In an increasingly crowded marketplace for enterprise reporting and business intelligence (BI) tools, Power BI and SSRS (SQL Server Reporting Services) stand out as two of the most popular products.
But while SSRS retains strong market presence among BI professionals, some industry insiders report that Power BI is quickly gaining ground as the preferred tool for organisational data analysis and reporting.
So does this mean that Power BI is the best tool to learn if you want to launch a career as a BI professional? While SSRS remains in wide use, it’s certainly true that Power BI offers some compelling advantages in terms of both user-friendliness and extensibility.
Here’s a quick rundown of how the two products compare when it comes to features, learning curve and costs.
SSRS vs Power BI – the basics
Since both Power BI and SSRS are both part of the Microsoft BI product stack, they don’t compete directly. Your choice of tool will depend on your IT skillset, the data source(s) used, the reporting audience, and how that audience prefers to consume its reports.
SSRS is the more mature tool, released in 2004 as an add-on for the SQL database engine. It has gone through many updates, but remained essentially the same, offering a unified, server-based, scalable reporting platform. It leverages data from SQL Server to create detailed paginated reports.
Power BI was first released in 2015, and has quickly gained popularity as a full-featured BI suite suitable for general business users and BI developers alike. It can connect to a wide variety of data sources using various connection methods. Its users can build reports using a drag-and-drop interface, and create personalised dashboards that provide a real-time, 360-degree view of the business.
SSRS is primarily a server-side reporting tool, intended for BI reporting tasks where the data is stored on-premises. To produce detailed reports, some level of coding skill is required. It is handy for day-to-day operational reporting which requires a printable, paginated format – think financial reports, work orders, invoices and so on.
Power BI is a full-service tool which can handle everything from data collection to data visualisation. It is the more powerful option if you want to do dynamic data exploration, allowing you to slice, dice and filter data across multiple visuals with a few clicks.
SSRS is limited to structured and semi-structured data types. It can interface with Microsoft Visual Studio, allowing users to connect to an SQL database and format the extracted data using SSRS tools.
Power BI is much more flexible, being able to source and process data from Excel, structured and unstructured databases, Microsoft Azure products, and online/cloud services such as SharePoint and Dynamics 365.
Power BI is a highly graphical tool that offers a lot of real-time interactivity and a relatively easy learning curve. Elements can be dragged and dropped to create complex, dynamic visualisations.
By contrast, the basic features of SSRS are fairly easy to learn, but more advanced reports must be coded from scratch. The upside is that this can give you deeper insights into the process required.
SSRS allows you to produce paginated reports containing tables, charts, text and images. One of its key strengths is that users can have ‘pixel perfect’ control over the report format, including font, colour, size and layout. It also allows drill-down into data for insights into causes and trends – a feature also available in Power BI.
Power BI’s drag-and-drop method allows you to create powerful, highly visual reports in minutes. Slicers and other selection features allow the user to hide unimportant data, and highlight critical data as per audience requirements. Its reports can be accessed through web services, mobile apps and desktops.
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Licensing and updates
Microsoft has released new versions of SSRS every few years, most recently in 2017. Power BI, on the other hand, receives updates every month, driven by a strong user community.
Another benefit of Power BI is cost. Whereas SSRS requires the purchase of an SQL Server license, Power BI is free to use for datasets of up to 1GB in size. Unlimited data and enhanced features can be unlocked by purchasing Power BI Pro. This makes it possible for anyone to learn about Power BI and decide if it’s right for them.
So, is Power BI the future?
While many organisations still get a lot of value from SSRS, if you are forced to make a choice between the two, Power BI certainly makes more sense. There are many books and online courses available that can help you excel at this tool.
The top skill sets you’ll want to focus on are:
- Data visualisation and dashboard design
- Basic database skills, especially SQL
- Data preparation, including extract, transform and load (ETL)
As with any BI role, a solid grounding in business, mathematics and/or statistics is also an advantage. There is no clear pathway to acquiring any of these, so the more experience you can accumulate in any of these areas, the better.
It’s unclear how much longer SSRS will continue to be supported by Microsoft, and Power BI has all but reached the stage where it can do everything that SSRS can do, and more.
Most importantly, Power BI offers a solid guarantee of continued compatibility into a future dominated by web, cloud and mobile technologies.