Content Endorsement in Power BI, Part 1, The Basics

Content Endorsement in Power BI, Part 1, The Basics

As you may already know, Power BI is not a report-authoring tool only. Indeed, it is much more than that. Power BI is an all-around data platform supporting many aspects you’d expect from such a platform. You can ingest the data from various data sources, transform it, model it, visualise and share it with others. Read more about what Power BI is here.

One of the key aspects of users’ experience in Power BI is their ability to collaborate in creating and sharing content, making it an easy-to-use and convenient platform. But the convenience comes with a cost of having a lot of shared content in large organisations raising concerns about the content’s quality and trustworthiness. It would be hard, if not impossible, to identify the quality of the contents without a mechanism to identify the quality of the contents. Content endorsement is the answer to this.

In this series of blog posts, I answer the following questions:

  • What is Content Endorsement?
  • What contents support endorsement?
  • Who can endorse the content?
  • What is Certification?
  • How to endorse the supported content?
  • What are endorsement processes?

But before we start, we need to know what content means in Power BI.

What does Content Mean in Power BI?

When we use the term Content in the context of Power BI, we refer to the objects we create in Power BI Service. We currently have the following contents in Power BI:

You may ask, is a Workspace also content?

The answer is no; a Workspace is a container for the contents enabling users to collaborate within the organisation.

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Thin Reports, Real-world Challenges

Power BI Thin Reports, Real-world Challenges

I previously explained in a blog post what thin reports are and why we should care about them. I also explained Report Level Measures in another blog post. In this post, I try to raise some real-world challenges we face when developing thin reports. I also provide a solution to those challenges.

Report Level Measure Related Challenges

Creating and using Report Level Measures is relatively easy, but there are some challenges that we face from time to time, such as:

  • Distinguishing Report Level Measures from Dataset Level Measures
  • Report Level Measure dependencies

Determining Report Level Measures from Dataset Level Measures

One of the challenges that Power BI Developers face is creating many report level measures. Unfortunately, Power BI Desktop currently uses the same iconography for both types of measures, making it hard to distinguish the actual measures created within the dataset from the report level measures. It gets even more challenging if we need to write technical documentation for an existing thin report. We have to open the PBIX file of the thin report in the Power BI Desktop and click every single measure. If the expression bar appears, the selected measure is a report level measure; otherwise, it is a dataset level measure.

So unless we use third-party tools, which I explain in this post, we must go through the manual process.

Report Level Measure dependencies

Another pain point related to the previous challenge is finding the dependencies between the report level measures. It is crucial to be aware of the interdependencies when doing impact analysis. We need to understand how a change in a report level measure impacts other report level measures. Again, Power BI Desktop does not currently have any options supporting that, so we have to click every measure and read through the DAX expressions to identify the dependencies or use the third-party tools to save development time.

Dataset and Thin Reports Dependency Challenges

The other challenges are even more difficult to overcome relate to interdependencies between datasets and thin reports. Power BI Service provides a lineage view that shows the dependencies between a dataset and its connected thin reports. But the challenges can get more complex to overcome manually. The following are some real-world examples of more complex situations:

  • What if we need to analyse the impact of changes in a dataset measure on all report level measures of the connected thin reports?
  • How do we analyse the impact of changes on a dataset measure on all connected thin reports, including the visuals, filters, etc…?
  • What if we need to tune the performance and we want to find a list of all unused tables or unused fields?

As you can see, the situation can get pretty complex, so manual operations are virtually impossible.

But there is a third party tool we can use which provides heaps of capabilities with a couple of clicks.

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Thin Reports, What Are They, Why Should I Care and How Can I Create Them?

Thin Reports in Power BI

Shared Datasets have been around for quite a while now. In June 2019, Microsoft announced a new feature called Shared and Certified Datasets with the mindset of supporting enterprise-grade BI within the Power BI ecosystem. In essence, the shared dataset feature allows organisations to have a single source of truth across the organisation serving many reports.

A Thin Report is a report that connects to an existing dataset on Power BI Service using the Connect Live connectivity mode. So, we basically have multiple reports connected to a single dataset. Now that we know what a thin report is, let’s see why it is best practice to follow this approach.

Prior to the Shared and Certified Datasets announcement, we used to create separate reports in Power BI Desktop and publish those reports into Power BI Service. This approach had many disadvantages, such as:

  • Having many disparate islands of data instead of a single source of truth.
  • Consuming more storage on Power BI Service by having repetitive table across many datasets
  • Reducing collaboration between data modellers and report creators (contributors) as Power BI Desktop is not a multi-user application.
  • The reports were strictly connected to the underlying dataset so it is so hard, if not totally impossible, to decouple a report from a dataset and connect it to a different dataset. This was pretty restrictive for the developers to follow the Dev/Test/Prod approach.
  • If we had a fairly large report with many pages, say more than 20 pages, then again, it was almost impossible to break the report down into some smaller and more business-centric reports.
  • Putting too much load on the data sources connected to many disparate datasets. The situation gets even worst when we schedule multiple refreshes a day. In some cases the data refresh process put exclusive locks on the the source system that can potentially cause many issues down the road.
  • Having many datasets and reports made it harder and more expensive to maintain the solution.

In my previous blog, I explained the different components of a Business Intelligence solution and how they map to the Power BI ecosystem. In that post, I mentioned that the Power BI Service Datasets map to a Semantic Layer in a Business Intelligence solution. So, when we create a Power BI report with Power BI Desktop and publish the report to the Power BI Service, we create a semantic layer with a report connected to it altogether. By creating many disparate reports in Power BI Desktop and publishing them to the Power BI Service, we are indeed creating many semantic layers with many repeated tables on top of our data which does not make much sense.

On the other hand, having some shared datasets with many connected thin reports makes a lot of sense. This approach covers all the disadvantages of the previous development method; in addition, it decreases the confusion for report writers around the datasets they are connecting to, it helps with storage management in Power BI Service, and it is easier to comply with security and privacy concerns.

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Business Intelligence Components and How They Relate to Power BI

Business Intelligence Components and How They Relate to Power BI

When I decided to write this blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to learn a bit about the history of Business Intelligence. I searched on the internet, and I found this page on Wikipedia. The term Business Intelligence as we know it today was coined by an IBM computer science researcher, Hans Peter Luhn, in 1958, who wrote a paper in the IBM Systems journal titled A Business Intelligence System as a specific process in data science. In the Objectives and principles section of his paper, Luhn defines the business as “a collection of activities carried on for whatever purpose, be it science, technology, commerce, industry, law, government, defense, et cetera.” and an intelligence system as “the communication facility serving the conduct of a business (in the broad sense)”. Then he refers to Webster’s dictionary’s definition of the word Intelligence as the ability to apprehend the interrelationships of presented facts in such a way as to guide action towards a desired goal”.

It is fascinating to see how a fantastic idea in the past sets a concrete future that can help us have a better life. Isn’t it precisely what we do in our daily BI processes as Luhn described of a Business Intelligence System for the first time? How cool is that?

When we talk about the term BI today, we refer to a specific and scientific set of processes of transforming the raw data into valuable and understandable information for various business sectors (such as sales, inventory, law, etc…). These processes will help businesses to make data-driven decisions based on the existing hidden facts in the data.

Like everything else, the BI processes improved a lot during its life. I will try to make some sensible links between today’s BI Components and Power BI in this post.

Generic Components of Business Intelligence Solutions

Generally speaking, a BI solution contains various components and tools that may vary in different solutions depending on the business requirements, data culture and the organisation’s maturity in analytics. But the processes are very similar to the following:

  • We usually have multiple source systems with different technologies containing the raw data, such as SQL Server, Excel, JSON, Parquet files etc…
  • We integrate the raw data into a central repository to reduce the risk of making any interruptions to the source systems by constantly connecting to them. We usually load the data from the data sources into the central repository.
  • We transform the data to optimise it for reporting and analytical purposes, and we load it into another storage. We aim to keep the historical data in this storage.
  • We pre-aggregate the data into certain levels based on the business requirements and load the data into another storage. We usually do not keep the whole historical data in this storage; instead, we only keep the data required to be analysed or reported.
  • We create reports and dashboards to turn the data into useful information

With the above processes in mind, a BI solution consists of the following components:

  • Data Sources
  • Staging
  • Data Warehouse/Data Mart(s)
  • Extract, Transform and Load (ETL)
  • Semantic Layer
  • Data Visualisation

Data Sources

One of the main goals of running a BI project is to enable organisations to make data-driven decisions. An organisation might have multiple departments using various tools to collect the relevant data every day, such as sales, inventory, marketing, finance, health and safety etc.

The data generated by the business tools are stored somewhere using different technologies. A sales system might store the data in an Oracle database, while the finance system stores the data in a SQL Server database in the cloud. The finance team also generate some data stored in Excel files.

The data generated by different systems are the source for a BI solution.

Staging

We usually have multiple data sources contributing to the data analysis in real-world scenarios. To be able to analyse all the data sources, we require a mechanism to load the data into a central repository. The main reason for that is the business tools required to constantly store data in the underlying storage. Therefore, frequent connections to the source systems can put our production systems at risk of being unresponsive or performing poorly. The central repository where we store the data from various data sources is called Staging. We usually store the data in the staging with no or minor changes compared to the data in the data sources. Therefore, the quality of the data stored in the staging is usually low and requires cleansing in the subsequent phases of the data journey. In many BI solutions, we use Staging as a temporary environment, so we delete the Staging data regularly after it is successfully transferred to the next stage, the data warehouse or data marts.

If we want to indicate the data quality with colours, it is fair to say the data quality in staging is Bronze.

Data Warehouse/Data Mart(s)

As mentioned before, the data in the staging is not in its best shape and format. Multiple data sources disparately generate the data. So, analysing the data and creating reports on top of the data in staging would be challenging, time-consuming and expensive. So we require to find out the links between the data sources, cleanse, reshape and transform the data and make it more optimised for data analysis and reporting activities. We store the current and historical data in a data warehouse. So it is pretty normal to have hundreds of millions or even billions of rows of data over a long period. Depending on the overall architecture, the data warehouse might contain encapsulated business-specific data in a data mart or a collection of data marts. In data warehousing, we use different modelling approaches such as Star Schema. As mentioned earlier, one of the primary purposes of having a data warehouse is to keep the history of the data. This is a massive benefit of having a data warehouse, but this strength comes with a cost. As the volume of the data in the data warehouse grows, it makes it more expensive to analyse the data. The data quality in the data warehouse or data marts is Silver.

Extract, Transfrom and Load (ETL)

In the previous sections, we mentioned that we integrate the data from the data sources in the staging area, then we cleanse, reshape and transform the data and load it into a data warehouse. To do so, we follow a process called Extract, Transform and Load or, in short, ETL. As you can imagine, the ETL processes are usually pretty complex and expensive, but they are an essential part of every BI solution.

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