Doing Power BI the Right Way

This is an introduction to a series of posts and pages that will provide a comprehensive set of best practices for successful Power BI solutions. In previous posts, I have asked readers to suggest topics for future posts. Based on that and other feedback, I will be addressing questions and suggested topics. The topics list at the end of this post is a brainstorm list and I ask that you help me make sure it is complete. My goal is to provide a set of guidelines and practices that provide the best chance of success as you navigate many decisions about how to stage and transform source data, how and where to perform data shaping and calculations, how to model data and the best way to visualize the results. The biggest question of all may be how to make the right decisions so that the small project you design today will work when you add more data, more users and transition into a formal, managed solution.

There are many fantastic resources to learn about Power BI and rest of the Microsoft BI and reporting platform; but learning about Power BI and the choosing among design options can be like drinking from multiple firehoses at full pressure at the same time. I will be the first to admit that my “best practices” are “my opinions”. In many cases they work consistently for me but points are debatable and open for discussion. I’ll tell you when I have a very strong opinion about something being done a certain way, or when I have found a pattern that works for me and that I offer for your consideration. I’m not always right… just ask my wife :-). Please comment, ask and offer alternative points of view.

Rather than offering another training course or duplicating the contributions that so many others in the industry make through their blogs, courses, books and articles; this will be a condensed set of guidelines about the many choices you must make when designing a solution. In the posts to follow, I will reference other resources and discussions on various topics.

Just tell me what to do

Any attempt to apply universal best practices to Power BI solution design is a slippery slope. The tools are so flexible and powerful, and the requirements of each project are so varied that it is challenging to establish a set of steps or rules that, if followed, will always yield the absolute best design for a given scenario. With that out of the way, I’ll say this: In my job, I see a lot of poorly-designed Power BI projects. I’ve worked with dozens or scores (maybe even hundreds?) of consulting clients who bring us projects – some partially completed, some finished, and many that are just broken – to be fixed or completed. My reactions range from “that’s just downright wrong” to “hmmm… I wouldn’t have done it that way but I guess it will work for the time being”. I try not to cast stones and do, on occasion, realize that others have found a better way to solve a problem. I don’t have all the answers but I do have a lot of experience with Microsoft Business Intelligent solution design, and have learned many good practices and design patterns from other community leaders and many successful projects over the past twenty or so years.

A little less conversation and a little more action

Let’s start with a simplified flowchart and condensed decision tree. This first whiteboard drawing is the first half of the Power BI design process, ending with the data model, before measures, visualization and solution delivery. There is a lot more but I think this is a good starting point. Let’s start the conversation here and then I will enhance this post with a more complete list of topics.

Best practice guidelines topics

The following topic list will serve as a link menu for future posts. Expect this list to be updated and completed:

  1. Futureproofing Power BI solutions
  2. Preparing, shaping & transforming source data
  3. Power Query design best practices
  4. Power Query in dataflows or Power BI Desktop
  5. Data modeling essentials and best practices in Power BI and AS tabular
  6. Validating data model results
  7. Planning for separation – data models and reports
  8. Power BI delivery options
  9. Choosing the right report type: analytic or paginated
  10. Designing and managing large datasets in Power BI
  11. Multi-developer and lifecycle management for Power BI
  12. Certified reports, certified datasets & the self-service mindset

How to Assign Pro Licenses to a Power BI Tenant

This is a question that comes up all the time.  Power BI licensing is not complicated but a common challenge is that the person who sets up a new Power BI subscription and tenant within an organization is often not the same person who manages Office 365 or Azure service licensing for the organization.  I’ve consulted on projects for several organizations where folks just didn’t know who to talk to or how to proceed after testing the water with Power BI.  After setting up a new subscription, IT professionals and business data analysts often don’t know how to license Power BI for company use and share reports and datasets with others.

This post will show you how licenses are assigned to users and, more importantly, what to request from your support desk or administrators who may be unfamiliar with Power BI and Office 365 user licensing.  Keep reading for background information about why this is important and necessary.

You can use Power BI in one of three modes:

1) If you’re a one-person organization or don’t need to securely share content online with anyone, you can just use Power BI for free.  Yep, free.  No feature limits.

2) If your organization has a few hundred users or less, you will need to buy a Power BI Pro license for every user to author or view reports.  Unless you publish report content publicly to the web, every user must have a Pro license – period.

3) If you have several hundred users or you have so much data that you need to manage it with dedicated capacity, it may be cost-effective to purchase a Premium capacity tenant for a few thousand dollars a month.  Pro licenses are still required to publish reports but anyone in the organization can view published reports online or an on-premises Power BI Report Server.

Power BI Subscription Basics

Let’s say that I work for XYZ company and my work address is Paul@xyz.com.  Assuming that a Power BI subscription doesn’t yet exist, if I go to PowerBI.com and setup an account using my email address, I have created a Power BI subscription for my company that is a tenant within the Power BI service.  I could be the janitor for a multinational corporation but I am now the administrator of the tenant.

By way of definitions; the Power BI Service is the entire Power BI offering within the Microsoft Azure cloud.  At any time, it could encompass hundreds of virtual machines geolocated in data centers throughout the world.  When you subscribe to the service, you are – in effect – renting some space within the service.  The “space” that you rent and manage for your subscription is called a tenant.  It’s sort of like renting some office space or an apartment in a large building.  You don’t really own it but you are paying for the right to live there.  You can read about these and other administrative concepts here.

After setting up a new Power BI subscription, you really have one of two options:

1) If you have the authority to purchase licensing and manage services on behalf of your organization, proceed to purchase and assign licenses for report developers and users.

2) Make a service request or contact the appropriate administrator within your organization to add and assign licenses.  This might be your help desk, systems or operations admin or Office/cloud services administrator.

The Admin Take-Over

After a “less privileged” user sets up the first Power BI subscription for the organization, no one else can do the same.  This can be a little confusing if some person in Finance sets-up a trial account and then a BI developer tries to do the same thing.  If the organization plans to move-forward with a governed Power BI tenant, they can perform an “Admin Take-Over”.  Contrary to what the name suggests, this is not the same as a government coupe with troopers storming the building in Kevlar vests and automatic weapons.  It simply means that an administrator assumes control of the new tenant and transfers admin rights from the person who established the subscription the appropriate person(s).  Adam Saxton describes who this works in this Guy-In-A-Cube installment.

Mastering Power Query in a Day – Full-day training in Seattle

Following the Power BI World Tour, Seattle event on Oct 30, please join me for a full-day of deep learning.  That’s right… it’s on Oct 31st so put on your Wonder Woman or Captain America costume and get ready to exercise your super powers with Power Query and Power BI!  You will learn to master Power Query extensively from Beginner to Advanced.  The other session taught at the same time by Brian Grant is “Power BI: Enhance Your Data Model with DAX” but ya gotta pick one.  You can learn more about the Power BI World Tour and the Academy by following these events on Twitter and LinkedIn using the links at the bottom of this post, or search these hashtags:
#PowerBIUG | #PowerBI | @pbiusergroup | #PowerBIUGAcademy | #PBIWorldTour

Registration and course description:

Academy – Mastering Power Query in a Day (Seattle, WA)

The foundations of a Business Intelligence solution are data transformations, data wrangling, data cleansing and ETL. A well-crafted Power BI project rests on Power Query and the queries that define the data model, calculations and report visuals. This full-day session will teach you how to lay the foundation for a Power BI solution with simple and advanced Power Query techniques.

Learn from Paul Turley, ten-year Microsoft Data Platform MVP and veteran BI Solution Architect. You will learn best practice design patterns, tricks, shortcuts and proven techniques to improve your skills and add immediate value to your projects. Power Query is everywhere – and growing.

The skills and techniques taught in this workshop apply to Power BI Desktop, the “Get Data” feature in Excel 2016+, SQL Server Analysis Services 2017+ (SSAS), Azure Analysis Services (AAS) and Data Flows in the Power BI Common Data Service (CDS). You will learn through exercises and instructor-led hands-on demos. Bring your laptop with the latest version of Power BI Desktop installed. The rest will be provided. We will cover material from basics through advanced. Each exercise is separate so you can absorb only what you need to learn, based on your prior experience, needs and skill level.

Power Query Basics
Quick tour of the Power Query interface & essentials
Creating and managing queries
Adding and editing steps
Recovery and project management
Essential best practices
Managing data sources
Working with folder paths, web URIs & database connections
Referencing & Duplicating queries
Consolidating queries, building base queries & dependency chains
Loading queries into data model tables
Basic error handling & debugging

Data Sources & Structures
Flat CSV files
Irregular text files (headings & totals)
JSON (simple)
JSON (complex, with nested & ragged hierarchies)
SQL server
Excel (single sheet/table, multiple sheets/tables)
Folders & file collections
Web pages a page tables
Web APIs & web service endpoints

Essential Query Techniques
Managing data types
Applying correct naming conventions
Working with Date & Time values
Splitting & formatting columns
De-duplicating & grouping
Pivot, Unpivot & Transpose
Custom columns & expression basics
Extracting tables from a data sources to supporting essential modeling for Power BI report design:

  • Fact tables
  • Dimension tables
  • Bridge tables
  • Slicer & calculation-driver tables
  • Role-playing dimensions

Advanced Power Query Techniques
Working with M: The Data Mashup language
M function essentials
Prioritized learning (what’s most important)
Using & managing parameters
Using the #shared object for internal documentation, examples & code syntax
Understanding M objects (values, tables, lists & records)
Number, Date, Time & Text manipulation M functions
Create a Date lookup/dimension table using M & Power Query
Create a Time series lookup/dimension table using M & Power Query

  • Why do I need a Date dimension in Power BI?
  • Standard date parts & hierarchies
  • Columns to support time-intelligence calculations
  • Working with fiscal & special-purpose calendars (e.g. 4-4-5, ISO)
  • Working with query functions
  • Parameterized queries, API endpoints & user-defined functions

Putting it Together
Examples:

  • Queries to support data model construction
  • Queries used to support report visuals
  • Deploy a report, configure the on-premises gateway
  • Use query parameters to schedule refresh in a deployed Power BI solution

Follow the events at:

https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13580234

https://twitter.com/pbiusergroup?lang=en

SQL, M or Dax? – part 2

[ Related posts in this series: SQL, M or DAX: When Does it Matter? SQL, M or Dax? – part 2 SQL or M? – SSAS Partitions Using SQL Server Table-Valued Functions (UDFs) SQL or M? – SSAS Partitions in Power Query/M ]

This is a post about a post about a post.  Thanks to those of you who are entering comments in the original May 12 post titled SQL, M or DAX?  This is a popular topic. And thanks to Adam Saxton for mentioning this post in his Guy in A Cube Weekly Roundup.

This is a HUUUUGE topic and I can tell that I’ve struck a chord with many BI practitioners by bringing it up.  Please post your comments and share your ideas.  I’m particularly interested in hearing your challenging questions and your thoughts about the pros-and-cons of some less-obvious choices about whether to implement transformations & calculations in SQL, M or DAX.

This week, I have had engaging conversations on this topic while working on a Power BI consulting project for a large municipal court system.  As a consultant, I’ve had three weeks of experience with their data and business environment.  The internal staff have spent decades negotiating the intricacies and layers upon layers of business process so of course, I want to learn from their experience but I also want to cautiously pursue opportunities to think outside the box.  That’s why they hired me.

Tell me if this situation resonates with you…  Working with a SQL Server database developer who is really good with T-SQL but fairly new to Power BI & tabular modeling, we’re building a data model and reports sourced from a line-of-business application’s SQL Server database.  They’ve been writing reports using some pretty complicated SQL queries embedded in SSRS paginated reports.  Every time a user wants a new report, a request is sent to the IT group.  A developer picks up the request, writes some gnarly T-SQL query with pre-calculated columns and business rules.  Complex reports might take days or weeks of development time.  I needed to update a dimension table in the data model and needed a calculated column to differentiate case types.  Turns out that it wasn’t a simple addition and his response was “I’ll just send you the SQL for that…you can just paste it”.  The dilemma here is that all the complicated business rules had already been resolved using layers of T-SQL common table expressions (CTEs), nested subqueries and CASE statements.  It was very well-written SQL and it would take considerable effort to re-engineer the logic into a dimensional tabular model to support general-use reporting.  After beginning to nod-off while reading through the layers of SQL script, my initial reaction was to just paste the code and be done with it.  After all, someone had already solved this problem, right?

The trade-off by using the existing T-SQL code is that the calculations and business rules are applied at a fixed level of granularity and within a certain business context.  The query would need to be rewritten to answer different business questions.  If we take the “black box” approach and paste the working and tested SQL script into the Power Query table definition, chances are that we won’t be able to explain the query logic in a few months, after we’ve moved on and forgotten this business problem.  If you are trying to create a general-purpose data model to answer yet-to-be-defined questions, then you need to use design patterns that allow developers and users to navigate the model at different levels of grain across different dimension tables, and in different filtering contexts.  This isn’t always the right answer but in this case, I am recommending that we do as little data merging, joining and manipulation as possible in the underlying source queries.  But, the table mapping between source and data model are not one-to-one.  In some cases, two or three source tables are combined using SQL joins, into a flattened and simplified lookup table – containing only the necessary, friendly-named columns and keys, and no unnecessary clutter like CreatedDateTime, ModifiedDateTime and CreatedByUser columns.  Use custom columns in M/Power Query to transform the row-level calculated values and DAX measures to perform calculations in aggregate and within filter/slicing/grouping context.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this topic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Power BI Global Hackathon Contest Results

The results of last month’s Power BI Global Hackathon are in! The Hackathon was facilitated by our our PUG here in Portland with the goal of welcoming global contenders in subsequent contest. Five teams entered the contest using publically-available data to visualize and tell data stories using our favorite data analysis platform.  Congratulations to Xinyu Zheng and Ron Barrett for winning the challenge with their entry, analyzing Yelp restaurant star ratings.  These were all great entries and you can view the contest results in the Power BI report below.

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Here are the published projects that were entered in the Hackathon:

Xinyu and Ron analyzed ratings from nearly 1200 restaurant Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Las Vegas.  Results compare ratings and reviews by restaurant and food categories, sentiment and key phrases in the review comments

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I loved the creativity of this solution from Jeremy Black and Kirill Perian who analyzed alcohol sales statistics using infographics and bookmarks to switch out visuals on the same page.  The presentation concludes on the last page of the report with an auto-advancing variation of “100 Bottles of Beer on The Wall”.  Nice touch.

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I’m admittedly a bit biased because this was my design, with a lot of help from Brian, Ron and Greg.  We used a series of tables to prompt a user for Power BI solution business requirements and recommend fitting solution architectures and components.  We pushed some practical and technical limits in our project and I’ll write a separate post about it.

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This entry from Ron Ellis Gaut is a nice, clean orchestration of county health data, measuring health and comparing personal well-being and program efficacy.

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The entry from Daniel Claborne emphasizes machine learning predictions performed with R Script, commonly used in data science.  He actually includes the annotated code and explains the technique and the approach using training and prediction data sets.

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The Portland Power BI User Group was one of the first and continues to be one of the most active in the international community.  We meet on the 4th Wednesday evening every month in Beaverton, Oregon. Today there are many active PUGs all over the world.

 

Keeping Up with Power BI – A Never Ending Story

This first week of the new year has been a lot of housecleaning for me (literally and figuratively…  my office desk and cabinet will be clean by the end of the day!).  Three years into teaching classes and workshops on being productive with Power BI, it continues to be a product requiring a lot of work to stay current.  New features are introduced in every Power BI Desktop monthly update; not to mention updates to the cloud service and on-prem server.  You would have to be a child of the 80s to get the Never Ending Story reference.  Otherwise, it’s just a really bad flying dog – and pop song, which are both hard to explain, so we won’t.  The point is that it’s an ongoing effort to keep skills, courseware and presentation material up-to-date.

Image result for never ending story

If you’re like me, sometimes all these updates can be a bit of a distraction (we’re talking about Power BI again – not the dog, movie or song… case in point).  I’m excited by the continual innovations and improvements to Power BI.  However, the foundational rules of good design don’t really change that much.  Effective data curation, correct modeling and good core visualization design are as critical as ever.  The trick is to know which new features may be used to improve foundational design and which ones you can leave as icing on the cake for minor enhancements.  Updating courseware and workshop labs seems to be a never ending task and I’m hard at work revising older material and adding new content to prepare for new events this year.  An important topic I will continue to revisit this year is how Power BI is used along with other Microsoft tools to create different types of solutions.  I’m working on a new presentation to describe all of the incarnations of Power BI, used to deliver everything from self-service desktop reports – all the way up to enterprise-scale solutions for corporate users with governed and secured data – and most everything in-between.

The first workshop of the new year will be a one day preconference before the Redmond SQL Saturday, on Microsoft campus Friday, February 9.  You can sign-up for this event here.  I’m working on a few others in the following months and will update this and other blog posts when they are scheduled.  I hope to see you there.  You are welcome to send me questions or suggestions about specific topics of focus.  Just add a comment to this post, or reach me through Twitter or LinkedIn.

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Spontaneous Interviews at PASS Summit 2017

Conversations with Julie Koesmarno, Olivier Matrat, Aaron Nelson, Seth Bauer and Robert Bruckner captured in video interviews below…

Continuing my video blog series of interviews from PASS Summit, I had the opportunity to catch-up with several Microsoft BI and Data Platform industry leaders amid the crowds and between sessions.  Stay tuned to this station for many more interviews and insider information about the Microsoft Business Intelligence and Data Platform.

I caught up with Julie Koesmarno in the Community Zone, a few days after travelling together on the SQL Train (aka “Oregon SQL Party Train to Seattle”) from Oregon SQL Saturday the weekend before Summit.  She’s been a non-stop community advocate for several years, and continues to speak at events all over.  Julie was an Business Intelligence consultant and user group leader in Australia and Southern California before joining Microsoft as technical evangelist.  You might recognize her from the executive demonstration during the opening keynote at PASS Summit last year.

Olivier Matrat, Principal Program Manager (that’s Microsoft job title code for “in charge of a lot of important stuff”), talks about how they are hard at work integrating several products in the “Power *” suite.  This is the first time I’d heard of all the “Power…” prefixed product names unofficially referred to as “Power Star”, but it makes perfect sense.  Olivier said that we can expect to see tighter integration between tools like Power BI, Flow and Power Apps with more embeddable features for developers and solution integrators.

Aaron Nelson, Data Platform MVP and hard-core PowerShell enthusiast, spoke about some new capabilities he presented in his session about PowerShell for Business Intelligence. The new REST API will let Power BI and report server admins orchestrate server migrations and task automation with PowerShell CmdLets.  He seized the opportunity to promote the PASS PowerShell virtual group that he helps manage, at SQLPS.IO.  I’ve promised Aaron a follow-up post to demonstrate how the REST API works with PowerShell and the new MSBuild integration, so please watch my blog for that in the next few days.

I chatted with Seth Bauer, BI consultant and Data Platform MVP, on the escalator in the Washington State Convention Center between sessions.  Seth has been on the front lines of the Power BI advisors community since the product launched.  He cites Q&A Natural Language and Explain the Difference as examples of the most compelling features.   He participates in PASS Summit for professional networking and to stay current with BI technologies.

Robert Bruckner is a Senior Architect on the Power BI team and long-time developer lead for Reporting Services.  He told me that there are many exciting capabilities on the horizon for Power BI and other integrated reporting technologies that are still under NDA.  He mentioned a recent announcement that the On-premises gateway will soon support single sign-on, delegation, load balancing and high-availability.  It is truly exciting to see such emphasis on enterprise-scale capabilities for these tools.

Interview with Pinal Dave at PASS Summit 2017

While attending PASS Summit 2017 in Seattle, I had a chance to catch-up of several friends and industry experts, and I will be sharing these interviews in a series of posts.  On the 1st of November, Pinal Dave completed his 4200th post on SqlAuthority.com – a landmark by blogging once per day for eleven years.  Pinal shares this success story and humbly discusses his secrets about being the world-renound authority that we all know, along with some advice about tuning SQL Server.

Thank you, Pinal, for your time and all you do for the PASS community.