Slowly Changing Dimension (SCD) in Power BI, Part 1, Introduction to SCD

Slowly changing dimension (SCD) is a data warehousing concept coined by the amazing Ralph Kimball. The SCD concept deals with moving a specific set of data from one state to another. Imagine we have a human resources (HR) system; Stephen Jiang is a Sales Manager, managing 10 sales representatives in his team. The following screenshot shows the sample data:

SCD in Power BI, Stephen Jiang is the sales manager of a team of 10 sales representatives
Image 1: Stephen Jiang is the sales manager of a team of 10 sales representatives

Today, Stephen Jiang got his promotion to the Vice President of Sales role, so his team has grown in size from 10 to 17. Stephen is the same person, but his role is now changed, as shown in the following image:

SCD in Power BI, Stephen's team after he was promoted to Vice President of Sales
Image 2: Stephen’s team after he was promoted to Vice President of Sales

Another example is when a customer’s address changes in a sales system. Again, the customer is the same, but their address is now different. From a data warehousing standpoint, we have different options to deal with the data depending on the business requirements, leading us to different types of SDCs. It is crucial to note that the data changes in the transactional source systems (in our examples, the HR system or a sales system). We move and transform the data from the transactional systems via extract, transform, and load (ETL) processes and land it in a data warehouse, where the SCD concept kicks in. SCD is about how changes in the source systems reflect the data in the data warehouse. These kinds of changes in the source system do not happen very often hence the term slowly changing. Many SCD types have been developed over the years, which is out of the scope of this post, but for your reference, we cover the first three types as follows.

SCD type zero (SCD 0)

With this type of SCD, we ignore all changes in a dimension. So, when a person’s residential address changes in the source system (an HR system, in our example), we do not change the landing dimension in our data warehouse. In other words, we ignore the changes within the data source. SCD 0 is also referred to as fixed dimensions.

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Thin Reports, Real-world Challenges

Power BI Thin Reports, Real-world Challenges

I previously explained in a blog post what thin reports are and why we should care about them. I also explained Report Level Measures in another blog post. In this post, I try to raise some real-world challenges we face when developing thin reports. I also provide a solution to those challenges.

Report Level Measure Related Challenges

Creating and using Report Level Measures is relatively easy, but there are some challenges that we face from time to time, such as:

  • Distinguishing Report Level Measures from Dataset Level Measures
  • Report Level Measure dependencies

Determining Report Level Measures from Dataset Level Measures

One of the challenges that Power BI Developers face is creating many report level measures. Unfortunately, Power BI Desktop currently uses the same iconography for both types of measures, making it hard to distinguish the actual measures created within the dataset from the report level measures. It gets even more challenging if we need to write technical documentation for an existing thin report. We have to open the PBIX file of the thin report in the Power BI Desktop and click every single measure. If the expression bar appears, the selected measure is a report level measure; otherwise, it is a dataset level measure.

So unless we use third-party tools, which I explain in this post, we must go through the manual process.

Report Level Measure dependencies

Another pain point related to the previous challenge is finding the dependencies between the report level measures. It is crucial to be aware of the interdependencies when doing impact analysis. We need to understand how a change in a report level measure impacts other report level measures. Again, Power BI Desktop does not currently have any options supporting that, so we have to click every measure and read through the DAX expressions to identify the dependencies or use the third-party tools to save development time.

Dataset and Thin Reports Dependency Challenges

The other challenges are even more difficult to overcome relate to interdependencies between datasets and thin reports. Power BI Service provides a lineage view that shows the dependencies between a dataset and its connected thin reports. But the challenges can get more complex to overcome manually. The following are some real-world examples of more complex situations:

  • What if we need to analyse the impact of changes in a dataset measure on all report level measures of the connected thin reports?
  • How do we analyse the impact of changes on a dataset measure on all connected thin reports, including the visuals, filters, etc…?
  • What if we need to tune the performance and we want to find a list of all unused tables or unused fields?

As you can see, the situation can get pretty complex, so manual operations are virtually impossible.

But there is a third party tool we can use which provides heaps of capabilities with a couple of clicks.

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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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Incremental Refresh in Power BI, Part 1: Implementation in Power BI Desktop

Incremental-Refresh-in-Power-BI-Part-1-Implementation-in-Power-BI-Desktop

Incremental refresh, or IR, refers to loading the data incrementally, which has been around in the world of ETL for data warehousing for a long time. Let us discuss incremental refresh (or incremental data loading) in a simple language to better understand how it works.

From a data movement standpoint, there are always two options when we transfer data from location A to location B:

  1. Truncation and load: We transfer the data as a whole from location A to location B. If location B has some data already, we entirely truncate the location B and reload the whole data from location A to B
  2. Incremental load: We transfer the data as a whole from location A to location B just once for the first time. The next time, we only load the data changes from A to B. In this approach, we never truncate B. Instead, we only transfer the data that exists in A but not in B

When we refresh the data in Power BI, we use the first approach, truncation and load, if we have not configured an incremental refresh. In Power BI, the first approach only applies to tables with Import or Dual storage modes. Previously, the Incremental load was available only in the tables with either Import or Dual storage modes. But the new announcement from Microsoft about Hybrid Tables greatly affects how Incremental load works. With the Hybrid Tables, the Incremental load is available on a portion of the table when a specific partition is in Direct Query mode, while the rest of the partitions are in Import storage mode.

Incremental refresh used to be available only on Premium capacities, but from Feb 2020 onwards, it is also available in Power BI Pro with some limitations. However, the Hybrid Tables are currently available on Power BI Premium Capacity and Premium Per User (PPU), not Pro. Let’s hope that Microsft will change its licensing plan for the Hybrid Tables in the future and make it available in Pro.

I will write about Hybrid Tables in a future blog post.

When we successfully configure the incremental refresh policies in Power BI, we always have two ranges of data; the historical range and the incremental range. The historical range includes all data processed in the past, and the incremental range is the current range of data to process. Incremental refresh in Power BI always looks for data changes in the incremental range, not the historical range. Therefore, the incremental refresh will not notice any changes in the historical data. When we talk about the data changes, we are referring to new rows inserted, updated or deleted, however, the incremental refresh detects updated rows as deleting the rows and inserting new rows of data.

Benefits of Incremental Refresh

Configuring incremental refresh is beneficial for large tables with hundreds of millions of rows. The following are some benefits of configuring incremental refresh in Power BI:

  • The data refreshes much faster than when we truncate and load the data as the incremental refresh only refreshes the incremental range
  • The data refresh process is less resource-intensive than refreshing the entire data all the time
  • The data refresh is less expensive and more maintainable than the non-incremental refreshes over large tables
  • The incremental refresh is inevitable when dealing with massive datasets with billions of rows that do not fit into our data model in Power BI Desktop. Remember, Power BI uses in-memory data processing engine; therefore, it is improbable that our local machine can handle importing billions of rows of data into the memory

Now that we understand the basic concepts of the incremental refresh, let us see how it works in Power BI.

Implementing Incremental Refresh Policies with Power BI Desktop

We currently can configure incremental refresh in the Power BI Desktop and in Dataflows contained in a Premium Workspace. This blog post looks at the incremental refresh implementation within the Power BI Desktop.

After successfully implementing the incremental refresh policies with the desktop, we publish the model to Power BI Service. The first data refresh takes longer as we transfer all data from the data source(s) to Power BI Service for the first time. After the first load, all future data refreshes will be incremental.

How to Implement Incremental Refresh

Implementing incremental refresh in Power BI is simple. There are two generic parts of the implementation:

  1. Preparing some prerequisites in Power Query and defining incremental policies in the data model
  2. Publishing the model to Power BI Service and refreshing the dataset

Let’s briefly get to some more details to quickly understand how the implementation works.

  • Preparing Prerequisites in Power Query
    • We require to define two parameters with DateTime data type in Power Query Editor. The names for the two parameters are RangeStart and RangeEnd, which are reserved for defining incremental refresh policies. As you know, Power Query is case-sensitive, so the names of the parameters must be RangeStart and RangeEnd.
    • The next step is to filter the table by a DateTime column using the RangeStart and RangeEnd parameters when the value of the DateTime column is between RangeStart and RangeEnd.

Notes

  • The data type of the parameters must be DateTime
  • The datat tpe of the column we use for incremental refresh must be Int64 (integer) Date or DateTime.Therefore, for scenarios that our table has a smart date key instead of Date or DateTime, we have to convert the RangeStart and RangeEnd parameters to Int64
  • When we filter a table using the RangeStart and RangeEnd parameters, Power BI uses the filter on the DateTime column for creating partitions on the table. So it is important to pay attention to the DateTime ranges when filtering the values so that only one filter condition must have an “equal to” on RangeStart or RangeEnd, not both
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