Thin Reports, Report Level Measures vs Data Model Measures

Thin Reports, Report Level Measures vs Data Model Measures

The previous post explained what Thin reports are, why we should care and how we can create them. This post focuses on a more specific topic, Report Level Measures. We discuss what report-level measures are, when and why we need them and how we create them.

If you are not sure what Thin Report means, I suggest you check out my previous blog post before reading this one.

What are report level measures?

Report level measures are the measures created by the report writers within a Thin Report. Hence, the report level measures are available within the hosting Thin Report only which means the report level measures are not written back to the underlying dataset and hence they are not available to any other reports.

Why and when do we need report level measures?

It is a common situation in real-world scenarios when the business requires a report urgently, but the nuts and bolts of the report are not being created on the underlying dataset yet. For instance, the business requires to present a report to the board showing year-to-date sales analysis but the year-to-date sales measure hasn’t been created in the dataset yet. The business analyst approaches the Power BI developers to add the measure, but they are under the pump to deliver some other functionalities which adding a new measure is not even in their project delivery plan. It is perhaps too late if we wait for the developers to plan for creating the required measure, go through the release process, and make it available for us in the dataset. Here is when the report level measures come to the rescue. We can simply create the missing measure in the Thin Report itself, where we can later share it with the developers to implement it as a dataset measure.

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Thin Reports, What Are They, Why Should I Care and How Can I Create Them?

Thin Reports in Power BI

Shared Datasets have been around for quite a while now. In June 2019, Microsoft announced a new feature called Shared and Certified Datasets with the mindset of supporting enterprise-grade BI within the Power BI ecosystem. In essence, the shared dataset feature allows organisations to have a single source of truth across the organisation serving many reports.

A Thin Report is a report that connects to an existing dataset on Power BI Service using the Connect Live connectivity mode. So, we basically have multiple reports connected to a single dataset. Now that we know what a thin report is, let’s see why it is best practice to follow this approach.

Prior to the Shared and Certified Datasets announcement, we used to create separate reports in Power BI Desktop and publish those reports into Power BI Service. This approach had many disadvantages, such as:

  • Having many disparate islands of data instead of a single source of truth.
  • Consuming more storage on Power BI Service by having repetitive table across many datasets
  • Reducing collaboration between data modellers and report creators (contributors) as Power BI Desktop is not a multi-user application.
  • The reports were strictly connected to the underlying dataset so it is so hard, if not totally impossible, to decouple a report from a dataset and connect it to a different dataset. This was pretty restrictive for the developers to follow the Dev/Test/Prod approach.
  • If we had a fairly large report with many pages, say more than 20 pages, then again, it was almost impossible to break the report down into some smaller and more business-centric reports.
  • Putting too much load on the data sources connected to many disparate datasets. The situation gets even worst when we schedule multiple refreshes a day. In some cases the data refresh process put exclusive locks on the the source system that can potentially cause many issues down the road.
  • Having many datasets and reports made it harder and more expensive to maintain the solution.

In my previous blog, I explained the different components of a Business Intelligence solution and how they map to the Power BI ecosystem. In that post, I mentioned that the Power BI Service Datasets map to a Semantic Layer in a Business Intelligence solution. So, when we create a Power BI report with Power BI Desktop and publish the report to the Power BI Service, we create a semantic layer with a report connected to it altogether. By creating many disparate reports in Power BI Desktop and publishing them to the Power BI Service, we are indeed creating many semantic layers with many repeated tables on top of our data which does not make much sense.

On the other hand, having some shared datasets with many connected thin reports makes a lot of sense. This approach covers all the disadvantages of the previous development method; in addition, it decreases the confusion for report writers around the datasets they are connecting to, it helps with storage management in Power BI Service, and it is easier to comply with security and privacy concerns.

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Business Intelligence Components and How They Relate to Power BI

Business Intelligence Components and How They Relate to Power BI

When I decided to write this blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to learn a bit about the history of Business Intelligence. I searched on the internet, and I found this page on Wikipedia. The term Business Intelligence as we know it today was coined by an IBM computer science researcher, Hans Peter Luhn, in 1958, who wrote a paper in the IBM Systems journal titled A Business Intelligence System as a specific process in data science. In the Objectives and principles section of his paper, Luhn defines the business as “a collection of activities carried on for whatever purpose, be it science, technology, commerce, industry, law, government, defense, et cetera.” and an intelligence system as “the communication facility serving the conduct of a business (in the broad sense)”. Then he refers to Webster’s dictionary’s definition of the word Intelligence as the ability to apprehend the interrelationships of presented facts in such a way as to guide action towards a desired goal”.

It is fascinating to see how a fantastic idea in the past sets a concrete future that can help us have a better life. Isn’t it precisely what we do in our daily BI processes as Luhn described of a Business Intelligence System for the first time? How cool is that?

When we talk about the term BI today, we refer to a specific and scientific set of processes of transforming the raw data into valuable and understandable information for various business sectors (such as sales, inventory, law, etc…). These processes will help businesses to make data-driven decisions based on the existing hidden facts in the data.

Like everything else, the BI processes improved a lot during its life. I will try to make some sensible links between today’s BI Components and Power BI in this post.

Generic Components of Business Intelligence Solutions

Generally speaking, a BI solution contains various components and tools that may vary in different solutions depending on the business requirements, data culture and the organisation’s maturity in analytics. But the processes are very similar to the following:

  • We usually have multiple source systems with different technologies containing the raw data, such as SQL Server, Excel, JSON, Parquet files etc…
  • We integrate the raw data into a central repository to reduce the risk of making any interruptions to the source systems by constantly connecting to them. We usually load the data from the data sources into the central repository.
  • We transform the data to optimise it for reporting and analytical purposes, and we load it into another storage. We aim to keep the historical data in this storage.
  • We pre-aggregate the data into certain levels based on the business requirements and load the data into another storage. We usually do not keep the whole historical data in this storage; instead, we only keep the data required to be analysed or reported.
  • We create reports and dashboards to turn the data into useful information

With the above processes in mind, a BI solution consists of the following components:

  • Data Sources
  • Staging
  • Data Warehouse/Data Mart(s)
  • Extract, Transform and Load (ETL)
  • Semantic Layer
  • Data Visualisation

Data Sources

One of the main goals of running a BI project is to enable organisations to make data-driven decisions. An organisation might have multiple departments using various tools to collect the relevant data every day, such as sales, inventory, marketing, finance, health and safety etc.

The data generated by the business tools are stored somewhere using different technologies. A sales system might store the data in an Oracle database, while the finance system stores the data in a SQL Server database in the cloud. The finance team also generate some data stored in Excel files.

The data generated by different systems are the source for a BI solution.

Staging

We usually have multiple data sources contributing to the data analysis in real-world scenarios. To be able to analyse all the data sources, we require a mechanism to load the data into a central repository. The main reason for that is the business tools required to constantly store data in the underlying storage. Therefore, frequent connections to the source systems can put our production systems at risk of being unresponsive or performing poorly. The central repository where we store the data from various data sources is called Staging. We usually store the data in the staging with no or minor changes compared to the data in the data sources. Therefore, the quality of the data stored in the staging is usually low and requires cleansing in the subsequent phases of the data journey. In many BI solutions, we use Staging as a temporary environment, so we delete the Staging data regularly after it is successfully transferred to the next stage, the data warehouse or data marts.

If we want to indicate the data quality with colours, it is fair to say the data quality in staging is Bronze.

Data Warehouse/Data Mart(s)

As mentioned before, the data in the staging is not in its best shape and format. Multiple data sources disparately generate the data. So, analysing the data and creating reports on top of the data in staging would be challenging, time-consuming and expensive. So we require to find out the links between the data sources, cleanse, reshape and transform the data and make it more optimised for data analysis and reporting activities. We store the current and historical data in a data warehouse. So it is pretty normal to have hundreds of millions or even billions of rows of data over a long period. Depending on the overall architecture, the data warehouse might contain encapsulated business-specific data in a data mart or a collection of data marts. In data warehousing, we use different modelling approaches such as Star Schema. As mentioned earlier, one of the primary purposes of having a data warehouse is to keep the history of the data. This is a massive benefit of having a data warehouse, but this strength comes with a cost. As the volume of the data in the data warehouse grows, it makes it more expensive to analyse the data. The data quality in the data warehouse or data marts is Silver.

Extract, Transfrom and Load (ETL)

In the previous sections, we mentioned that we integrate the data from the data sources in the staging area, then we cleanse, reshape and transform the data and load it into a data warehouse. To do so, we follow a process called Extract, Transform and Load or, in short, ETL. As you can imagine, the ETL processes are usually pretty complex and expensive, but they are an essential part of every BI solution.

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Optimising OData Refresh Performance in Power Query for Power BI and Excel

OData has been adopted by many software solutions and has been around for many years. Most solutions are using the OData is to serve their transactional processes. But as we know, Power BI is an analytical solution that can fetch hundreds of thousands (or millions) rows of data in a single table. So, obviously, OData is not optimised for that kind of purpose. One of the biggest challenges many Power BI developers face when working with OData connections is performance issues. The performance depends on numerous factors such as the size of tables in the backend database that the OData connection is serving, peak read data volume over periods of time, throttling mechanism to control over-utilisation of resources etc…

So, generally speaking, we do not expect to get a blazing fast data refresh performance over OData connections, that’s why in many cases using OData connections for analytical tools such as Power BI is discouraged. So, what are the solutions or alternatives if we do not use OData connections in Power BI? Well, the best solution is to migrate the data into an intermediary repository, such as Azure SQL Database or Azure Data Lake Store or even a simple Azure Storage Account, then connect from Power BI to that database. We must decide on the intermediary repository depending on the business requirements, technology preferences, costs, desired data latency, future support requirement and expertise etc…

But, what if we do not have any other options for now, and we have to use OData connection in Power BI without blasting the size and costs of the project by moving the data to an intermediary space? And.. let’s face it, many organisations dislike the idea of using an intermediary space for various reasons. The simplest one is that they simply cannot afford the associated costs of using intermediary storage or they do not have the expertise to support the solution in long term.

In this post, I am not discussing the solutions involving any alternatives; instead, I provide some tips and tricks that can improve the performance of your data refreshes over OData connections in Power BI.

Notes

The tips in this post will not give you blazing-fast data refresh performance over OData, but they will help you to improve the data refresh performance. So if you take all the actions explained in this post and you still do not get an acceptable performance, then you might need to think about the alternatives and move your data into a central repository.

If you are getting data from a D365 data source, you may want to look at some alternatives to OData connection such as Dataverse (SQL Endpoint), D365 Dataverse (Legacy) or Common Data Services (CDS). But keep in mind, even those connectors have some limitations and might not give you an acceptable data refresh performance. For instance, Dataverse (SQL Endpoint) has 80MB table size limitation. There might be some other reasons for not getting a good performance over those connections such as having extra wide tables. Believe me, I’ve seen some tables with more than 800 columns.

Some suggestions in this post apply to other data sources and are not limited to OData connections only.

Suggestion 1: Measure the data source size

It is always good to have an idea of the size of the data source we are dealing with and OData connection is no different. In fact, the backend tables on OData sources can be wast. I wrote a blog post around that before, so I suggest you use the custom function I wrote to understand the size of the data source. If your data source is large, then the query in that post takes a long time to get the results, but you can filter the tables to get the results quicker.

Suggestion 2: Avoid getting throttled

As mentioned earlier, many solutions have some throttling mechanisms to control the over-utilisation of resources. Sending many API requests may trigger throttling which limits our access to the data for a short period of time. During that period, our calls are redirected to a different URL.

Tip 1: Disabling Parallel Loading of Tables

One of the many reasons that Power BI requests many API calls is loading the data into multiple tables in Parallel. We can disable this setting from Power BI Desktop by following these steps:

  1. Click the File menu
  2. Click Options and settings
  3. Click Options
  4. Click the Data Load tab from the CURREN FILE section
  5. Untick the Enable parallel loading of tables option
Disabling Parallel Loading of Tables in Power BI
Disabling Parallel Loading of Tables in Power BI Desktop
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