About Ken Puls

I'm the blog owner... My main website is located at www.excelguru.ca, and is devoted to holding tips and tricks on excel development.

Data types vs formats

One of the common questions I get in live courses, blog comments and forum posts is a variant of, “How do I format my data in Power Query or Power BI?”  The short answer is that you don’t, but the longer answer is a discussion on data types vs formats.

What am I even talking about here?

To illustrate the issue, let’s take a quick look at some sample data in an Excel table:

image

What you see here is just randomly generated data. Nothing special or exciting, but I set it up to have lots of decimal places for a reason.  I also want to point out that the yellow values are rounded to 0 decimal places, and the green values are rounded to 2 decimal places.  All the other values continue on with many decimals places.

What you see here is data that has been formatted in Excel.  I’ve applied the comma style (explaining the commas), and forced the decimals to show 10 decimal places.

Looking at the data in Power Query (in Excel or Power BI)

While I’m using Excel to demo this, it’s exactly the same in Power BI.  What I did here is pull the data into the Query Editor, and here’s a view of what I see when clicking on the Source step:

image

There are three things I want to point out here:

  1. The “data type” for each column in this image is set to “any”, as denoted by the ABC123 icon in the column’s header.
  2. The value shown on row 1 of the Value1 column displays five decimals.
  3. The true value shown for this data point is shown in the preview window at the bottom, and carries many more decimals.

And this is where the number formatting question comes in.  Why can’t I see all the decimals?  How do I apply a comma style here?  How can I line up the decimals consistently?

Data Types are not formatting

The thing to understand here is that this is not about formatting in any way.  It’s all about setting the type of data.  Is it a date, a decimal number, a whole number, currency, etc.  Let’s take a look at what happens when I set some data types:

image

Let’s start with the Value1 column, which has been formatted as a date.  If you were to select the first data point, you’ll see that it has been converted to 2108-07-09, with no decimals.  Why this value?  It’s 76,162 days since Jan 1, 1900.  The more important thing here, however, is that all the decimals have been truncated.  So if I try to convert this back to a date/time later, it will return midnight as no decimals have been preserved.

Next, we’ll take a look at the last column: Value3.  Notice here that the maximum number of decimals displayed in the column is 4.  This is because the “fixed decimal number” can only hold a maximum of four decimal places.  The number is rounded off and shown here.  (The original value for row 1 in this column was 72,248.9877387719, rounded off to 72248.9877, as shown in the preview window at the bottom.)  Once again, if I come back and change the data type in a subsequent step, those decimals have been rounded off by this step.  They are gone and aren’t ever coming back (unless I replace the data type in THIS step to change the behaviour).

Finally, the Value2 column shows number formatting that is all over the place, ranging from 2 to 6 decimal places.  The only thing I truly care about here is that there are more than 4 decimals.  The reason for this is that it indicates that this is not a fixed decimal number.  This is the one data type that actually holds more than what you see on screen.  If you were to select the first row of the Value2 column, you’d see in the preview window that the value remains as 95,125.1258361885, even though is only shows to 5 decimal places.

Data types vs formats

The big thing to be aware of here is that data types and formats are not even close to the same thing:

Formats:  Control how a number is displayed, without affecting the underlying precision in any way.

 

Data Types: Control the type of data, and will change the precision of the value to become consistent with the type of data you have declared.

This is obviously a very important distinction that you should be aware of.  Setting a data type can (and often does) change the underlying value in some way, while formatting never does.

So how do we set formatting in the Query Editor?

In short, you don’t.

In the data types vs formats battle, the Query Editor is all about setting the type of data, not the formatting.  Why?  Because you’re not going to read your data in the Query Editor anyway.  This tool is about getting the data right, not presenting it.  Ultimately, we’re going to load the data into one of two places:

Excel: A worksheet table or the Power Pivot data model

 

Power BI: The data model

The formatting then gets done in the presentation layer of the solution.  That means one (or more) of the following places:

  • The “Measure” signature (if the data is landed to the data model).  In Excel this can be controlled by setting the default number format when creating your Measure, and in Power BI it’s configured by selecting the measure then setting the format on the Modeling tab.
  • Charts or Visuals.  In Excel you can force the number format to appear as you want on your chart, and you have similar options in the Power BI visuals formatting tools.
  • Worksheet cells.  Whether landed to a table, PivotTable or CUBE function, if it lives in the Excel grid, you can apply a number style to the data.

Do I have to choose data types vs formats?

This one came up the other day on a blog comment: “Since I have to format my measures in Power BI anyway, can I just avoid setting data types?”

To me, the answer is absolutely not.  The Query Editor uses strongly typed data, meaning that you can’t combine text and numbers, dates and numbers, etc…

One of the things we demonstrate in the Power Query workshop is how avoiding data types can blow up an entire solution.  The easiest way to show this is when I take something that looks like a date in the Query Editor, and load it while the data type is still undefined.  Load it to an Excel table and it shows up as values (without the date formats applied).  But change that to load to Power Pivot and it shows up as text.  That’s bad news.

Data types and formatting are two different things.  One is about the data type and precision, the other is about how it looks.  And – in my opinion – both need to be expliclty defined.

What is with Excel Tables and the Data Model

What is with Excel Tables and the Data Model?  Believe it or not, this is not the question I started with today, it was actually "which is faster; loading from CSV files or Excel?"  My initial results actually brought up a surprising - and very different - question, which has become the subject of this post.

The testing stage:

Let's start by setting the background of my test setup…

What does the test data look like?

I started by wanting to test the difference in load speeds between data stored in an Excel table and a CSV.  To do that, I started with a CSV file with 1,044,000 rows of data, which look like this:

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What does my test query actually do?

The query to collect this data only has a few steps:

  • Connect to the data source
  • Promote headers (if needed)
  • Set data types
  • Load to the Data Model

Nothing fancy, and virtually no transformations.

Scenarios tested:

I decided to load the data into the Data Model, as I figured that would be fastest.  And during testing, I decided to expand the locations from which I was pulling the source data.  What I ended up testing for the data source (using the same data) were:

  1. A table in the same workbook
  2. A named range in the same workbook
  3. A CSV file
  4. A table in a different workbook
  5. A named range in a different workbook

And just for full transparency here, I turned Privacy settings off, as well as turned on Fast Data Load, trying to get the best performance possible.  (I wanted to run the tests multiple times, and hate waiting…)

Your turn to play along…

All right, enough about the test setup, let's get into this.

Just for fun, which do you think would be the fastest of these to load the data to the Data Model?  Try ranking them as to what you expect would be the best performing to worst performing.  I.e. which will refresh the quickest, and which would refresh the slowest?

For me, I expected that order to be exactly what I actually listed above.  My thoughts are that data within the workbook would be "closest" and therefore perform better since Excel already knows about it.  I'd expect the table to be more efficient than the range, since Excel already knows the table's data structure.  But I could see CSV having less overhead than an external file, since there are less parts to a CSV file than an Excel file.

And now for the great reveal!

These were generated by averaging the refresh times of 10 refreshes, excluding the initial refresh.  (I wanted a refresh, not the overhead of creating the model.)  I shut down all other applications, paused all file syncing, and did nothing else on the PC while the timing tests were running.  The main reason is that I didn't want anything impacting the tests from an external process.

image

Okay, I hear you… "what am I seeing here?"  It's a Box & Whisker plot, intended to show some statistics about the refresh times.  It measures the standard deviations of the refresh times, and the boxes show the 2nd and 3rd quartiles. The whiskers show the variance for the other times.  The fact that you can barely see those tells you that there wasn't a ton of significant variation in the testing times.  To make it a bit easier to see the impact, I also added data labels to show the mean refresh time for each data source in seconds.

So basically the time to refresh 1,044,000 rows breaks down like this:

  1. Pulling from CSV was fastest at 8.1 seconds
  2. Pulling from a table in a different Excel file took 11.5 seconds
  3. Pulling from a regular range in a different Excel file took 11.8 seconds

And then we hit the stuff that is pulling from a named range in the current Excel file (67.3 seconds), and finally, pulling up the tail end of this performance test, is pulling data from a local Excel table into the Data Model at 67.5 seconds.

I even changed the order the queries refreshed, (not included in the plotted data set,) but still no noticeable difference.

Wow.  Just wow.

Let's be honest, the table vs range is a negligible performance variance.  At 0.2 to 0.3 seconds, I'd just call those the same.  I'll even buy that pulling from a CSV is quicker than from an external Excel workbook.  Less structure, less overhead, that makes sense to me.

But the rest… what is going on there?  That's CRAZY slow.  Why would it be almost 6 times slower to grab data from the file you already have open instead of grabbing it from an external source?  That's mind boggling to me.

Is there a Data Model impact?

So this got me wondering… is there an impact due to the Data Model?  I set it up this way in order to be consistent, but what if I repointed all of these so that they loaded into tables instead of the Data Model?

Here's the results of those tests - again in a Box & Whisker chart.  The data labels are calling out the average refresh time over those 10 tests, and the error bars show how much variation I experienced (the largest spread being about 2.3 seconds):

image

To be honest, I actually expected loading to a table to be slower than loading directly into the data model.  My reason is that Excel needs to set up the named ranges, table styles and such, which the Data Model doesn't really need.  And based on these tests, it's actually supports that theory to a degree.  When loading from CSV it was almost 10% faster to go direct to the Data Model (8.1 seconds) rather than to a worksheet table (8.8 seconds).  (There is also virtually no difference in the refresh times for CSV, so it's quite consistent.)

Loading from tables and ranges in other workbooks also saw some slight performance gains by going directly to the Data Model, rather than landing in an Excel table.

But the real jaw dropper is the range and table from the current workbook.  Now don't get me wrong, I can't see ever needing to grab a table and load it to a table with no manipulation, that's not the point here.  All I was trying to do is isolate the Data Model overheard.

What is with Excel Tables and the Data Model?

So what is with Excel Tables and the Data Model?  I'm actually not sure.  I've always felt that Power Pivot adds refresh overhead, but holy smokes that's crazy.  And why it only happens when reading from a local file?  I don't have an answer.  That's the last place I'd expect to see it.

So what do we do about it?

If performance is a major concern, you may not want to pull your data from an Excel table in the same workbook.  Use a workbook to land the data in an Excel Table, then save it, close it and use Power Query to pull that into the Data Model.  If you're pushing a million rows it may be worth your time.

Something else I tried, although only in a limited test, is landing my query in a worksheet then linking that table to the Data Model.  Oddly, it doesn't seem to have a huge impact on the Data Model refresh (meaning it doesn't have the massive overhead of loading from table to the Data Model via Power Query.)  Of course, it limits your table to 1,048.575 rows of data, which sucks.

I'm not sure if this is a bug or not (it certainly feels like one), but it certainly gives you something to think about when pulling data into your Power Pivot solution.

Working around the issue...

First off, thanks to AlexJ and Lars Schreiber for this idea... they asked what would happen if we pulled the data via Excel.Workbook() instead of using the Excel.CurrentWorkbook() method in Power Query.  (The difference is that you get Excel.Workbook() when you start your query from Get Data --> Excel, and you get Excel.CurrentWorkbook() when you start your query via Get Data --> From Table or Range.)

Using Excel.Workbook() to pull the contents from itself, in a single test, returned results of 11.4 seconds, which is right in line with pulling from an external source. So it's starting to look like Excel.CurrentWorkbook() doesn't play nice with the Data Model.  (It doesn't seem to have an impact with loading to tables, as shown above.)

Of course, one big caveat is that Excel.Workbook() doesn't read from the current data set, it reads from the most recently saved copy of the file.

So this gives as an opportunity here... if we cook up a macro to save the file, then refresh the query via the External connector, we should get the best performance possible.  To test this, I cooked up a macro to save the file, then refresh the data via the Excel.Workbook() route. In two tests I ended up at 12:02 seconds and 12:39 seconds, so it looks like it works.  While that's not an extensive study, the saving process only adds a bit of overhead, but it's certainly made up by avoiding the refresh lag.

Here's a copy of the macro I used to do this:

With ActiveWorkbook
.Save
.Connections("Query - Current_via_ExternalLink").Refresh
End With

Merge Files With Different Column Headers

A client contacted me today asking how to merge files with different column headers in Power Query.  The issue she's facing is that some of the files in her folder have a column called "customer", where others have a column called "ship to/customer".  Plainly there has been a specification change somewhere down the line, but it's causing issues in the combination - an issue that would affect either Excel or Power BI.

What happens when we try to merge files with different column headers?

In order to replicate this issue, I created two very simple CSV files as shown here:

image

I dropped these into a folder called "Test" and then

  • Created a new query From File --> From Folder
  • Renamed the query to FilesList (making a query that I can use to easily sort/filter the list of files later)
  • Right clicked the query in the Queries pane --> Reference
  • Renamed this query to Transactions
  • Clicked the Combine Binaries button

At this point I was presented with the following window:

image

The only thing I really want to point out here is that I choose the Example file which has the column name that I do NOT want.  (I want to rename "ship to/customer", so it's important that it show up here.)

I then clicked OK, and was presented with this:

image

Err.. wait… what happened to my customer column?

Why is the Customer column missing?

To understand this, we need to look at the steps in the Transaction query:

image

If you were to click on the "Invoked Custom Function1" step, you'd see that it adds a new column to the Transaction query.  The first table shows 3 columns where the first column is "ship to/customer".  The second table also shows 3 columns, but in this the first is "customer".  So all is working so far.

But then, when you get to the the "Expanded Table Column1" step of the Transactions query, it expands to show only the "ship to/customer" column.  Why?  It's because of the following M code generated by Power Query:

= Table.ExpandTableColumn(#"Removed Other Columns1", "Transform File from Transactions", Table.ColumnNames(#"Transform File from Transactions"(#"Sample File")))

What this means in English is that it reads the columns from the table in the first sample file. That's not super helpful.

Now we could work on trying to enumerate all headers, but that would be a pain, as the code is complicated and still leaves us in a place where we would need to combine both columns anyway.  Let's fix this by dealing with it at the source.

How to merge files with different column headers properly

Step 1: Prepare the Transactions query:

Delete the Changed Type step at the end of Transactions query.  This is because it is setting the "ship to/customer" column to text, and by the time we're done, that column will be called "customer".  If we leave the step as is, it will cause an error.

Step 2: Modify the Transform Sample query:

Next we need to select the Transform Sample query:

image

Now, what we want to do is rename that "ship to/customer" column to make it "customer".  So let's do that:

  • Right click "ship to/customer" --> Rename --> "customer"

The problem here though, is that when we apply this to our other files, THIS will cause an error. Why?  They don't have a "ship to/customer" column to rename.  So we need to wrap this in an error handler.

To do this, we need to adjust the formula that was just created to wrap it in a "try/otherwise" clause.  This is essentially equivalent to Excel's IFERROR() formula.  If it works, it will return the result.  If not, it returns an alternate item, which we will set to be the previous step in the query.  In other words "Try to rename this column.  But if it fails, give me the original table.

The keys here are to

  • Insert the try and otherwise in the correct location (remember they are case sensitive)
  • Get the right syntax for the previous step name (remember to wrap it in #" " if the step name has a space in it.)

In this case, it should look like this:

image

Step 3: Revel in your success:

You got it.  At this point, returning to your Transactions query should leave you pretty pleased, as we've plainly been able to successfully merge files with different column headers into the table that we actually want:

image

The only thing left to do is set the data types, and we're done. Smile

Reduce Development Lag

How we reduce development lag when building queries in Power Query is a question that came up in my blog post at PowerPivotPro last week, even though that wasn't the main issue.  I thought it might be a good idea to throw out a development methodology that can help with this if you're struggling in this area.

Also, if you haven't read "Why Excel's Power Query Refresh Speeds Suck" on Rob's site, please do, as it really highlights a key issue that can affect Power Query refresh times, and we really need you to vote it up.

Why do we need to reduce development lag?

This isn't a problem that affects small data sets, but the bigger the data set is, the more you feel it.  The issue comes up because - during query development - Power Query doesn't load all of the data into the local system.  (If it did, you'd REALLY scream about crappy performance!)  What it does instead is pull in a preview of the data.

The number of rows varies based on the number of columns and data types, but for now, let's pretend that the Power Query preview:

  • pulls exactly 1000 rows
  • your data set is 70 million rows

I do want to be clear here though… this issue isn't restricted to data sets of this size.  If you're consolidating 30 CSV files with 50k rows each (a total of 1.5 million rows), you're certainly going to feel this pain.  Why?

To illustrate this, let's go through a workflow:

  • You connect to the data set
  • Power Query pulls the first 1000 rows and load them to your preview
  • You filter out all records for dept 105, removing half the rows in your data set

At this point, Power Query says "Hey, you eliminated half the rows.  I'll go pull in some more for you, so that you can keep operating on a full preview window."  It goes back to the data source, and essentially streams in more data, tossing the records you don't need, in order to fill up the preview of 1000 rows.

Now you drop 20 columns, allowing the data set to expand to 1200 rows in the preview.  Naturally, it needs to go back to the data set, pull values again, run it through all the steps to date in order to land you 1200 rows.

Now to be fair, I'm not certain if something like a "Change Type" or "Replace Values" step causes a refresh, but it very well may.  On large data sets it certainly feels like it does.

If you're not nodding your head at this point, I can pretty much assure you that the data sets you've been working with are tiny.  The bigger those sets get, the more this hurts.

And before anyone says "why not just add a Table.Buffer() command in there?"… in my experience this doesn't help.  From what I've seen, if you are in dev mode, this causes the buffering to get re-executed, which just adds time to the process.

A Strategy to Reduce Development Lag

So how do we reduce development lag and avoid the time wasted when developing our query chain?  Here's a strategy that may work for you.  It's a 5 step process and requires Excel, although you could certainly develop in Excel then copy your queries to Power BI Desktop afterwards. The reason?  Power BI has no grid to land your data to…

Step 1: Connect to the Data Source

The first part is easy.  You simply connect to your data source, whether that be a file, database, folder, or whatever.  The key thing here is that your output needs to be "flat".  (No nested lists, tables, binaries or values in any columns.)  Each column that contains nested lists/tables or values needs to be expanded before you can move to step 2.

In the example below, you can see that I pulled data from a database which has related fields:

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As the related "Value" is a complex data type, it needs to either be removed or expanded.  In this case, I wanted some data from within the tblItems, so I performed the following steps:

  • Expanded the tblItems column to extract the tblCategories column
  • Expanded the tblCategories column to extract the POSCategoryDescription field
  • Removed the tblChitHeaders column

And the result looks like this:

image

And now, let's pretend that every step I add is causing the preview to refresh and taking ages to do so.  (Ages is, of course, a relative term, but let's just assume that it has exceeded my tolerance for wait times.)  So what can I do?

What I do now is:

  • Stop
  • Give the query a name like "Raw-<tablename>" (where <tablename> is your table.  Mine is Raw-ChitDetails)
  • Choose Close & Load To…
  • Load to "Connection Only"

Once done, I can build myself a temporary stage to reduce development lag during the construction stage.

Step 2: Reference the Data Source query and land to an Excel Table

To create our temporary stage, we go to the Queries pane, right click the Raw-ChitDetails query, and choose Reference.  (And if you've read the post on Why Excel's Power Query Refresh Speeds Suck, you're cringing.  Go vote if you haven't already).

When launched into a new query, you're going to do two things and two things only:

  • Rename the Query to something like "Temp-<tablename>" (again, where <tablename> is your table.  I'm using Temp-ChitDetails.
  • Go to Home --> Keep Rows --> Keep Top Rows --> 10,000

And now, go to Home --> Close & Load and choose to load to an Excel table.  This is your temporary data stage.

The key here… never do more than just the Keep Top Rows part.  You don't want to do any additional filtering or manipulations in this query.  You'll see why a bit later.

Step 3: Load the Excel Table to Power Query and develop your solution

Next, you'll need to click a cell in the new table, and choose to load from Table or Range.  This will create you a new query that you can start to manipulate and do the cleanup you want.

The beauty here is that the table you've loaded from Excel needs to be manually refreshed, so we have essentially frozen our data preview.  The preview will still get refreshed (we can't avoid that), but since the data has been loaded to a worksheet in Excel, Power Query will treat that table as the data source.

The reason we needed 10,000 rows is to have enough data to identify the data patterns we are working with.  If that's not enough because you filter out larger quantities, then up the 10,000 to something larger or filter in the Raw query (and suffer the lag time there) before loading to the table.

So this is the query where you do all of your development work.  With a smaller "frozen" data set, this should allow you to work while suffering much less refresh lag time.

As a sample here, I ran a Group By on the smaller data set.  Is that a good query to illustrate this? Probably not, I just wanted to show that I did something here.

image

So this query only has two steps, but hopefully you get the idea that this could be a few dozen (or more) steps long, each taking MUCH less time to update than working against the whole data set.

Quick note… I deleted the Changed Type step that is automatically added when pulling data from an Excel table.  I did this as the Changed Type step often breaks Query Folding when you pull from a database.

With my development work done, I've named my query with the name I want to use for the final load destination.  In this case it's "ChitDetails", and set it to Close & Load To… --> Connection Only and Data Model to load the table for Power Pivot.

Of course, this query is only working against my frozen 10,000 row data set, which isn't going to cut it long term, so I need to fix that.

Step 4: Re-point the working query against the Data Source query

With the query loaded, I'll go back and edit it.  The key is that I need to select the Source Step.  In the formula bar we'll see the code used to call from the Temp data table:

image

This formula needs to be updated to pull from the Raw-ChitDetails table, so I'm going to do exactly that:

image

Notice that the formula is actually:

=#"Raw-ChitDetails"

This is to deal with the fact that I used a hyphen in the name, so it needs to be escaped with the hash-quotes in order to read correctly. If you forget to do that and just type =Raw-ChitDetails, you'll be told you've got a cyclical expression.

At this point, you've done your development work more quickly, and have now pointed back to the original data source.  (This is exactly why we only restrict the number of rows in Step 2.  If we did more, we'd need to retrofit this query.)

When you click Close & Load now, it will load to the data source you chose earlier.  (Power Pivot for me.)

Step 5: Delete the Temp Queries and Excel Table

Notice that we actually have two Temp queries now.  The first was used to reference the Raw query and land the data in the Excel table.  The second was pulling from the Excel table into Power Query.  Both can now be deleted in additional to deleting the worksheet that held the temporary table as their jobs are done.

What if I need to do this again?

Easy enough.  You can simply:

  1. Create a new query by referencing the Raw table.  (Queries Pane --> Right Click --> Reference)
  2. Name the query Temp-<tablename> and Close & Load to an Excel table
  3. Select a cell in the table and create a new query From Table or Range
  4. Rename this new query as "TempStage" (or something) and choose to Close & Load To… --> Connection Only
  5. Edit your "final" query's Source step to =TempStage.  (You only need the #"" if you include a character that Power Query uses for something else.

And at that point you're back in development mode.

What if my Query is already several steps long?  Do I have to start over?

Absolutely not!  If you've been working away building a very long query, you can split them apart into the staging setup I used above.  Open your query and walk through the steps to find where you wish you'd broken them apart.  Right click that step and choose "Extract Previous"

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You'll be prompted for a new query name, so enter "Raw-<tablename>".  What this will do is extract all the previous steps into a new query for you, and set your current query's Source step to point to that query.  Then you can follow the steps outlined in the previous section to get back into development mode.

What about Power BI Desktop?

The problem with Power BI desktop is that it has no grid to land the data to, which means we can't get that "frozen preview" setup.  But we can adapt the solution to use Excel if you've got Power Query in Excel. You do this by:

  • Creating the same "Raw Data" stage in Power BI Desktop
  • Reference the Raw Data query to get into your "Final" query

Then create your data stage:

  • In Excel, replicate the Raw Data staging query EXACTLY as it is in Power BI desktop
  • Filter the query to 10,000 rows
  • Close & Load to an Excel table
  • Save & Close the file

Back in Power BI Desktop

  • Create a new query to pull from the data in Excel
  • Repoint your "Final" query to reference the Excel query
  • Do your development
  • Repoint to the original query when done

It's a bit clunky, but if you're really suffering performance, you may find it worth it.

Should Previews Always Refresh?

One thing I've thought about setting up a UserVoice item for is a setting in the Excel/Power BI UI that allows me to turn off preview refreshes until I click the button inside the PQ editor.  My initial thought is that this would help, as it would essentially cache the preview, and we could operate on it without tripping a recalculation to slow things down.

Naturally, when we first create the query, it would need to create a preview.  But after that, I would hope that it just worked with the data loaded in the preview until I hit the Refresh Preview button.  That would be the key to re-execute all query steps to date - in full - to generate a revised preview.

Having said that, I have a feeling that this would be pretty complicated to implement.  Some steps (like combine binaries and grouping) would require the preview to be updated or you'd get nothing.  But others, like filtering rows out, really shouldn't.  It could require a significant change to the underlying architecture as well.

Regardless, something to "freeze" the preview would certainly be welcome as the development experience with larger data sets can certainly be painful.

Adding null to values returns null

Today a user brought up something in the forums I've seen before; adding null to values returns null.  Simply put, they wanted to add the values in two columns together, but didn't get the results they expected.

The issue: Adding null to values returns null

Have a look at the following data:

image

Never mind that it's pivoted, pretend that you want to use Power Query or Power BI Desktop to sum across the columns and put the total in each row. The problem, of course, is that we can't sum across columns, as Power Query doesn't do that.  So our first temptation is to reach to a custom column and use the formula:

=[ProductA] + [ProductB] + [ProductC]

But notice how on the second and third rows we get null instead of the totals we'd expect:

image

The issue is obviously the null, which totally screws up the math.  (This still surprises me, as Excel ignores null values, which is what I believe should happen here.)

My original suggestion (was poor)

My original thought (and recommendation) was to select the columns and go to Transform --> Replace Values and replace null with 0.  It seems to work in this case.

Having said that, there's a potential issue here.  Null and zero are not the same things at all.  A null is a effectively an empty data point, where 0 is a value. In a Power Pivot or Power BI model that could lead to reporting zero dollars of sales for a day versus reporting an empty set.  Are those different?  To me they are… empty means we weren't even open, where 0 means that we were and sold nothing.  Maybe it's subtle, but it's a real difference.

Another concern comes up when we are dealing with columns that have real values in them.  Simply put:

  • Average(null,null,null,1,2,3,4,5) = 3
  • Average(0,0,0,1,2,3,4,5) = 1.875

So while my answer worked mathematically for a SUM, it was in truth not a good one.  And, in fact, the poster replied as said that he couldn't replace nulls with zero, as this compromised his data.

The evolution of solution

Bill Sysyz dropped in and posted a bit of M code that would sum all records on the row, which look like this:

= Table.AddColumn(YourPreviousStep, "Sum", each List.Sum(Record.ToList(_)))

I think this is really cool, but it also had an issue in that it summed ALL records in the row.  But there are also columns that include text too.  Now we can adjust this to only pick up certain columns, but it involves writing some code that provides each column name in the List.Sum() function.

That kicked off a discussion between Bill and I about complexity, which ended up with my stumbling into a solution that worked.  And it's simple…

Adding null to values and returning values

So here's all we need to do:

  • Select the columns you want to sum (hold down CTRL to select non-contiguous columns)
  • Go to Add Column --> Standard --> Add

I did exactly that for the ProductA, ProductB and ProductC columns from the data above, and here's the results (compared with the custom column method):

image

And just for reference, here is the formula that was generated:

= Table.AddColumn(#"Added Custom", "Sum", each List.Sum({[ProductA], [ProductB], [ProductC]}), Int64.Type)

So pretty much what Bill provided with specific hard coded columns, and 100% user interface driven, just the way it should be!

Final thoughts

The amusing part to me about this is that I have no idea how long this has worked.  I stumbled on this solution during as I was typing "you should be able to just do this… " and it worked!  I've been working with this tool so long that I sometimes miss that some of the old gaps got filled in.  At any rate, it works, it's awesome, and hopefully it helps someone.  Smile

Power BI Licensing Change

As of June 1, 2017, there is a Power BI licensing change coming…

The quick summary is that Power BI free is going to gain the ability to automate refresh via a personal gateway, but will lose the ability to share dashboards.  It's moving more to a "personal" experience.  The new licensing model is essentially changing the free vs paid barrier from automating refresh to sharing.

Microsoft is extending the Power BI Pro trial out to a year, which is great.  So if you do share pro content, your audience will be able to say "try pro" for up to a year before they need to buy in to a pro license.

In addition, there is going to be a new Power BI Premium feature that allows much better scalability for large companies.

I'd go into more details on this, but to be honest, my friend Matt Allington has done a fabulous job of summarizing the changes (both good and bad) on his site (and article that is well worth the read.)  You can find that article here:  http://exceleratorbi.com.au/power-bi-licences-changes-good-bad/

Protect Power Queries

How you protect power queries is a question that will come up after you've built a solution that relies heavily on Power Query, especially if you're going to release it to other users.

(This is a quick post, as I'm in Australia at the Unlock Excel conference, but still wanted to get a post out this week.)

Can you Protect Power Queries?

The answer to this is yes, you can.  It’s actually very easy, and prevents your users from not only modifying your queries, but adding new queries to the workbook as well. Essentially, it shuts the door on any additions or modifications to query logic, while still allowing queries to be refreshed… at least, it should.

So how do we Protect Power Queries?

To protect Power Queries we simply need to take advantage of the Protect Workbook Structure settings:

  • In Excel (not Power Query), go to the Review tab
  • Choose Protect Workbook
  • Ensure that Structure is checked
  • Provide a password (optional)
  • Confirm the password (if provided)

Once you’ve done this, the Power Query toolsets will be greyed out, and there is no way for the user to get into the editor.

image

Does refresh work when you Protect Power Queries?

This part kills me.  Seriously.

The answer to this question depends on whether or not you use Power Pivot.  If you don't, then yes, you're good to go.  As long as all your tables land on worksheets or as connections, then a refresh will work even when you protect Power Queries via the Protect Workbook method.

If, however, you have a single Power Query that lands in the data model, your stuffed.  If Power Pivot is involved, then the refresh seems to silently fail when you protect Power Queries using this method (and I don't know of another short of employing VBA, which is a non-starter for a lot of people).

It's my feeling that this is a bug, and I've sent it off to Microsoft, hoping that they agree and will fix it.  We need a method to protect both Power Query and Power Pivot solutions, and this would do it, as long as the refresh will consistently work.

Caveats about locking your workbook structure:

Some caveats that are pretty standard with protection:

  • Losing your password can be detrimental to your solution long-term. Make sure you have some kind of independent system to log your passwords so this doesn’t happen to you. And if your team is doing this, make sure you audit them so you don’t get locked out when as staff member leaves for any reason.
  • Be aware that locking the workbook structure also locks the ability for users to get into Power Pivot.
  • Workbook security is hackable with brute force macro code available on the internet for free. (Please don’t bother emailing me asking for copies or links to this code. I don’t help in disseminating code which can be used to hack security.) While protecting the workbook structure will stop the majority of users from accessing your queries, it should not be mistaken for perfect security.

Create Column From Examples

I knew that the create Column From Examples feature had been released to Power BI Desktop, but it just showed up in my Excel 2016 build today.  And man is it cool!

A scenario for Create Column From Examples

A user on my forum asked how to build a function that would extract the "Show Name" from the following format:

DV1511H, Episode Name ( Show Name, SeriesNumber)

As the user pointed out, this can be done via the following Excel formula:

=LEFT((MID(A1,SEARCH(" ( ",A1)+3,200)), (SEARCH(", S",(MID(A1,SEARCH(" ( ",A1)+3,200)))-1))

But how do you do something similar in Power Query?

My initial thought

My first expectation was to use one of the techniques from M is for Data Monkey, using the equivalents of Excel's SEARCH and MID functions, basically emulating the Excel logic.  And while that would totally work, I got distracted by something when I opened up my Excel today:

image

The new create Column From Examples button was there on my ribbon.  So naturally, I had to see what it would come up with.

How to create Column From Examples

Naturally, it starts with clicking the created Column From Examples button, which gives you two options:

  1. From All Columns
  2. From Selection

In this case, they would do the same thing, but I'm going to choose "Selection" anyway, as I only need to look at one column.  When I do, I get a new message across the top, and a new column.  I put in the pattern I wanted to get:

image

And once I hit Enter, it actually shows me the pattern it used:

image

As I'm happy with it, I click OK.  The formula that it provided, (which I passed on to the questioner,) is:

Text.BetweenDelimiters([Column1], " ", ",", 3, 0)

Potential Improvements for create Column From Examples

Let me first say that I think this is fantastic.  I would not have come up with this function on my own, as I didn't even know that this function existed.

Some things that I wish we could change though:

  1. The column is created with a generic name.  I really wish we could have changed this during the creation phase instead of ending up with the generic "Part of Column 1" text.  In order to fix this, we either need to edit the M code formula or do another rename step, both of which could be avoided if we could simply rename the column during the creation phase.
  2. There is no gear icon in the applied steps window to take us back into the interface.  I'm sure that would be really hard to implement, but if you mess it up today, well… delete it and try again.
  3. There is no way to copy the function during the creation phase, and with the gear icon not available, the only way to copy/change the formula is via the formula bar.  Not a big deal if you know your M code, but for a novice/intermediate user picking out the correct parts with all the commas, quotes and parenthesis here could be a bit tricky.

image

Overall, despite what I would change here, this is a fantastic new function that is going to make life a lot easier for people.  Very cool!

‘DIY BI’ e-Book Launches Tomorrow!

Last week I announced that we are working on a series of free 'DIY BI' e-Books.  We've been hard at work on polishing it up, and I'm pleased to announce that the first DIY BI e-Book launches tomorrow!  It will be emailed at 9:00 AM Pacific Time to everyone on our newsletter list.

Sign up to get the free 'DIY BI' e-Book series

If you haven't already, sign for our mailing list to receive your copy!  You can do so at the bottom of this post.

Creating the 'DIY BI' e-Book

I'm really thankful that I have a team of people behind me for this.  For me, technical writing is actually the easy part.  It certainly takes time, don't get me wrong, but the magic of copy editing, proof reading and graphic design is a whole other story.

Deanna has done a great job of proofing the book, and making me re-write any paragraphs that sounded good in my head, but maybe didn't translate so well beyond that.  And Rebekah has done a phenomenal job on the graphic design and layout.

Each book will be themed as shown below:

image

Blue for Excel, based on the Excelguru website colour scheme.  Dark green for Power Query (like the powerquery.training site), light green for Power Pivot (like the Power Pivot logo) and yellow for Power BI like it's colour scheme.

The 'DIY BI' e-Book Cover

We wanted to create a cool cover, but most of the stock images for sale out there have a Mac in the picture.  Since 3/4 of these technologies won't work on the Mac, that plainly wasn't something we wanted to put out there.  So that led to us staging our own photo shoot to generate our cover - which I'll admit is a lot harder than I thought it would be.  Here's the finished cover for the first 'DIY BI' e-Book.

image

Our next e-Book will use the same cover image, but will be themed in the dark green of the Power Query series.

And yes, before you all ask, that IS a Pie Chart in the bottom left. And no, I don't love pie charts.  But sometimes you have to have one, because your boss asks for it.  (Just don't expect to find one INSIDE any of the e-Books!)  Smile

Reserve Your Free 'DIY BI' e-Book Now

If you're already receiving out newsletter, there is nothing else you need to do.  It will show up in your inbox shortly after 9:00 AM Pacific time on Apr 7, 2017.  If you're not on our newsletter list yet though, just sign up. It's that easy!

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Free ‘DIY BI’ e-Books

Today I wanted to just make a quick announcement that we are currently working on a series of free 'DIY BI' e-Books.

Free 'DIY BI' e-Books? Tell me more!

Over the past few years of working with Excel an Power BI, I've obviously picked up a few different methods, tips and tricks for working with the software.  And looking at how successful our free e-Book "Magic Tricks for Data Wizards" has been through the Power Query Training site, I thought it would be nice to so something similar for Excelguru readers.

One of the cool things about the Excelguru audience at this site is the diversity.  A lot of people originally came here for Excel, but we've been exploring Power Query, Power Pivot and Power BI for the past few years as well.  The one thing that ties us all together is that we are building "Do it Yourself Business Intelligence" or "DIY BI".

My original plan was to release one e-Book with 20 different tips, tricks and techniques; 5 each for Excel, Power Query, Power Pivot and Power BI.  After getting started, however, I realized that it was going to take me a bit longer to get that all done than I wanted.  But since I want to get information out to our readers, I've decided to break this down into four separate e-Books which will be collected under the umbrella of "DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques".  Each e-Book will focus on one specific area of the DIY BI story.

What will the free 'DIY BI' e-Books include?

Well… tips, tricks and techniques, of course.  Smile  Okay, seriously, each is fully illustrated and written to give you some great examples and ideas that I hope will help you in your DIY BI journey.

Here is what is covered in DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Excel:

  • The easiest formula to return the end of the month
  • Show a message when cells are hidden
  • Quick alignment of objects
  • Easy to read variances
  • Show a message if your Pivot data is stale

Sample image from DIY BI Tips, Tricks & Techniques for Excel

What areas will the free 'DIY BI' e-Books cover (and when will they be released)?

Those e-Books will be released in the following order:

  • DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Excel
  • DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Power Query
  • DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Power Pivot
  • DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Power BI

The first is already written, we just need to lay it out and make it look a bit more awesome.  Our target is to get it released by the end of next week.

With regards to the rest, I'll go as fast as I can on them, but as you can imagine, doing things right does take time.  I would expect that each will take 2-3 weeks to build out properly, but if I can get them out faster I most certainly will.

Am I going to need Excel 2016 to get value from the free 'DIY BI' e-Books?

No.  While I highly advocate being on a subscription version of Excel 2016, you'll find content in each of the first three e-Books which can be used in prior versions of Excel.

How do I receive the free 'DIY BI' e-Books?

You sign up for the Excelguru newsletter.  It's just that easy.  As soon as each e-Book is finished, we'll be emailing it to everyone who is currently subscribed to our newsletter.

And in the mean time, you also get a monthly email from us which now includes news about the latest updates to both Excel and Power BI.

Longer term, once all four e-Books are written, any new subscribers will receive the first e-Book upon signup, and then the next in the series will arrive every couple of days until you have the full set.

So what are you waiting for?  Sign up right here and don't miss out on free DIY BI Tips, Tricks and Techniques for your work!

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