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Power BI for Data Modelling


Power BI has a lot of uses, but one of the most interesting of them is to model and shape data
to make it easier for self-service BI. Power BI is a full-stack solution that includes data
loading, data modelling, metrics, reporting and distribution. It can take the source data, and
perform in-process data modelling relatively easily as well a providing an easy to use and
powerful user interface for analytics and reporting.

Very few SQL Server practitioners have managed to avoid hearing of Power BI.
Some have even used it to create impressive dashboards bulging with charts and
other visuals. Even after the initial excitement of the ‘unboxing’ has faded, many of
us have (occasionally grudgingly) admitted that it is a powerful product that certainly
seems to deliver what it promises.

There is, however, a use for Power BI that is far removed from the graphical bells
and whistles, but which could prove to be of most value to the database professional.
This is the use of Power BI to model and shape data.

Why Shape Data?

The classic self-service BI approach usually follows the approach that is outlined in
Figure 1, below:

Figure 1.

This is the solution that most users currently implement. You find data sources,
connect to them, import what you need and then add any required calculations
before creating dashboards. This is exactly what the product was designed for and it
usually works flawlessly with an impressive range of data sources. Equally
impressive is the power of DAX in its latest incarnation to extend a data model with
complex additional metrics. Finally the data modelling capabilities allow you to add
hierarchies and define KPIs.

However this approach assumes that the source data is comprehensible to users,
and easy to apply. This is an optimistic assumption that can end in tears. What
happens when the data is sourced from a complex relational system? This can result
in lay users feeling helpless and lost in an unfriendly thicket of metadata. Even if
Power BI can detect relationships between tables, and lets you, the developer,
rename tables and columns to make the result seem less intimidating, an OLTP
system is rarely designed to optimize end-user happiness.
Things can get even worse if your data source is an ERP system. Whatever the
source, and even if the table names are in English – the metadata is largely
incomprehensible and any traditional table relationships are probably absent.

Even when the database is relatively straightforward, you could have a valid reason
to want to present data differently. Perhaps you want to try out a data warehouse
topology or apply a rapid application development process to a Kimball model before
you launch into the creation of a full-blooded enterprise data warehouse. Maybe you
want to experiment with a Data Vault approach. Whatever the reason, adapting or
refining the data landscape could be either an option or a necessity.

It follows that if you are going to attempt a self-service BI solution you are probably
going to have to think in terms of adding a metadata layer to the source data to
render the information accessible to users. This is the approach that is outlined in
Figure 2:

Figure 2.

As any BI practitioner will immediately note, there is nothing original about this
approach. It is probably what most BI architects and developers have been doing
with the SQL Server stack for 15 years or more. So why not apply it to a Power BI

Full-Stack BI with Power BI

It may come as a surprise to some, but Power BI can – with a little application –
become a full-stack BI solution. This is because even though it is a single tool, it lets
you carry out the key steps in a BI process. The table below lets you compare Power
BI with the SQL Server BI stack:

Segment SQL Server Stack Power BI

Data Load SSIS Power BI Query Editor
Data ModellingSSAS (SSDT) Power BI Query Editor / Power BI
Metrics SSAS (SSDT) Power BI / DAX
Reporting SSRS (Paginated and Mobile)Power BI
Distribution SharePoint PowerBI.Com

Simply put, Power BI will let you do nearly everything that you can do using the
traditional SQL Server BI toolkit.

The next question to ask is why you should want to use a simple, free tool to replace
an industrial-strength tried and tested approach. The answer is, of course, much
more nuanced. You might not want to replace an existing system. Yet you could
want to:

 Develop a proof of concept data warehouse in a shorter time-frame

 Deliver a specific and tailored solution to a subset of users
 Avoid extending a corporate data warehouse to empower only a small group
of users where the complexity is disproportionate
 Deliver a targeted solution for a specific group of users where a corporate
solution is not cost-effective
 Allow users to access data from outside the specific corporate data that they
use traditionally – specifically Big Data sources
 Model and test new data sources – and mix OLAP, OLTP and Big Data

This list could go on. However I hope that some of these ideas will strike a chord with

The breadth of the capabilities that Power BI offers allows you to perform all of the
following everyday BI tasks:

Data Load

 Data Profiling
 Load Sequencing
 Data Type Conversion
 Data Lookups
 Relational to dimensional conversion

Data Modelling & Metrics

 Schema design:– Dimensional vs. tabular

 Semantic layer (rename objects for greater clarity)
 Hierarchies
 KPIs
 Calculated metrics

Presentation Layer

 Compare visualization types / test chart types

 Mock-up reports / dashboards (element assembly)
 Test Filters (& Slicers)
 Try out Hierarchical Drilldown
 Define user interaction requirements (Self-Service vs. Enterprise BI)

Using Power BI Desktop to Apply a Logical Dimensional

Although I haven’t the space to go into all the detail and to examine all the possible
variations on the theme of BI, all the tasks listed above are perfectly possible using
Power BI. For the moment we will concentrate on a few core elements of the stack to
apply a logical dimensional structure to a relational data source, adapt the semantic
layer and then add a couple of calculated metrics and a few hierarchies. This will
allow you to appreciate some of the more well-known (as well as one or two of the
less well-known) aspects of the Power BI Query Editor in Power BI Desktop. What
we will see includes:

 Joining tables at query level (as opposed to doing this in the Power BI
Relationships view)
 Using hidden intermediate queries as a data staging area
 Generating and applying surrogate keys in the Power BI Query Editor
 Renaming queries and fields
 Adding hierarchies
 Creating calculated measures

This article assumes that you already have some knowledge of Power BI Desktop
and the Power BI Query Editor, but what follows should not, I hope, deter even
beginners. After all, this tool is ostensibly designed for ease of use, and so even
moderately complex modifications should be comprehensible by neophytes.

The Relational Schema

The sample data for this article is an OLTP database (albeit a very simple one) that
contains six tables. These are illustrated in the following figure:

Figure 3

The Desired Dimensional Schema

The relational data has, inevitably, been optimized for transactional processing.
Consequently the fields that users will need for analytics are distributed among
several tables. What most users want is a simplified presentation layer that delivers
attributes and metrics in classic star schema. In fact we could imagine that the CIO
of the company just returned from a power lunch with a suite of highly-paid external
consultants bearing a napkin containing the ideal BI architecture. This is shown in
Figure 4:

Figure 4

Clearly this design is not a fully-fledged enterprise data architecture. However it is

enough for the purposes of this article, as it will let us overlay the existing relational
design with a radically different data topology and then extend it with a time

Loading the Data

As a first step in creating a star schema over a relational model we need to load the
data. This example will use the sample database CarSalesData. If you prefer to
save yourself the trouble of creating a database and running the script to populate
the tables, the data for these tables is also in a spreadsheet
named CarSales_Tables that is supplied with this article. Power BI could, of course
have sourced the data from any of the multitude of sources that it can handle.

1. Launch Power BI Desktop and click ‘Get Data’ from the splash screen.
2. Click ‘Database’, ‘SQL Server Database’ and ‘Connect.’ The SQL Server
Database dialog will appear.
3. Enter the server name, click ‘Import’ and ‘OK’. The Navigator dialog will
4. Expand the CarSalesData database and select the six tables that are in the
ERD diagram in Figure 3. The Navigator dialog will look something like the
one in Figure 5.

Figure 5.
5. Click ‘Edit’. The Power BI Query Editor will open and display the tables that
you have selected. You can see this in Figure 6.

Figure 6
6. In the Queries pane on the left of the screen, right-click on each source data
table individually and uncheck ‘Enable Load’. This will make the source tables
into “intermediate” or staging tables that will not be visible to end users but
that can nonetheless be used as a basis for the data transformations that will
be applied later. The table names will appear in italics in the Queries pane on
the left.
7. Rename all the queries to remove the “Data” prefix.

The first and fairly painless stage is finished. You now have the relational data in
Power BI Desktop ready for dimensional modelling.

Creating the Vehicle Dimension

A quick look at the source data shows that the attributes describing vehicles can be
found in a couple of tables – Stock and Colors. So we need to isolate the required
attributes from these tables and create a single “virtual table” (which is really another
query) that will be visible to the user as the Vehicle dimension.

1. Right-click on the Stock query and select ‘Reference’. This will create a copy
of the Stock query that will depend for its source data on the source query.
2. In the Query Settings pane on the right rename the Stock (2)
query Dim_Vehicle.
3. Leaving the Dim_Vehicle query selected, click ‘Merge Queries’. When the
‘Merge’ dialog appears click on the ColorID column in the upper part of the
4. Select the Colors query from the popup list and click on the ColorID column
in the lower part of the dialog.
5. Define the Join Kind as Inner. You will see something like Figure 7.
Figure 7

6. Click ‘OK’. A new column (named NewColumn) will appear at the right of the
data table.
7. Click the icon at the right of the new column. In the popup select the
‘Expand’ radio button, uncheck ‘ColorID’ and also uncheck ‘Use original
column name as prefix’. The dialog will look like the following figure:
Figure 8

8. Click ‘OK’. The Color column from the Colors query will be added to
the Dim_Vehicle query. You have, in effect, created a “view” based on the
two queries.
9. Control-click to select the following
columns: Make, Model, VehicleType and Color. Then right-click on any of
the selected columns and choose ‘Remove other columns’. This will leave you
with a data table containing four columns only. These columns are the
attributes required by the Vehicle dimension.
10. Select all four columns in the table and then, in the Home ribbon click
Remove Rows and then Remove Duplicates. Only unique records will remain
in the table.
11. In the ‘Add Column’ ribbon, click the popup triangle in the ‘Add index
Column’ button. Select From 1. A new column containing a unique
monotonically increasing identifier will be added. This will be the surrogate
12. Right-click on the new column and rename it VehicleSK. The final dimension
query will look like the one in the following figure:
Figure 9

Creating the Sales Fact Table

Let us now jump straight to the creation of the fact table that shows all the car sales
from the source database. Here is how to set this up:

1. Right-click on the InvoiceLines query and select ‘Reference’. This will create
a copy of the source query. The newly-created query will use the original
query as a data source.
2. Right click on the reference table that you just created and select ‘Rename’.
Call it Fact_Sales.
3. Leaving the Fact_Sales query selected, in the Home ribbon click
‘Merge Queries’. When the ‘Merge’ dialog appears click on
the StockID column in the upper part of the dialog.
4. Select the Stock query from the popup list and click on the StockID column in
the lower part of the dialog. Set the Join Kind as Inner. Click ‘OK’.
5. Click the icon at the right of the new column. In the popup select the
‘Expand’ radio button, uncheck ‘Select all columns’ and also uncheck ‘Use
original column name as prefix’. Select
the Make, Model, VehicleType and ColorID columns, then click ‘OK’.
6. Click ‘Merge Queries’. When the Merge dialog appears click on
the NewColumn.ColorID column in the upper part of the dialog.
7. Select the Colors query from the popup list and click on the ColorID column
in the lower part of the dialog. Set the Join Kind as Inner. Click ‘OK’.
8. Click the icon at the right of the new column. In the popup select the
‘Expand’ radio button, uncheck ‘ColorID’ and also uncheck ‘Use original
column name as prefix’. Select
the Make, Model, VehicleType and ColorID columns, then click ‘OK’.
9. Click ‘Merge Queries’. When the ‘Merge’ dialog appears click on
the NewColumn.Make, NewColumn.Model, NewColumn.VehicleType and
NewColumn.Color columns in this order.
10. Select the Dim_Vehicle query from the popup list of available queries.
11. Click on the Make, Model, VehicleType and Color columns in this order in
the lower part of the dialog, then click ‘OK’. You are joining the two queries
using multiple fields.
12. Click the icon at the right of the new column. In the popup select the
‘Expand’ radio button, uncheck ‘Select all columns’ and select only
the VehicleSK column. Click ‘OK’.
13. Select the VehiclePrice and VehicleSK in the Fact_Sales table. Right-click
on any of these columns and select ‘Remove other columns’. The fact table
will look like it does in the following Figure:
Figure 10

This process let you detect and add the VehicleSK field from the vehicle dimension
to the fact table. I imagine that most BI practitioners have carried out these kinds of
operations using SSIS and T-SQL many times in their careers.

Adding a Time Dimension

It is hard to imagine a data warehouse – even a tiny model like the one that you are
seeing here – without a time dimension. So let’s see how to add this to the model in
a couple of minutes.

1. In Data View, activate the ‘Modeling’ ribbon and click the ‘New Table’ button.
The expression Table = will appear in the Formula Bar.
2. Replace the word ‘Table’ with ‘DateDimension’.
3. Click to the right of the equals sign and enter the following DAX function

DateDimension = CALENDAR( "1/1/2012", "31/12/2016" )

5. Press Enter or click the tick icon in the Formula Bar. Power BI Desktop will
create a table containing a single column of dates from the 1st of January
2012 until the 31st of December 2016.
6. In the Fields list, right-click on the Date field in the DateDimension table and
select ‘Rename’. Rename the Date field to DateSK.
7. Add five new columns containing the formulas shown in the table below:

Column Title Formula Comments

FullYear YEAR([DateSK]) Isolates the year as a
four digit number
Quarter “Q” Displays the current
&ROUNDDOWN(MONTH([DateSK])/4,0)+1 quarter in short form
QuarterNumberROUNDDOWN(MONTH([DateSK])/4,0)+1 Displays the number
of the current quarter.
This is essentially
used as a sort by
MonthFull FORMAT([DateSK], “MMMM”) Displays the full name
of the month
MonthNumber MONTH([DateSK]) Isolates the number of
the month in the year
as one or two digits

8. Select the Quarter column. In the Modeling ribbon click the popup triangle in
the ‘Sort ByColumn’ button and select QuarterNumber.
9. Select the FullMonth column. In the ‘Modeling’ ribbon click the popup triangle
in the ‘Sort ByColumn’ button and select MonthNumber
In case this short sequence seems a little cabbalistic, let me explain what you
have done:

o Using the DAX formula CALENDAR() you specified a range of dates

for Power BI to generate a table containing a continuous date range.
o You added fields to display quarter and month – as well as the
numbers for these items that are used as sort indicators.
o Finally you applied the sort order to any non-numeric columns. This
prevents the month names appearing in alphabetical order.

Your Date dimension is now complete. It is, admittedly, an extremely shortened

version of the kind of fully-fledged table that you would need in a large-scale
application. However it is enough to make the design point that underlies this article.

Finishing the Data Model

Now let’s create the dimensional model – albeit with only one dimension for the
moment, as I am keener on clarifying the principle that you can then employ for most
other dimensions rather than wading through all the detail.

1. Assuming that you are still in the Power BI Desktop Query Editor, click
‘Close’ and ‘Apply’ to return to the Report view.
2. Click on the Relationships icon on the left (the third icon down). You should
see the fact and dimension table joined on the VehicleSK field. The initial
model will look like it does in the following Figure:
Figure 11

Yes, that is right, you have nothing more to do. Power BI Desktop has guessed that
the queries (that are now, for Power BI, tables) are designed to be joined on a
specific field and has helpfully added the relationship between the tables.

The remaining two dimensions can be created using exactly the same techniques
that you saw in the section describing how to create the vehicle dimension. So I will
not describe all the steps laboriously, but prefer to refer you to the finished model
that you can find in the PowerBiForDataModelling.Pbixfile that accompanies this
The finished data model that you can view in the Power BI Desktop Relationships
view looks like the one in Figure 12, below. As you can see, we have created a
practical implementation based on the high-level (that is, napkin-based) starting point
that you saw above in Figure 4:
Figure 12

Power BI Desktop might not, in all cases guess the relationships correctly in a
complex model. However adding a new relationship is as easy as dragging the
surrogate key field from the fact table to the dimension (or vice-versa). Equally easily
you can delete any erroneous relationships by right clicking on the relationship and
selecting Delete.

Finalizing the Data Model

The data model still needs a few tweaks to make it truly user-friendly and ready for
self-service BI. A couple of things to do are:

 Hide the surrogate keys and sort by columns.

 Add a vehicle hierarchy and a time hierarchy.
 Create a few calculated measures as simple examples of what can be done to
extend a data model.

Hide the surrogate keys

This is extremely simple, but nonetheless necessary. All you have to do, in any of
the Power BI views in Power BI Desktop is to right-click on the field that you want to
mask and select ‘Hide’ in Report View. The surrogate key field will no longer be
visible to users. They will, however appear in italics in ‘Relationship and data’ view.
You have to do this not only for all the surrogate keys in all the tables, but also for
the QuarterNumber and MonthNumber fields in the DateDimension table.

Add Hierarchies

Hierarchies are a traditional metadata structure in BI, and Power BI Desktop now
(from the March 2016 update) allows you to create them.

1. In ‘Report’ view, ensure that the ‘Fields’ list is visible on the right.
2. Expand the Dim_Vehicle table.
3. Right-click on the Make field and select ‘New Hierarchy’.
4. Right-click on the Model field and select ‘Add to Make hierarchy’.
5. Right-click on the original Make and Model fields (outside the hierarchy that
you just created) and select ‘Hide’. This way these fields will only be visible in
the hierarchy.

Now you have a ready to use parent-child hierarchy that can be applied to tables,
matrices and charts.

Creating a time hierarchy is a virtually identical process. You start with

the FullYear field as the basis for a new hierarchy in the DataDimension table and
then add the Quarter and Month Full fields. Finally you hide these latter two fields
outside the hierarchy.
Create calculated measures

BI inevitably involves adding further analytical calculations to the data model. As a

full demonstration of DAX (the language that Power BI uses for calculating metrics)
is beyond the confines of this article, I merely want to demonstrate the principle here.

1. In ‘Data’ view, ensure that the ‘Fields’ list is visible on the right.
2. Select the Fact_Sales table in the ‘Fields’ list.
3. In the Home ribbon, click the popup triangle in the ‘New Measure’ button and
select ‘New Column’. A column, enticingly named “Column” will appear in
the Fact_Sales table at the right of any existing columns.
4. Click inside the formula bar above the table and enter the following formula:

TotalCosts = [CostPrice]-[SpareParts]-[LaborCost]

6. Press Enter – or click the tick icon in the formula bar.

The new column will calculate the total cost for every record in the fact table.

As a final flourish I want to add some Time Intelligence to the model. So

1. In ‘Data’ view, ensure that the ‘Fields’ list is visible on the right.
2. Select the Fact_Sales table in the ‘Fields’ list.
3. In the ‘Home’ ribbon, click the popup triangle in the ‘New Measure’ button and
select ‘NewMeasure’.
4. Enter the following Measure

QuarterSales = TOTALQTD(SUM(Fact_Sales[SalePrice]),DateDimension[DateSK])

6. In the ‘Home’ ribbon, click the popup triangle in the ‘New Measure’ button and
select ‘NewMeasure’.
7. Enter the following Measure

YearSales = TOTALYTD(SUM(Fact_Sales[SalePrice]),DateDimension[DateSK])

You now have a couple of MDX measures that will calculate month to date and year
to date sales.

Now that the data model is finished, you should see all the measures and attributes
that are displayed in the following figure – which is the Field List from the Report
View in Power BI Desktop:
Figure 12

You can now save and close the Power BI Desktop Query Editor and begin using the
available attributes and measures to create reports and dashboards. The sample
data enabled me to create the dashboard that you can see in the following figure in
approximately 3 minutes.

Figure 14
1. There are a few points that I must make now that the star schema model has
been created over the initial relational model:
2. You might not need to create reference tables in reality – a finalized star
schema might adapt certain tables rather than initially setting them to be
reference tables. However this approach can be a valid phase when initially
designing a radically different data topology over a relational model.
3. Occasionally (as is the case with the ClientID field in this data model) you can
use an ID as a surrogate key. Just remember to do this quietly and not to
mention the fact to any Kimball purists or you will never hear the end of it.
4. The tough part can be flattening the fact table so that it initially contains all the
required fields that are necessary to map the fact table to each dimension
table and deduce the appropriate surrogate key. However this becomes
easier with practice, and is certainly easier if you know the source data model
5. You may find that you have to use the “M” language in Power BI Desktop
Query Editor to perform certain calculations if these are tightly bound to the
relational data structure. An example can be discretizing data – in other words
reducing mileage to “buckets” of mileage ranges, for instance. While you
cannot hope to attain the ease and power of DAX in this environment, you can
certainly carry out most of the kinds of calculations that you could perform
using T-SQL when preparing a dimensional structure in SQL Server ready to
be loaded into “Classic” SSAS.

The Limits to Power BI Data Modelling

The small example of in-process data modelling is, inevitably, an extremely simple
one. Yet it hopefully suffices to make the point not only that this can be done, but
that it can be performed relatively easily.

However I do not want the extreme simplicity of the approach to mask the sweep of
data transformations that are available when modelling data with Power BI Desktop
Query Editor. Joining tables and aggregating datasets are only a start. To give you a
more comprehensive overview of what can be done, take a look at the following
table that compares the data transformation capabilities of both SSIS and the Power
BI Desktop Query Editor.

Data TransformationSSISPower Query

Unpivot YES YES
Case Transformation YES YES
Merge datasets YES YES
Join datasets YES YES
Deduplicate datasets YES YES
Lookup YES YES
Group and Aggregate YES YES
Select Columns YES YES
Exclude Rows YES YES
Split Columns YES YES
Deduplicate YES YES
Subset datasets YES YES
Concatenate YES YES
Split fields YES YES
Filter Dataset YES YES
Derived column YES YES
Fuzzy Matching YES NO

These are, inevitably, the good points. When it comes to heavy-duty processing,
SSIS clearly comes out on top, because Power BI offers:

 No Logging
 No monitoring
 No complex error handling
 No Data Profiling
 Little flow logic
 No parallel processing
 Large dataset limitations

It follows that enterprise BI will remain the domain of the SQL Server toolkit for some
time to come, and this is not in dispute. However I hope that, after a short time spent
testing the data modelling capabilities of Power BI, even the most seasoned SQL
Server professional will not be tempted to dismiss it out of hand as a lightweight tool
for power users only.

Power BI Data Models for In-Memory Analytics

Earlier in this article I listed a few potential uses for Power BI in the enterprise. These
included testing data integration approaches and trialing BI approaches. I want to
finish with one more idea – and one that could prove to be a justification (as if any
were needed) for rolling out SQL Server 2016 for in-memory analytics.

In-memory tables have reached a degree of maturity in the 2016 release of SQL
Server. From a BI perspective they have made a quantum leap, with the addition of
clustered columnstore indexes. These deliver OLTP speed allied the kind of with
extreme compression ratios that, in their turn, allow for data warehouse-level
quantities of data to be contained in memory – and so accessible nearly always
instantaneously when using Power BI Desktop in Direct Query mode.

Power BI on top of these structures adds the final piece of the puzzle – it provides an
easy to use and powerful user interface for analytics and reporting using the source

The only cloud in this otherwise clear blue sky is that some of the transformations
that are necessary to overlay a different logical layer do not (yet) work in direct query
mode. This means that it is not currently possible to create a scenario where data
is not downloaded into Power BI Desktop, but read directly from SQL Server
memory while presenting a separate logical data layer to the user. The specific
function that blocks the kind of transformation that we used above is the generation
of an index column. This is, unfortunately not possible when using a direct
connection. However, given the continuing evolution of Power BI we can live in hope
that this possibility – or a suitable workaround – may appear soon.

The result nonetheless is near-real-time analytics from transactional data presented

in a comprehensible way to users. Self-service BI may just have made a great leap