Doing Power BI the Right Way: 7. Planning for separation – data models and reports

Part of the the series: Doing Power BI the Right Way (link)

Back in the day before Power BI came along, when we created BI solutions, reports and data models were separate. If you created a cube or Tabular model with Analysis Services, it was developed with Visual Studio and deployed to a server. Reports could be authored and deployed to the report server, separately. Now, with Power BI Desktop, you author your data model and report in the same development space and then deploy the whole kit and kaboodle to the service at once.

The Thick and Thin of Reports

Power BI reports generally come in two varieties. If you open up Power BI Desktop, choose “Get Data”, build a model and a report; all of that stuff ends up in one self-contained PBIX file. Conversely, a report using a live connection to a published dataset is often called a “thin report” because it contains no data or data model. Thin reports offer several advantages: not only separation of development effort but also centralized control and the ability to share published data models with multiple report authors.

Even when a single PIBIX file contains everything, Power BI actually separates the report from the data model (called a dataset in the service) and gives them both the same name. This is very convenient for self-service projects because it is quick and easy to make changes to the data model, queries and measures if you need to make a report enhancement. This is all well and good for small, one developer projects but what about those larger scale solutions where the data model and reports are developed by different folks, or when multiple reports are connected to the same data model?

At what point does it make sense to separate the data model and reports into separate files?

I believe that managing reports and the dataset separately is a best practice in enterprise solutions. However, like a lot of “proper” practices in the IT data world, it is far less convenient to “do it right”. In each project, we must exercise an appropriate degree of discipline. I’ve worked on projects that were so laise fair and lacking management structure that they produced a tangled web of garbage. I’ve also worked on projects managed with strict adherence to rules and restrictive application development methodologies; where report and BI developers had no freedom to be creative; and thus producing bland and useless reports. It is hard to prescribe a set of rules that always works for every project with the right dose of balance. A certain degree of freedom is necessary to learn-as-we-go and produce masterful analytic reports. At the same time, the process requires a well-defined plan, time-boxing and prioritizing of features.

When I started writing this post, I was working on a consulting project that started out with the dataset and report in two separate files. Under that plan, one developer could work on the data model and publish it to the DEV/QA workspace and then the other developer could design reports as new modeling features become available. In theory, this is typically the right approach. The requirements for this project expanded and we found ourselves in a rapid iteration cycle, needing to make model, measures and report changes. As a result, I brought the report pages back into the dataset PBIX file. There is no elegant way to do this but it wasn’t difficult to create new pages and then copy and paste the visuals from the separate report file to the combined dataset/report file. Bookmarks, drill-through and tooltip pages had to be rewired but it wasn’t a difficult task. Kasper De Jonge walks through the process in this blog post from May, 2020.

In cases where you have crisp requirements and a clear division of labor; you can start with two files to delineate the data model and the report. In cases where you are actively prototyping and working alone, developing a single PBIX file containing all the parts will allow you to move quickly. When it becomes more important to lock things down and manage releases than to keep iterating, move report pages to a separate PBIX file that is connected to the published dataset in the service.

Hot Swap Live Connections

I’ve stared using a new external tool that promises to make this process much easier. The Hot Swap tool is a utility developed by Steve Campbell and available from PowerBI.tips as part of the Business Ops externals tools package.

This simple tool allows you to start a project with separate data model and report files and then to swap the live connection between copies of the model: either a dataset published to the Power BI Service or to a PBIX file on the local desktop using a local TCP port. Hot Swap is a community-developed external tool that is not officially supported by Microsoft but my experience in testing the tool thus far has been very good. I used an earlier solution from Steve in a project about a year ago that worked-out quite well. It was a set of PowerShell scripts that rewired connects in much the same way. Having this capability in a simple pop-up dialog is an even more convenient option. You can check out this demo of the Hot Swap tool in the PowerBI.tips YouTube channel.

One of the tings I like about starting with two files is that we don’t run the risk of design issues left-over after moving report pages and visuals to another file.

The new approach is simple: begin your project with separate data model and report files. You can publish an early version of the data model file to a development workspace in the service and connect to establish a live-connected report. Then, run the Hot Swap tool and switch the connection to a local copy of the your data model to continue iterative development. Changes to the local data model PBIX file/Power BI Desktop instance are immediately available in the report PBIX. Publish changes whenever you need to and then you can use Hot Swap to remove the local connection. You don’t actually use the tool to perform the reconnect because Power BI Desktop allows you to use the normal Get Data options after a live connection has been removed from the report file. Regardless, it is a simple process.

Recommendations

For small, informal projects developed by one person (or one developer at a time), keeping the data model and report in one file is convenient and easier to make changes as you go. If you later decide to share the dataset for others to create additional reports, or to promote or certify the dataset, you should separate the dataset file and create a “thin” report using a live connection to the published datset.

For moderate-scale and formalized Power BI projects, begin with two separate PBIX files or make it a point to separate the data model from the report file before you deploy to the Power BI service. Consider using the Hot Swap tool to help manage local mode development.

3 thoughts on “Doing Power BI the Right Way: 7. Planning for separation – data models and reports

  1. Pingback: Doing Power BI the Right Way: 1. Futureproofing Power BI solutions | Paul Turley's SQL Server BI Blog

  2. Pingback: Doing Power BI the Right Way | Paul Turley's SQL Server BI Blog

  3. Pingback: Power BI the Right Way: Separating Data Models and Reports – Curated SQL

Leave a Reply