Archive for SSAS

Relationships in Power BI and Power Pivot

Level: Beginners

Power Pivot is a database that has been designed from the ground up to be optimised for reporting and analysis in Power BI, Power Pivot for Excel and SSAS Tabular.  The technology is essentially the same across all of these products so I will generically refer to Power Pivot in this article.

Power Pivot uses an in memory columnar database (Vertipaq) as the foundation technology – the same technology for all versions (Power Pivot, Power  BI and SSAS Tabular).  The Vertipaq engine is what makes Power Pivot both super fast and highly compressed.  A Power Pivot database is not the same as a relational database (RDB) and it does not support all the relationship types that relational databases support.  This can be confusing for people that are new to Power Pivot, particularly if they have at least a basic understanding of how databases (such as MS Access) work.  I explain what you need to know to get started with relationships in Power Pivot here.

Virtual Relationships

This article is specifically about physical relationships, however there are ways to create virtual relationships using DAX.  Examples include using LOOKUPVALUE, FILTER, CROSSFILTER and other techniques.  I am not covering these types of relationships in this article.

Relationship Cardinality Types

There are 3 different possible physical relationship cardinality types in database design but not all are supported by Power Pivot.

Relationship Cardinality Type Power BI Support Power Pivot for Excel Support
One to Many Yes Yes
One to One Yes No
Many to Many No No

One to Many Relationships


The one to many relationship is the foundation of Power Pivot.  In the example above (from Adventure Works in Power BI Desktop), the Customers table is on the 1 side of the relationship and the Sales table is on the many side of the relationship. These tables are joined using a common field/column called “CustomerKey”.  Customer Key (aka customer number) is a code that uniquely identifies each customer.  There can be no duplicates of the customer key in the customer table.  Conversely the customer can purchase as many times as needed and hence the customer key can appear in the Sales table as many times as necessary.  This is where the name “one to many” comes from – the customer key occurs once and only once in the Customers table but can appear many times in the Sales table.

Tables on the one side of the relationship are called Dimension tables (I call them Lookup tables) and the tables on the many side of the relationship are called Fact tables (I call them Data tables).

The entire Power Pivot Vertipaq engine is optimised to work with this (one to many) type of relationship.

One to One Relationships

The One to One relationship is only supported in Power BI and the newest version of SSAS Tabular.  In my view this relationship type has limited value and in most cases it is better to combine these tables into a single flat table prior to loading to Power BI.  Consider the model below.


The first relationship (shown as 1) is a 1 to many relationship between the Customer table (Lookup table) and the Sales table (Data table).  The Customer Socio Economic Data table is joined to the Customer table via a 1 to 1 relationship (shown as 2 above).  If there is a benefit (to the user of reports) of splitting this Socio Economic data into a separate table then of course you should do so.  If there is no benefit, I recommend you combine all the data from Customer Socio Economic Data table into the Customer table using Power Query on load.

Every relationship has a “cost” in that it will have some affect on performance.  The performance impact may not be noticeable for simple models but may become an issue with very complex models.

If you only remember 1 thing from this article, then please let it be this:  Don’t automatically accept the table structure coming from your source data.  You are now a data modeller and you need to make decisions on the best way to load your data.  Your source system  is probably not optimised for reporting (unless it is a reporting datamart) so please don’t assume that what you have got is what you need.

Many to Many Relationships

The many to many relationship type is not supported in Power Pivot.  This is a deliberate design decision that has been made as a trade off to ensure optimum database performance.  If you have data that is logically related with a many to many cardinality, there are modelling techniques you can use to solve the problem in Power Pivot that are covered in my many to many pattern article here.

UI Differences

There are a few differences in the Power BI Desktop/Excel 2016 UI (relationship view) and that of Excel 2010/2013.

Excel 2010/2013

The early UI has an arrow pointing to the lookup table (the one side of the relationship) and a dot on the many side.  This is unfortunate as the arrow is pointing in the opposite direction of the filter propagation.  This only exists in Excel 2010/2013 (and the early version of SSAS Tabular).

Power BI/Excel 2016

The UI has been significantly improved with Power BI Desktop and Excel 2016.  As you can see below, the 1 to many relationship is now clearly shown, and there is also a new arrow showing the automatic filter propagation direction.


One Active Relationship

It is possible to have more than 1 relationship between tables in Power Pivot, but only 1 can be active at a time.  An example of when you may want multiple relationships is if you have a Sales[Order Date] and a Sales[Ship Date] in your data table.

In this scenario (shown above in Excel 2013) you may want to join both Sales Date columns to your Calendar table so you can use time intelligence in your data model on both Order Date and Ship Date.

The active relationship is shown as a solid line (above) and the inactive relationship is shown as a dashed line (in this case it is highlighted in blue above).  The active relationship is used by default in all DAX measures however you can over-ride this default and use the inactive relationship (when needed) by using the USERELATIONSHIP() function.  Full details on this are covered in my article here.

Cross Filtering Behaviour

Power Pivot is optimised to work with one to many relationships and to automatically propagate filters (filter context) from the one side to the many side.  In all versions of Power Pivot for Excel, this is the ONLY type of filter propagation that is available.

Power BI supports bi-directional cross filtering behaviour (shown right below) as well as single direction (shown left below).


In fact bi-directional filtering is the default behaviour for Power BI Desktop.  There are many people (including me) that think this is a bad idea as bi-directional cross filtering comes at a cost – there is an overhead of constantly cross filtering the lookup table based on the contents of the data table at time when it is actually not required.  Sure if you have a simple model and you need this behaviour and you don’t know how to handled it with the many to many pattern  then turn it on.  But surely this should not be turned on by default.  In addition, if you have more than 1 data table, bi-directional cross filtering can cause circular references causing further confusion to unsuspecting users.

I think Microsoft is trying to make Power BI more user friendly for the “lay user” however in this case I think Microsoft has made a mistake.  Do yourself a favour and turn off bi-directional cross filtering unless you explicitly need it.  To change it just double click on the arrow and set the cross filter direction to single.

update:  Last week 17th Feb 2017 I noted that new models I built were single directional by default – seems Microsoft has listened and changed the default behaviour.


Wrap Up

Hopefully this article has helped you understand more about how Power Pivot works.  Let me know in the comments below if there is anything I have missed.

Power BI On Premise – Not in the Cloud!

Microsoft has recently released a technical preview of Power BI that can be installed on premise inside a company firewall and the Power BI reports can be securely published over the Intranet (not Internet) via SSRS.  Today I am sharing my experiences setting up the technical preview for the first time.  I installed the software on my PC however if you are going to use it for your company, you need to install it on a server.  Time to get one of your friendly IT folk to help you when you are ready to set this up and demonstrate what can be done to your business leaders.

Guy in a Cube is Your Friend

Adam Saxton shares a truck load of information at his Guy in a Cube YouTube ChannelI watched Adam’s video on how to install this technical preview and followed his instructions.  I wont repeat all the details here as he has done a great job of that already, however I wanted to share my experience and observations.

My Install Experience

For the record, I installed the 64 bit version on my local PC.  I already had SQL Server 2012 installed as well as SSAS Tabular 2012.

1. I downloaded the Jan 2017 technical preview of Power BI Desktop (SSRS edition) PBIDesktopRS_x64.msi and SQL Server Reporting Services SQLServerReportingServices.exe (both available here).  1 minute to download both files.


2. I installed and ran Power BI Desktop installer for SSRS first.  After installing, I ran the new software.  It looks, loads and behaves just like Power BI Desktop except for the reference to SSRS.  There was no conflict with my existing copy of Power BI Desktop, so now I have both versions installed side by side.  I assume the special SSRS features will find their way into the main version of Power BI Desktop in time.


3. I then installed the SSRS Technical Preview software (I note it has a short life – 180 days, which is to be expected).  1 minute to install.


4. I was then prompted to configure SSRS.  I already have a SQL Server instance running on my PC (2012), so I used that (I didn’t need to download a SQL Server Evaluation Edition) from the link shown above.

5. I then clicked the configuration button and gave it the name of my localhost server. I then got the following message.


6.  I then had to refer back to Adam’s video as I wasn’t sure what to do next.  Adam instructed to navigate to a URL in a browser (MachineName\Reports).   I found the exact URL for my SSRS server in the configuration tool as shown below.


Note you don’t need the :80 port number as port 80 is the default.  So for me the URL was simply


But when I went to that address in Google Chrome, it didn’t work.


On a hunch I decided to reboot my PC, then it worked just fine.


7. I noticed in the SSRS configuration manager that there is an option to register Power BI Integration.  This seems to be related to users being able to pin tiles from an On Premise Power BI report onto a Cloud based Dashboard, although I am not 100% clear on this.  I didn’t touch anything here and it all worked fine.


8.  This preview only works with a live connection to SSAS (Tabular or Multi Dimensional).  I have SSAS Tabular running on my PC but I didn’t have a Tabular Data Model I could use, so I decided to restore a Power Pivot model from Excel to my server.  I launched SSMS to connect to Analysis Services Tabular (2012 in my case).


I right clicked on Databases (shown as 1 below) and then selected Restore from Power Pivot (2 below).


I followed the instructions to restore the file.  At first I couldn’t restore the file due to a file access permission error. I have struggled with this forever (I am not a SQL Server Pro) but I quickly found this article that told me how to give SQL Server permission to access the folder that contained my Power Pivot workbook.

After restoring I couldn’t see the database.  I had to first right click (1 below), then select refresh (2 below).


9. Using my new version of Power BI Desktop, I created a new workbook and connected it to my SSAS server using connect live.


I created a quick demo report and then saved the report.  I navigated to the SSRS Reports Page in my Browser (shown below) and uploaded my new report.


Bingo – On Premise Power BI

And bingo – there it is, working through a browser like a charm.



  • The first report was slow to render.  The second and subsequent reports were fast.  This could be related to my SSAS Server on my PC not being hot.
  • Now when I double click on a PBIX file, the SSRS version of Power BI Desktop launches by default.  I tried to manually change this back but couldn’t get it to change.  I decided to reinstall the latest production version of Power BI Desktop (repair install) and that fixed it.  The SSRS version still worked but was now not the default.
  • The URL for the report page is in the format MACHINENAME/Reports/PowerBI/FileNameWithoutThePBIXextension.  As you can see in the image above, my file name was “Power BI On Premise” including spaces.  That meant that the URL was actually desktop-1sckel7/Reports/powerbi/Power%20BI%20On%20Premise  I hate all those %20 that indicate a space.  I renamed the file using underscore characters instead of spaces, and that gave me a much neater URL



All in all I have to say this is pretty exciting.  I have lots of current and potential clients that I have spoken to that are not willing to proceed with a cloud based solution.  A production ready on-premise solution seems very close now – can’t wait.