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Category: Business Intelligence

Using Power BI with Microsoft Lists

Microsoft Lists debuted in 2020 and they are a (yet another) great way to organize list-based data. Now, when someone says data, I think Power BI. Obviously, we’ll want to report on this data, but how do we do that? There is no Power BI connector for Microsoft Lists. The answer is quite simple, if not completely obvious. You need to use the SharePoint Online List connector in Power BI.

Microsoft Lists are the same thing as SharePoint lists. In fact, they ARE SharePoint lists. The Microsoft Lists service is just a new user interface for interacting with them. You can use Lists all you want and never see SharePoint at all, unless you need to change list settings, but I digress. Given this fact, as far as Power BI is concerned, everything that applies to SharePoint lists applies to Microsoft Lists lists (the grammar here gets awfully awkward).

For reference, I wrote a series of articles some time ago about the idiosyncrasies of working with SharePoint data in Power BI, and these articles are still valid today (2021). The most recent of these articles can be found here and includes links to the others.

There is one thing that is worth mentioning about Microsoft Lists. When a new list is created using the Lists interface, the user can save it to any of their SharePoint sites, but another option is to same it to “My lists”.

When you use the SharePoint Online list connector in SharePoint, it prompts you to enter the URL for the SharePoint site that contains the list that you want to report on. That is straightforward when your list is stored in a SharePoint site, but what if your list is stored in “My lists”? Where are “My lists” stored?

They are stored in a “personal” SharePoint site. We SharePoint old timers would know it as the MySite, and while usage of MySite has been de-emphasized in Microsoft 365, it is very much still there. Each user has one. In fact, this is where the “personal” OneDrive for Business content is stored – in the Documents library of the very same MySite. By storing personal lists in the MySite, Microsoft Lists is just following the same pattern used by OneDrive for Business, which makes perfect sense.

Given this, what URL should you use in Power BI to connect to your lists stored in “My Lists”? You’ll find it in the Microsoft Lists web interface in the URL bar. It’s that portion of the URL up to “/Lists/.

In most cases it will take the following form:

https://TenantName-my.sharepoint.com/personal/LoginID/Lists/ListName

Where:

  • TenantName = the name of your Microsoft 365 tenant, i.e. Contoso
  • LoginID = the email address used to login to Microsoft 365 with the “@” and the “.” replaced with underscores i.e. jpw_contoso_com
  • ListName – the name of you list

Once you enter in this URL, you’ll have access to any of the lists stored in “My lists”. At this point, your personal lists will behave like any list in any other SharePoint site.

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It’s time to stop using Power Pivot

Excel is an excellent tool for analyzing data. An analyst can easily connect to and import data, perform analyses, and achieve results quickly. Export to Excel is still one of the most used features of any Business Intelligence tool on the market. The demand for “self-service BI” resulted in a lot of imported data being stored in overly large Excel files. This posed several problems. IT administrators had to deal with storage requirements. Analysts were restricted by the amount of data they could work with, and the proliferation of these “spreadmarts” storing potentially sensitive data created a governance nightmare.

A little history

Power Pivot was created to provide a self-service BI tool that solved these problems. Initially released as an add-in for Excel 2010, it contained a new analytical engine that would soon be introduced to SQL Server Analysis Services as well. Its columnar compression meant that millions of rows of data could be analyzed in Excel and would not require massive amounts of space to store. Data in Power Pivot is read-only and refreshable – ensuring integrity. It allowed analysts to set up their own analytical data sets and analyze them using a familiar looking language (DAX), and visual reporting canvas (PowerView) all from within Excel.

The original version of Power BI brought PowerPivot to Office 365 through Excel before Power BI’s relaunch gave it its own consumption interface (the service) and design client (Power BI Desktop). Both the PowerPivot engine, and Power Query were incorporated into the service and Power BI Desktop, while the Silverlight based Power View was replaced with a more web friendly reporting canvas.

Excel support

Throughout all these changes, Excel has continued to be well supported in the Power BI service. Analyze in Excel allows an analyst to connect to a deployed Power BI dataset (built with Power BI Desktop) and analyze it using pivot tables, charts, etc. Recent “connect to dataset” features have made this even simpler. Organizational Data Types allow Excel data to be decorated with related data in Power BI.

Excel workbooks containing Power Pivot models have always been supported by the service. These models can even be refreshed on a regular basis. If the source data resides on premises, it can even be refreshed through the on-premises data gateway. This all because the data engine in Power BI is essentially Power Pivot.

It’s that word “essentially” that causes a problem.

Datasets that are created and stored within Excel workbooks are functional but can only be accessed by that workbook. Contrast this with a dataset created by Power BI Desktop, which can be accessed by other interactive (pbix) reports, paginated reports, and as mentioned above, by Excel itself. The XMLA endpoint also allows these reports to be accessed by a myriad of third part products. None of this is true for datasets created and stored in Excel.

So why would anyone continue to create models in Excel. The reason has been until now that although Excel can connect to Power BI datasets to perform analysis, those connected workbooks would not be updated when the source dataset changes. This meant that those analysts that really care about Excel needed to work with the Excel created models. This changed recently with an announcement at Microsoft Ignite Spring 2021. In the session Drive a data Culture with Power BI: Vision, Strategy and Roadmap it was announced that very soon, Excel files connected to Power BI datasets will be automatically updated. This removes the last technical reason to continue to use Power Pivot in Excel.

Tooling

Building a dataset with Power BI Desktop is fundamentally the same as building one with Excel. The two core languages and engines (M with Power Query, and DAX with Power Pivot) are equivalent between the two products. The only difference is that the engine versions found in Excel tend to lag those found in Power BI Desktop and the Power BI service itself. I’d argue that the interfaces for performing these transforms, and building the models are far superior in Power BI Desktop. not to mention the third-party add-in capability.

In this “new world” of Excel data analysis, Datasets will be created by using Power BI Desktop, deployed to the service, and then Excel will connect to them to provide deep analysis. These workbooks can then be published to the Power BI service alongside and other interactive or paginated reports for use by analysts. With this new capability, Excel truly resumes its place as a full-fledged first-class citizen in the Power BI space.

What to use when

With this change, the decision of what tool to use can be based completely on its suitability to task, and not on technical limitations. There are distinct types of reports, and different sorts of users. The choice of what to use when can now be based completely on these factors. The common element among them all is the dataset.

With respect to report usage, typical usage can be seen below.

ToolUsed byPurpose
Power BI ServiceReport consumersConsuming all types of reports: interactive, paginated and Excel
Excel OnlineReport consumersConsuming Excel reports from SharePoint, Teams, or the Power BI service
Power BI DesktopModel builders
Interactive report designers
Building Power BI dataset
Building interactive reports
Power BI Report BuilderPaginated report designersBuilding paginated reports
ExcelAnalystsBuilding Excel reports
Analyzing Power BI datasets

Making the move

Moving away from Power Pivot won’t require any new services or infrastructure, and existing reports and models don’t need to be converted. They will continue to work and be supported for the foreseeable future. Microsoft has neither said not indicated that Power Pivot in Excel is going anywhere. However, by building your new datasets in Power BI Desktop, you will be better positioned moving forward.

If you do want to migrate some or all your existing Excel based Power Pivot datasets, it’s a simple matter of importing the Excel file into Power BI Desktop. This is completely different than connecting to an Excel file as a data source. From the File menu in Power BI Desktop, select Import, then select Power Query, Power Pivot, Power View. You will then select the Excel file that contains your dataset.

Power BI will then import all your Power Query queries, your Power Pivot dataset, and if you have any it will convert PowerView reports to the Power BI report types. The new report can then replace your existing Excel file. Once deployed to the Power BI service, other Excel files can connect to it if so desired.

Building your datasets with Power BI Desktop allows you to take advantage of a rich set of services, across a broad range of products, including Excel. Building them in Excel locks you into an Excel only scenario. If you already use Power BI, then there’s really no reason to continue to build Power Pivot datasets in Excel.

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Using Power BI Incremental Refresh with Azure Data Explorer

Azure Data Explorer (ADX) is a great platform for storing large amounts of transactional data. The Incremental Refresh feature (now available for Pro users!) in Power BI makes it much faster to keep data models based on that data current. Unfortunately, if you follow the standard guidance from Microsoft for configuring Incremental Refresh, you’ll quickly bump into a roadblock. Luckily, it’s not that difficult to get around.

Incremental Refresh works by setting up data partitions in the dataset in the service. These partitions are based on time slices. Once data has been loaded into the dataset, only the data in the most recent partition is refreshed.

To set this up in Power BI Desktop, you need to configure two parameters, RangeStart, and RangeEnd. These two parameters must be set as Date/Time parameters. Once set, the parameters are used to filter the Date/Time columns in your tables accordingly, and once published to the service, to define the partitions to load the data into.

When Power Query connects to ADX, all Date/Time fields come in as the Date/Time/Timezone type. This is a bit of a problem. When you use the column filters to filter your dates, the two range parameters won’t show up because they are of a different type (Date/Time). Well, that’s not a big problem, right? Power Query lets us change the data column type simply by selecting the type picker on the column header.

Indeed, doing this does in fact allow you to use your range parameters in the column filters. Unfortunately, data type conversions don’t get folded back to the source ADX query. You can see this by right-clicking on a subsequent step in the Power Query editor. The “View Native Query” option is greyed out, which indicates that the query cannot be folded.

Query folding is critical to incremental refresh. Without it, the entirety of the data is brought locally so that it can be filtered vs having the filter occur at the data source. This would completely defeat the purpose of implementing Incremental Refresh in the first place.

The good news is that you can in fact filter a Date/Time/Timezone column with a Date/Time parameter, but the Power Query user interface doesn’t know that. The solution is to simply remove the type conversion Power Query step AFTER performing the filter in the Power Query UI.

Alternatively, if you’re comfortable with the M language, you can simply insert something like the following line using the Advanced Editor in Power Query (where CreatedLocal is the name of the column being filtered).

#"Filtered Rows" = Table.SelectRows(Source, each [CreatedLocal] >= RangeStart and [CreatedLocal] < RangeEnd),

If the filtration step can be folded back into the source, Incremental Refresh should work properly. You can continue setting up Incremental Refresh using the DAX editor. You will likely see some warning messages indicating that folding can’t be detected, but these can safely be ignored.

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Exceed the 500,000 row limit in Application Insights and Log Analytics with Power BI

The combination of Power BI and Application Insights (AI)/Log Analytics (LA) is a powerful one. These tools provide a quick, convenient, and relatively cheap way to collect and analyze telemetry on a wide variety of applications. One drawback of AI/LA is that any data query will return a maximum of 500,000 rows, which can be quite constraining in some cases. This article describes a way to work around this limit.

In this example, we’ll be working with an Application Insights instance that is being populated by the WordPress Application Insights plugin – in fact, it’s the one used on this very blog. There are a couple of ways to connect Power BI Desktop to AI data. The Power Query code is downloadable directly from Application Insights, and you can also use the Azure Data Explorer proxy address as outline in my post on the topic here. This approach will work for both methods, and for our purposes, we’ll be using the generated Power Query code approach.

To begin, access your Application Insights instance, and open the Logs window. If necessary, dismiss the “Queries” window that pops up. Next, form your query using Kusto Query Language (KQL). In our case, we want a simple dump of all rows in the “pageViews” table, so the query is simple – just pageViews.

Once we have the query the way that we want it, we select the Export button, and choose “Export to Power BI (M query). M is the name of the language that Power Query uses. Once chosen, a text file will be downloaded that contains the Power Query that we will need in Power BI Desktop.

At this point, we launch Power BI Desktop, and choose “Get Data”. Since we already have the query that we need, we will choose “Blank Query”.

Next, we name our query “Page Views”, and select the Advanced Editor. This is where we can paste in the query generated by Application Insights above. At this point, we open the file that was downloaded above, copy the contents, and paste them in this window (the top comments can be excluded).

Of note here is the value that will be automatically set for timespan. By default, this will be set to P1D, which means data will be retrieved only for the previous day. In our example above, we have changed it to show data for the past 365 days.

Selecting “Done” will load a preview of our data into Power Query. However, if we want to then load it into the data model, it will do so in a single pull, and we will be subject to the 500,000 row limit. What we need to do is break up our query into multiple queries, and Power Query lets us do this through the use of functions.

The first thing that we’ll need to do is to decide on how to segment the AI data. In our case, it is unlikely that we will have more than 500,000 page views per month, so if we performed one query per month, we should be able to retrieve all of our data. In order to do this, we need to go back to Application Insights, and form up a query that will return a list of year and month for our data. In our case, this query is:

pageViews
| where timestamp > now(-365d)
| summarize by 
    Year = datetime_part('Year',timestamp), 
    Month = datetime_part('Month',timestamp)

Note that the number of days in the where clause above should match the number of days in the larger query above. Next, export this query to Power BI, and create another query in Power Query. Leave the name as default for now. Selecting Done should return a list of years and months for your data. These values are all numbers, and Power Query recognizes them as such. However, we need to work with them as text later on , so we change their types to text.

Now we will return to our original query, and modify it so that it only returns data for a single month. Reopen the advanced editor and replace the query “pageViews” with:

pageViews | where datetime_part('Month',timestamp) == 10 and datetime_part('Year',timestamp) == 2020

The values chosen don’t matter, but they should return data, In the end, the edited code should look as follows:

Selecting done, we verify that we have data restricted to the specified month. This is where the fun begins. We are now going to turn this query into a function. To do so, we right click on our pageViews Query, and select “Create Function”

We are then presented with a dialog box that asks if we want to create the function without parameters. We can go ahead and select “Create”. We are then prompted to name the function, and we’ll call it “GetViewsByMonthAndYear”. We now need to edit the function. To do so, with the function selected in the query pane, we select the Advanced Editor once again. We then dismiss the following warning, and then we edit the function in two places. First, we need to define two variables to be passed to the function Month and Year , and then we add them to our query.

In the function declaration we add “Month as text” and “Year as text”. We then replace the explicit month and year that we originally queried for with these new variables, Month and Year. Our function code now appears as below:

Now we are ready to use our function. We select our query that contains the list of years and months, select the “Add Column” tab from the ribbon, and choose “Invoke Custom Function”. We give the new column a name “Views”, select our function from the dropdown, and then we select our column containing years and the column containing months to be passed to the function.

At this point, selecting “OK” will cause the function to be executed for each of the listed months. These are individual queries to AI, not one large one. Each query is still subject to the 500,000 row limit, but provided that no specific month exceeds that limit, all of the data will be returned.

Initially, the data is returned as a single table per day, but selecting the expand icon at the right of the column header allows us to retrieve the row values. It’s also a good idea to turn off the “Use original column name” option.

Selecting OK at this point displays all of the appropriate column values. We can then remove the “Year” and “Month” columns, as well as the original Page Views table that we used to create the function. We also need to set the data types for all of our columns because Power Query is unable to detect them using this approach.

Renaming our combined Query to Views, gives us the following result:

We still have a single table, but there is no longer a 500,00 row limit. At this point, we can load the data into the model and build our report.

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