Rethinking Business Intelligence in SharePoint and SQL Server 2016

John White

by John P White on 12/16/2015

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Article Details

Date Revised:
12/16/2015

Applies to:
Business Intelligence, Excel Services, Office Online Server, OOS, Power BI, Power Pivot for SharePoint, Power View, PowerPivot Gallery, SharePoint 2016, SharePoint Server 2016, SQL Server 2016, SQL Server 2016 CTP 3.1, SQL Server Reporting Services, SSRS


Microsoft will release both SharePoint Server 2016 and SQL Server 2016 next year, adding to the changing Business Intelligence landscape already being disrupted by Power BI. Many changes to the products will be incremental, but some are significant architectural changes that require us to rethink of how we will approach on premises and cloud-based Business Intelligence.

All of the bits to deploy the SharePoint-based BI components are now available. With the December 8, 2015 publication of the white paper, Deploying SQL Server 2016 PowerPivot and Power View in SharePoint 2016, it’s possible to kick the tires and to come to a few conclusions. I will write a number of “how to” posts in the coming weeks, but I felt that it was important to set the context for them first. The Business Intelligence ground has shifted significantly, both on-premises and in the cloud, and this greatly affects the way that we think of, design and use Business Intelligence tools with SharePoint. I will offer quite a few opinions in this article, and I want to make it crystal clear that the opinions here are mine, and not stated by Microsoft.

Excel and Excel Services

In August 2015, Microsoft announced that Excel Services would not be a part of SharePoint in 2016, which came as a big shock to the community. Excel has always been one of the main pillars of BI in SharePoint, the other two being SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) in SharePoint integrated mode, which we’ll get to below, and PerformancePoint. As I’ve argued before, PerformancePoint, while still included in SharePoint 2016, has been dormant for several versions, and likely doesn’t have much of a future. I wouldn’t put much weight on that particular pillar. In this context, Microsoft’s decision to remove Excel Services, (the only BI component delivered by the Office team) seems like a big deal.

In reality, it’s not such a big deal in itself. Microsoft has, for the most part, shifted the functionality of Excel Services to Office Online Server (OOS). I explained in another post that despite its name, OOS is NOT a cloud service, but in reality is the new name for the Office Web Apps server – the server that allows for browser-based editing and viewing of Excel documents. The difference between Excel Services and Office Web Apps Server has always been confusing to users and a configuration headache for administrators using both. I believe that Microsoft’s consolidation of Excel Services and OOS makes a great deal of sense.

BI professionals need to understand the change to options and components with this new model, and they need to understand that the change Microsoft has made does not represent a net loss in functionality. In fact, I think you will see a net gain because users can make changes to workbooks with data connections and embedded data models directly from a browser.

PowerPivot for SharePoint

Microsoft will continue to deliver PowerPivot for SharePoint as a SharePoint Service application, and a special instance of Analysis Service. However, Microsoft has significantly changed the installation process. Previously to install PowerPivot for SharePoint, you had a separate installation mode for SQL Server, which would install either SSAS in SharePoint mode alone or SSAS in SharePoint mode along with the PowerPivot for SharePoint bits if you wanted to install it on a SharePoint server. With SQL Server 2016, it’s simply one of the modes for the SSAS install (called PowerPivot mode), and the PP4SP bits are installed separately. Previously, if installed on a SharePoint server, the PP4SP bits would be installed along with it. You’ll also need to perform separate configuration steps to connect the OOS server to the PowerPivot mode instance.

In the SQL Server 2016 CTP3.1, you can configure PowerPivot Mode in the Analysis Services Configuration section
Installing SSAS in PowerPivot mode in SQL Server 2016 CTP 3.1

Microsoft did not make very many changes to PowerPivot for SharePoint 2016. Users will note one big improvement—they can refresh Power Query-based connections. While this improvement is not currently in the previews, Microsoft has promised this feature for the final release. Until now, PowerPivot for SharePoint could update workbooks with new data, but only if those workbooks contained standard Excel-based or PowerPivot-based connections. If you had used Power Query to import data, you were out of luck. This contrasts sharply with Microsoft’s cloud-based Power BI service, which can only use Power Query to import and refresh many data sources. It was impossible to answer the question, “Which tool should I use for data import?” without being aware of the destination platform. Now, it is simple. Use Power Query, and your workbooks will work on all platforms.

When I mention that there aren’t many changes, this includes the PowerPivot Gallery. The Gallery is a specialized SharePoint document library template that allows you to see thumbnails of your Excel and Power View reports, and gives easy access to refresh options and self-service reporting options. As with prior versions of the Gallery, it is delivered as a Silverlight application on a SharePoint view page. As I will discuss later, the Silverlight dependency could be construed as a problem, but it is not necessary to use the Gallery in order to interact with Power Pivot workbooks. You can switch to a more standard library view and still have access to workbook refresh options.

The fact that Power Query refreshes PowerPivot-based and Excel-based connections may be reason alone to update existing PowerPivot for SharePoint installations to the 2016 versions. If you navigate to the Feature pack page for SQL Server 2016 CTP 3.1, you’ll see add-ins for both SharePoint 2016 and 2013, so this will be possible, for SharePoint 2013 at least. (No, you will not need your database server to be SQL 2016 as well.) Correspondingly, the SSRS integrated mode from SQL Server 2016 will work on all SharePoint versions from 2013 and up (but will need the new 2016 add-in).

Power View

Power View first debuted with SSRS in SQL Server 2012. Microsoft developed Power View to become the future self-service BI reporting tool that SSRS itself never really was. Initially, Power View has very specific requirements to use it, so specific that very few people did. You needed to be running SSRS in SharePoint integrated mode (it wasn’t available in native mode), and it needed to connect to a SQL Server 2012 SSAS tabular mode instance. Once that was set up, you would create a BISM connection file and then use it to launch Power View from a SharePoint Library. When Excel 2013 debuted, it contained a version of Power View that could work with embedded data models, which greatly increased its adoption. In all cases, Power View interaction required Silverlight in order to access it using a browser.

The Silverlight dependency was a clear problem, as it prevented mobile users from working with it, and Silverlight’s “retirement” meant that realistically, no new features would be added. Microsoft addressed this problem fairly quickly in Office 365 with the addition of an HTML5-based rendering engine that would be invoked if the browser machine did not have Silverlight. These HTML 5 enhancements never made it into the on-premises version of SharePoint. While Microsoft initially put a lot of energy into the HTML5 rendering engine, it looks like Microsoft stopped adding new features at about the same time that it achieved feature parity with Silverlight.

This stoppage, combined with recent moves, indicate to me that Power View has no future. I can think of three major developments that lead me to this conclusion, and you can find these developments in Power BI, Excel 2016, and the Office Online Server.

Microsoft based the original Power BI Service, originally introduced in 2012 and retired on Dec 31, 2015, on Office 365 and Excel, and leveraged Power View for self-service reporting. Microsoft introduced a new version of the Power BI Service in July 2015; it is a standalone service that connects to Excel among many other sources. The visuals in the new Power BI service are similar to, but not the same as Power View. Realistically, they are the logical evolution of what Power View started, and are based on the D3 JavaScript engine. I think Microsoft could have made it less confusing if they had just called these visuals Power View V2, but it is what it is. The open architecture allows Power BI to quickly implement new visualizations, whether they come from Microsoft or from the community. You can see the many new visuals in the Power BI Visuals gallery, most of which have been submitted by the community. When you import models and Power View from a workbook into Power BI, any Power View reports are converted to the new version, and it’s a one-way street. In this environment, Power View is clearly considered a legacy technology.

Microsoft first included Power View in Excel as a ribbon item in 2013. During the test phase of Excel 2016, it disappeared from the ribbon. Power View still exists in the product, and you can add it back to the ribbon as I describe in this article. However, I wonder why Microsoft removed it? In my opinion, the reason is simple. Microsoft wants people to stop using embedded Power View in Excel, and to start using Power BI for self-service reporting. This just makes sense from where I’m standing. Excel has a rich set of native visuals that can connect to embedded data models, and most of the Power View visuals aren’t as mature as these are. Having Power View in Excel never made much sense, except possibly from a usability standpoint. If an analyst wants to live within Excel, they can use Excel Visuals and expose them as an Excel report in Power BI. For self-service reporting, we can connect to an Excel file and use Power BI visuals. There’s simply no longer any need for Power View as an Excel embedded tool.

Finally, let’s look at the new Office Online Server 2016. When OOS renders an Excel workbook that has an embedded Power View report, it will use Silverlight to do so. That’s right… OOS 2016 will require Silverlight for Power View rendering. We know that Microsoft has already updated the Power View rendering engine for HTML 5 with some of the visuals for Office 365, so we know that it was possible to do so. The only reason that I can think of that Microsoft didn’t do this entirely through Power View is to discourage people from using it, or the effort was too great for a technology that was being replaced. In addition, now in order to user Power View with OOS, you’ll need to use Kerberos constrained delegation. Microsoft did not require this in the past because Excel Services was running on the same server as SharePoint itself and could pass the User Principal Name through to the backing SSAS server that used EffectiveUserName. Now Kerberos is required for this.

So why doesn’t Microsoft just state that Power View is at end of life? Microsoft didn’t say that, but that was the message I heard at the October 2015 PASS summit. I think that the reason is that so far, Power BI is a cloud service only. In order to replace Power View fully with Power BI, customers need to embrace cloud services to some level, and there are organizations that are still not ready to do this. Very soon, after Microsoft releases SQL Server 2016, SSRS will support direct rendering of PBIX reports. (The file format for Power BI Designer and the new visuals.) At that point, the new visuals, and the new self-service reporting tools, will be available on premises, but for now Power View is the only tool that can function in an on-premises only environment. It doesn’t really have a future, but it’s still necessary. It’s certainly not the only technology to exist in this state – both InfoPath and PerformancePoint serve similar roles. Microsoft still supports them and PerformancePoint, while dormant, could come back any time should Microsoft choose to do so.

SQL Server Reporting Services

Microsoft has included SSRS as a core part of the Business Intelligence workload in SharePoint since SharePoint 2003. SQL Server 2005 SP1 introduced SSRS in SharePoint integrated mode, which allowed administrators to replace the web server and storage functions of the SSRS server with the equivalent features in SharePoint, making it easier to administer. With SQL Server 2012, you had the option to deploy SSRS as a SharePoint service application, further simplifying administration and scaling. During this period, the native mode SSRS server was always still available for those that didn’t use SharePoint, but over time, it lagged behind its sibling from a features standpoint. Many people wondered aloud if native mode SSRS had a future at all, and if SharePoint would become a required component. They needn’t have worried.

At the same time, in the past few years we’ve seen a marked shift in the way that Microsoft has positioned SharePoint, from being at the center of everything to being more a set of services. The first hint of this was the new app (now add-in) model for SharePoint, and more recently with the wholesale shifting of services, of which the Excel Services change is a prime example. This shift, combined with a renewal of emphasis on SSRS for structured reporting, is cause for re-evaluation.

At the PASS summit, Microsoft rolled out its reporting roadmap. It’s comprehensive, well thought out, and exciting. I’ve pointed out before that it doesn’t include the name “PerformancePoint,” but you know what else doesn’t feature prominently? SharePoint. Microsoft committed to SharePoint integration but they offered few details.

With SQL Server 2016, customers will still deploy SSRS through both native and SharePoint integrated modes. However, for the first time, the feature set will be significantly greater in native mode at least on initial release. With the roadmap, Microsoft defined four report types:

  1. Paginated reports – I call these operational, or structured reports. These are “classic” SSRS reports.
  2. Interactive reports – These reports are built with Power BI Desktop, and will run in SSRS and Power BI Web. I call these “analytical reports” and this role would have previously been performed by Power View.
  3. Mobile reports – These reports are aimed at mobile devices, and are what was previously known as Datazen.
  4. Analytical reports and charts – Excel workbooks.

SSRS 2016 will be the delivery mechanism for 3 of these 4 report types, but only in native mode initially. Integrated mode will support these report types one way or another down the road, but we just don’t know when. Microsoft is investing in quite a few new areas in SSRS, and it’s worthwhile to break down exactly which of the new features will be available in the two different Reporting Services modes at release. For a definition of these features, please refer to Microsoft’s roadmap announcement.

Feature

Native Mode

SharePoint Integrated Mode

Paginated reports

X

X

Interactive reports

X*

 

Mobile reports

X

 

New reporting portal

X

 

New visuals

X

X

HTML5 rendering

X

X

Pin and link SSRS visuals to Power BI dashboards

X

 

*Shortly after initial release

It’s pretty clear that the tables have turned. Power View reports are now the only thing that is uniquely offered in SharePoint integrated mode. If you have SharePoint and you decide to use native mode SSRS, no functionality is lost – you can still use the SSRS web part in SharePoint for report rendering and dashboards. Reports will be stored in the SSRS server, and you’ll need to set up security separately. On the plus side, you can leave these tasks to a reporting admin, who will not need to know how the SharePoint security model works. The biggest issue that I can see is that while integrated mode allows you to work with a single authentication provider, the SSRS native mode server requires its own, making a direct connection with it necessary, at design time at least.

These downsides aside, this shift to a focus on native mode fits with what is happening with Excel on the Office side. The two become peers that work together, as opposed to being dependent on one another. The increased functionality makes native mode compelling, even if you are running a SharePoint farm. If you are creating a new BI environment and you want to take advantage of the new SSRS features, and/or you are looking to the future for your BI investments, my recommendation is now to provision a native mode SSRS server whether or not you have SharePoint in most cases. If you already have an investment in integrated mode Reporting Services, don’t panic. Patience will be a virtue here. You will gain all of the new visuals and appearances immediately, and the other pieces will come in over time. Microsoft has not yet clearly stated the roadmap for integrated mode beyond the release of SharePoint 2016.

Summary

All of this represents a shift away from SharePoint as a dependency and to it as an interface option. Instead of these tools working “on” SharePoint, moving forward they will work “with” it. Overall:

  1. Power View can now be considered a legacy product.

    Power View was the future of the past. The future is now Power BI. If it helps, think of the visual elements in Power BI as being Power View V2, which in effect they are. If you’re thinking about using Power View to build a report, please consider Power BI Desktop. If it’s not possible, the good news is that if you use Excel to build it, you will be able to easily import it into Power BI Desktop – it has a migration path forward, and on-premises PBIX support is also on the way.

  2. SQL Server Reporting Services should be deployed in native mode.

    Whether or not you have a SharePoint farm, native mode SSRS is the way to go for a new deployment, even if you’re not yet ready for SQL Server 2016 SSRS. The reason for this is that migrating reports between the two modes is not simple.

  3. Excel reporting is alive and well.

    Excel is still well supported and Microsoft is investing in it. It is the tool for analysts and model builders and is easily portable to Power BI and to SSAS. The removal of Excel services in SharePoint is simply and architectural shift, not a functional one, and Excel reports are very well supported in Power BI.

  4. Power BI and Power BI Desktop are the preferred tools for self-service reporting.

    Self-service reporting is clearly the domain of Power BI. The legacy options are still available for current on-premises customers, but if you want to future-proof your investments, look to Power BI.

You can find this blog and other great insights from John P White on his blog here: https://www.unlimitedviz.com/articles/


Topic: Business Intelligence

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  • I've recently started architecting a full stack 2016 BI platform. Your article has given me more insight and confidence in that process than anything I've read so far. Thank you!!!
  • Thanks for this great article John. It explains the acquisition of Datazen, demonstrates Microsoft's ability to let go of unpopular features and recognize cornerstone ones. Leveraging SSRS's existing community, features and building and adding to this makes a whole lot of sense.