Get the most out of Power Query in Power BI Dataflows

Power BI dataflows

Power BI dataflows are the first place that many users will encounter the new Power Query web based interface. Until now Power Query has been restricted to Power BI Desktop and Excel. This new web interface is, well, new, and it doesn’t contain all of the capabilities of the more mature client based interface. The good news is that you can take advantage of both the reusability of dataflows, and the maturity of the Power BI Desktop interface.

Two Interfaces

A quick glance at the user interfaces for Power Query on the web and in Power BI Desktop reveals the feature difference.

Power Query editor in dataflows

Power Query editor in dataflows

Power Query editor in Power BI Desktop

Power Query editor in Power BI Desktop

The Desktop editor has a full ribbon interface with a wide array of capabilities, while the web interface has a simple button bar with a subset of features. In the images above (which show the exact same set of queries in the two interfaces) it is easy to see that the combine binaries, or expand tables feature is not there for the “Content” column.

Advanced editor

The key to bringing all of these capabilities in Power BI Desktop to Power Query in dataflows is the Advanced editor. Power Query is at its essence an interface that is used to construct queries using the M language. This core code is available to you in both Desktop and dataflows.

In Desktop, the Advanced editor is available from the ribbon both in the Home tab and in the View tab. In the web based editor it is available by right clicking on an entity (query) and selecting Advanced editor.

 

The code revealed by this editor can appear rather daunting for a complex query, but all you really need to understand is how to copy and paste it. Build up whatever query you need using Desktop (or Excel!), open the Advanced editor and copy it to your clipboard. Then, either create a new dataflow or add an entity to a new dataflow using the Blank Query data source. Once the editor is open, right click on the query, open the Advanced editor, and paste the query from your clipboard.

Done. Well, almost. While both environments execute M code, there are a few differences to be aware of.

Some functions may not work

There are subtle differences between the M engine in Excel and the one in Power BI Desktop. This approach works very well with these two products, but occasionally an incompatibility can crop up. This is no different with the M engine for dataflows. If you do encounter an incompatibility, try achieving the same thing a different way in Desktop and trying again.

Data Sources

Dataflows do not support all of the data sources that Power BI Desktop and Excel do. This will of course change over time, but as of this writing, dataflows are in preview, and currently support 24 data sources compared to the almost 100 in Power BI  Desktop.

Data sources supported in dataflows - Nov 2018

Data sources supported in dataflows – Nov 2018

Queries posted into a dataflow that use an unsupported data source will therefore likely not work. However, there’s nothing stopping you from trying, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a few.

Functions

Functions ARE supported in dataflows. They can be created using a blank query (and copying function from Power BI Desktop). However, if that’s all that you do, you may receive an error like “This dataflow contains computed entities, which require Premium to refresh” or “We cannot convert a value of type Table to Function”.

You do NOT need Premium to use functions, but a function must its “Enable Load” function disabled. This is done by right clicking on the function and toggling the Enable Load item to off.

Turn off Enable Load for a function

Turn off Enable Load for a function

Computed Entities

Computed entities (or calculated queries) are supported by dataflows but because the type of calculation can’t be predicted, they require the isolation that dedicated capacity (Premium) provides.

Referenced tables are an example of computed entities.  If you are in the habit of designing a base query that does not load data, and then creating variants of that table that do in your reports, you will need to change that design in dataflows in order to avoid the Premium requirement.

In Power BI Desktop, this is the difference between Duplicate and Reference when creating a new query from a base query. Duplicate will simply create a new query with the same steps, while Reference will create a computed entity. If you want to avoid Premium, you’ll need to use Duplicate.

New query create options in Power BI Desktop

New query create options in Power BI Desktop

The Power Query capabilities in dataflows are more powerful that they might appear at first glance. Power BI Desktop is the key to unlocking them, unless you’re already a total wizard at writing M code. Even then, the new editing features in Power BI Desktop likely put it over the top as an editor.

For now we need to cut and paste, but I would love to see a day when Power BI Desktop could connect directly to a dataflow and edit it in place.

4 thoughts on “Get the most out of Power Query in Power BI Dataflows

  1. Javier

    Thank you for the article! I don’t know if I am correct but what I’d like to do is to use PowewrQuery Online(Dataflow) to update my Excel data in the cloud (Business Excel) in the same way I update the Excel on premises in Power Query. I would trigger the update with MS Flow the trigger would be “when the file is updated”. Is this a dream?

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