI projects provides several starting points for you.

Careers in Power BI 

Since Power BI is near-universal, it’s helpful in any data-driven role. Power BI developers, however, are in high demand, with estimated salaries from around $100,000 to $150,000.

As we cover in our top Power BI jobs article, there is a range of Power BI roles that employers are hiring for. This includes Power BI developer / analyst, Power BI consultant and broader business intellgience roles, which can involve usage of Power BI and other BI tools.

Want a career in data? Discover our Data Analyst in Microsoft Power BI career track and you'll be job ready in no time.


Quality data is the world’s most valuable resource, and just like other resources, it requires a deep understanding of how to extract gems from raw materials. A skilled Power BI developer mines, harvests, and polishes the jewels businesses rely upon for data-driven intelligence.

Power BI is ubiquitous among businesses, governments, and nonprofits, which means it’s a valuable skill in every type of industry. Learn more about how Power BI skills can give you a heads up in your current career or data professional job search.

Power BI FAQs

How do I start learning Power BI?

Datacamp offers an affordable path to Power BI expertise. We provide courses for all skill levels, including an introduction, data visualization, DAX (data analyst expressions), data modeling, and data analysis.

What browsers support Power BI?

Microsoft Edge Chromium, Safari Mac, Chrome desktop, and Firefox all support Power BI.

How is Power BI installed on mobile devices?

The Power BI app is a free download from Google Play, the App Store, and Windows Store. There are additional in-app purchases depending on your organization’s needs

What does a business user need?

Business users will need to purchase a Power BI license. Then, they’ll only need a web browser and credentials. 

How many spoken languages does Power BI support?

44. English is the default language, but users simply need to change the language in their browsers. Power BI desktop is not available in Arabic or Hebrew, because it does not support languages that read right-to-left. 

What is the difference between Power BI Pro and Power BI Premium?

Power BI Pro is individually licensed, and users can only share with other Pro users. Power BI Premium is an organizational subscription and Premium version content can be shared with anyone, licensed or not.

Is Power BI free?

Power BI Desktop is a free download that offers a surprising number of features. Power BI Pro is not free, but starting at $9.99 per user per month, it’s very affordable.

How much does Power BI cost?

Power BI Pro costs $9.99 per user per month. Power BI Premium costs $20 per individual user license per month and costs start  at $4,995 to license an organization. 

What is Power BI Embedded?

Power BI Embedded lets users embed reports inside 3rd party applications such as dashboards, websites, web applications, tiles, and reports. Most users are software developers.

What are the Power BI components?

Power BI Desktop, Power BI Service, and Power BI Mobile



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