It’s finally here.
Quietly, sometime over the past few days, Microsoft updated the Power BI application in Office 365 along with the Data Management Gateway (get it here). Chief among the changes is the ability to schedule data refresh, which to my thinking, is the single most important feature for deploying Business Intelligence solution in the cloud.
Until now, it has been possible to refresh Excel worksheets with embedded data models on demand, In fact, if your data source was also in the cloud (and was one of the supported data sources), you don’t need Power BI to do it, it’s supported natively in Office 365. If your data source is on-premises (and either Oracle or SQL Server), you can do it through the Data Management Gateway. What has been missing is the ability to have the data model refreshed in the absence of interaction. No longer.
This capability can of course be found in PowerPivot for SharePoint on premises. It is configured on a per workbook basis in the PowerPivot Gallery, which is a PowerPivot focused view of a document library that contains workbooks. In works in much the same manner with Power BI, with the Power BI application taking the place of the Power Pivot gallery.
Configuring Scheduled Refresh
To turn on automatic refresh for a workbook, you need to access the workbook’s BI context menu. To do this, first, open the Power BI application, then locate the workbook that you wish to have refreshed automatically. Click on the ellipsis to access the menu.
A number of items have been added to the menu, and to the preview graphic itself. To the left of the ellipsis is information on when the model was last updated, and the context menu adds the ability to edit in Excel and to add to Q&A as well. However, the feature that we’re interested in is the scheduled data refresh, and selecting that option takes us to the scheduled refresh screen.
If refresh has not already been configured, it opens into the settings tab, otherwise, the history tab will be opened.
To turn on refresh, simply select the “on” slider. If your model has multiple data sources you can choose them to be included or not. As far as I have seen, you can only have one schedule per workbook, so if a data source isn’t included, it simply won’t be updated.
Next, select your refresh schedule, which will be either daily or weekly. By default, your schedule will have a shelf life of 90 days, and will turn off after that time. You can adjust this period by changing the value of the “Ends By” field. You can then select a time (or a day and time if appropriate) for the refresh to occur. Finally, any errors will be sent to the email address that you specify in the notification field.
That’s really all there is to it. Selecting “save settings” will save the schedule, and “save and refresh report” will save the schedule, and attempt to run an immediate refresh.
If the data source is cloud based, it will be queried directly by Power BI, and if it is on premises, it will contact the appropriate Data Management Gateway process and refresh through it. I would love for there to be a little more status information for refreshes in the administration portal, but for now, the refresh will either succeed or fail. However, If the data source is on premises, you can open the Resource Monitor on the gateway machine, and monitor the “diawp.exe” process.
Once the refresh kicks in you’ll notice it using a lot of send bandwidth.
Selecting the “history” tab will of course show the refresh history, and what the refresh schedule for the workbook is. At a glance you can see whether or not refreshes succeeded or failed, how long they took, and how they were initiated.
I should note here that I have been working with the Power BI preview for several months now, and in order to get scheduled refresh to work with on premises data, I did need to install the latest Data Management Gateway . I’m not sure if this was because scheduled refresh required it, or just because it had expired (it had), but I would recommend installing it in any case. Update 10/02/14 – I have been informed that scheduled refresh does not require the latest data management gateway, but I would recommend getting it all the same – it’s the release version.
One interesting side note. After installing the latest DMG, accessing its configuration shows its version to be 1.0, where previous versions were all point releases (the latest being 0.11). I can’t help but assume that the General Availability of Power BI isn’t far away. UPDATE 10/02/14 – In fact, Power BI went GA today, and this is in fact the GA version of the Data Management Gateway.
There are a number of behaviours and limitations that you should be aware of when using scheduled refresh in Power BI. The below items are by no means exhaustive, but simply things that I have either run into, or been made aware of.
Too much data
As I have outlined previously, the maximum size for an embedded workbook model in Power BI is 250 MB. If a user attempts to enable a larger model, they will receive an error message. However, scheduled refresh now allows for the possibility that the model could start small, and then grow to exceed this limit through refresh. What then happens when the limit is exceeded?
When the model is opened for refresh, its size is checked. If it’s OK, the refresh proceeds, and the model is updated. If the model now exceeds the limits, the next refresh will fail, as will any attempts to work with the file through a browser, until the size of the model is reduced.
Refreshes can take a fair amount of time. During this period, the file is not checked out exclusively to the refresh process, and if it is edited by a user in that time an edit collision could occur. If this situation arises, scheduled refresh will simply discard its updates and fail.
As mentioned above, the two options for schedule frequency are daily and weekly. I was really hoping to see hourly. Monthly and annually would be great too. As it stands, if your data needs to be more current than daily, then Power BI still won’t work for you (without heavy customization). Of course, the reality is that daily is frequent enough for most situations, and this at least puts data refresh on par with its counterpart in PowerPivot for SharePoint.
If someone from the product team is reading this, hourly updates would be my #2 feature ask, for both Power BI and Power Pivot for SharePoint. (for the #1 ask, read on).
Limited Data Sources
At the moment, the refreshable data sources are those that are currently supported by Office 365 in the cloud (Azure SQL, SQL on Azure VMs, and OData feeds with simple or no authentication), and those supported by the Data Management Gateway (SQL Server 205 +, Oracle 10g +). A full list can be found in the official documentation here.
This is a great starting list, but it is limited. There are quite a number of other data sources that would be great to see on this list, multidimensional sources being right up there. However to my thinking, the most glaring omission on this list is Power Query.
The above data sources are supported if the data was imported into the model through Power Pivot’s import feature (or the native features in Excel 2013). However, if a user takes advantage of the many excellent features available in Power Query, their model will not be automatically refreshable. I have already seen in the preview forums that this difference confuses users, and given that Power Query is a highly touted integral component of Power BI, it needs to become a first class citizen, and soon. That’s my #1 ask – again, both for Power BI and Power Pivot for SharePoint.
However, for the moment, what you need to know is that if your model is built with Power Query, it can’t be refreshed automatically.
Limitations aside, it appears to me that Power BI is an absolutely compelling value proposition, and the inclusion of scheduled refresh completes the picture. I can’t wait for it to be released into the wild. Let the games begin!