The Biml Book, And Some Thoughts On Biml And SSAS

I know what you’re thinking: why is Chris blogging about a book on Biml when he’s not remotely interested in SSIS? Well, you’re right, SSIS isn’t my thing (though as an SSAS developer it’s important to keep up-to-date on the tools that the SSIS people on your team use) and yes, as you may have guessed, I got a freebie review copy because I’m an Apress author and I’m friends with one of the authors, Andy Leonard. There is, though, a good reason why I want to learn about Biml: you can use it to generate SSAS databases as well as SSIS packages.

First of all, the book itself. “The Biml Book” is a new book written by a team of Biml experts that teaches you pretty much everything you need to know about Biml. I’m always a bit worried by books with a large number of authors because I know how difficult it is to maintain a consistent style, but in this case I couldn’t see any joins. As someone with no previous experience of Biml. I found the book very clear, concise and easy to read. I highly recommend it as an introduction to the topic.

Of course the chapter on using Biml with SSAS was the most interesting for me. The main reason why SSAS people aren’t as excited about Biml as SSIS people are is that we just don’t usually have the same amount of boring, repetitive work that begs to be automated, and we already have AMO and TOM when we do need to automate the creation of SSAS objects. Indeed, I’ve only ever met one person who is using Biml with SSAS. So when would you use Biml and SSAS? The book provides a good, honest answer:

Biml can be a great fit for Analysis Services use cases, but there are some exceptions.

Just as with SSIS, one of the great advantages of Biml is that it easily allows scale-out architectures through automation. This makes it a good choice when it comes to multi-tenancy and/or multi-server environments.

Given the ability to automate structures and deployments through metadata, Biml frameworks can also include cube projects that can be driven with some of the same metadata that was used to build data integration frameworks.

Conversely, SSAS Multidimensional/Tabular can require the specification of additional types of metadata to automate its creation. After all, cubes and tabular models are largely just metadata containers on top of relational structures. If you want to use your own metadata to drive the creation of bespoke SSAS projects that could support any SSAS feature, you essentially need to duplicate the entire SSAS feature set in your metadata store. This will result in complex models that may be very difficult and time-consuming to maintain, potentially leading to longer instead of shorter development and deployment times. In a nutshell, Biml isn’t for all SSAS projects, but for the pattern-heavy, scale-out projects where it does fit, it’s tremendously valuable.

I’ll give you an example of where I think Biml and SSAS make a good match. I’ve worked with several companies who do what I call B2B BI: they create, host and manage Microsoft BI solutions for their customers. They have a standard template solution that connects to a particular type of data source (for example, their customers’ Dynamics databases), builds a data warehouse and then puts SSAS and maybe some reports on top. As a result they end up with multiple copies of the same solution, with the only difference being that each copy contains a different customer’s data – a classic example of a “multi-tenancy and/or multi-server environment” as described in the extract above. This style of BI will become more and more common in the future because cloud-based services like Azure SSAS and Power BI (both now support Azure AD B2B) make it much easier to implement, and I think Biml could play a very important role here: you don’t want to build and manage hundreds of near-identical SSAS databases, and their supporting ETL, manually.

Power BI Video Training Now Available

If you can’t make it to one of my classroom-based courses in London next year, today I’m pleased to announce that my new Power BI video training course is now available via my friends at Project Botticelli. It covers the following topics:

  • What is Power BI? (Free)
  • Connecting to Data Sources
  • Data Import Concepts
  • Transforming Data with the Query Editor
  • Advanced Data Loading
  • Modelling Data
  • Basic DAX
  • Power BI Desktop vs Excel
  • Cloud and Desktop Power BI Dashboards and Reports
  • Building Reports in Excel
  • Data Refresh (Free)
  • Administration and Auditing (Free)

Several of the shorter videos are free to view. Full details can be found here:

Other courses available on the site include my MDX and SSAS Multidimensional courses, plus Marco Russo’s DAX course and many others.

If you’re quick, you can use the code CHRIS2017CYBER15 to get a 15% discount on subscriptions before Tuesday November 28th 2017!

In-Person Power BI And Azure Analysis Services Training In London

I’m pleased to announce two in-person training dates in London next year.

First of all, I’ll be running a three-day “Introduction to Power BI” course from January 29th to January 31st 2018.  Suitable for BI pros, analysts and anyone who needs to use Power BI to build reports, I’ll be covering data loading, data modelling, a bit of M, a lot of DAX, report design, publishing, security and administration. Full details and registration can be found here:

Not long after, on February 22nd 2018, I’ll be teaching a full-day preconference seminar at SQLBits in London on Azure Analysis Services. The agenda can be found here:

…but, to be honest, there’s likely to be a lot of cool new functionality released for Azure SSAS between now and then so that will all have to be fitted in too. SQLBits is, of course, the biggest SQL Server/Microsoft data platform conference in Europe, ridiculously good value for money and loads of fun. Pricing and registration details can be found here:

UPDATE: the SQLBits team wanted me to make a video to promote my precon, so I outsourced the job to my daughter. Here’s the result:

The Extension.Contents() M Function

Following on from my post last week about M functions that are only available in custom data extensions, here’s a quick explanation of one of those functions: Extension.Contents().

Basically, it allows you to access the contents of any file you include in the .mez file of your custom data connector. Say you have a text file called MyTextFile.txt:


If you create a new Power BI Custom Data Connector project using the SDK, you can add this file to your project in Visual Studio like any other file:


Next, select the file and in the Visual Studio Properties pane set the Build Action property to Compile:


Setting this property means that when your custom data connector is built, this file is included inside it (the .mez file is just a zip file – if you unzip it you’ll now find this file inside).

Next, in the .pq file that contains the M code for your custom data connector, you can access the contents of this file as binary data using Extension.Contents(“MyTextFile.txt”). Here’s an example function for use in a custom data connector that does this:

shared ExtensionContentsDemo.Contents = () =>
        GetFileContents = Extension.Contents("MyTextFile.txt"),
        ConvertToText = Text.FromBinary(GetFileContents)


In the let expression here the GetFileContents step returns the contents of the text file as binary data and the ConvertToText step calls Text.FromBinary() to turn the binary data into a text value.

When this function is, in turn, called it returns the text from the text file. Here’s a screenshot of a query run from Power BI Desktop (after the custom data connector has been compiled and loaded into Power BI) that does this:


BI Survey 17: Power BI Highlights

Every year, in return for publicising it to my readers, I get sent a copy of the findings of the BI Survey – the largest survey of BI product users in the world. As always they make for very interesting reading indeed, and although I can’t give away all the details I have been allowed to blog about a few of the highlights for Power BI:

  • Power BI is now the third most frequently considered product in competitive evaluations, after QlikView and Tableau.
  • Indeed, based on responses from vendors and resellers, Microsoft is now the third ‘most significant competitor’ after Tableau and Qlik and is in a much stronger position than it was two years ago – clearly as a result of the impact that Power BI has made, although Excel, SSAS and SSRS contribute to this too.
  • Unsurprisingly Power BI’s exceptional price/performance ratio is the main reason that organisations purchase it. Nonetheless it gets very high satisfaction ratings too.
  • Power BI is also now the third most frequently used front-end for SSAS, after SSRS (which is in the #1 spot and quite a way out in front) and Excel (either on its own or with an AddIn).

Overall it’s a very strong showing for Microsoft. If you’re conducting a competitive evaluation of BI tools, or if you’re a BI vendor, it’s probably worth buying a copy of the full findings.

Which M Functions Are Only Available To Custom Data Connectors?

Here’s one for all you M geeks out there. If you look at the example code for custom data connectors on the Power BI custom data connectors GitHub repo it’s clear that there are several M functions that are available in custom data connectors that aren’t available in Power BI Desktop. But what are they? As I’m sure you know, you can get a list of all the functions, types and enums available in M using the #shared keyword. Well, I created a simple custom data connector that calls #shared and returned a table of all the functions, types and enums available to a custom data connector, and then compared that table with what #shared returns when you run it in Power BI Desktop. This made it easy to find a list of M functions, types and enums that are only available in custom data connectors, and here are all 34:

  • CryptoAlgorithm.Type
  • CryptoAlgorithm.SHA1
  • CryptoAlgorithm.SHA256
  • Crypto.CreateHmac
  • Crypto.CreateHash
  • Web.SignForOAuth1
  • OAuth1.Type
  • OAuth1.HMACSHA1
  • OAuth1.RSASHA1
  • Extension.Module
  • Extension.CurrentCredential
  • Extension.CurrentApplication
  • Extension.CredentialError
  • Extension.LoadString
  • Extension.Contents
  • Credential.AccessDenied
  • Credential.AccessForbidden
  • Credential.EncryptionNotSupported
  • Credential.NativeQueryPermission
  • Error.Unexpected
  • Uri.Type
  • Binary.End
  • Action.Type
  • Action.Sequence
  • Action.Return
  • Action.Try
  • Action.DoNothing
  • ValueAction.Replace
  • ValueAction.NativeStatement
  • TableAction.InsertRows
  • TableAction.UpdateRows
  • TableAction.DeleteRows
  • WebAction.Request
  • Delta.Since

Some of these, like the Action functions, are documented in the Power Query function reference, and as I said others are mentioned in the Power BI custom data connectors GitHub repo, but there’s definitely some detective work to do here…

PASS Summit 2017 Day 1 BI News

There haven’t been any really big BI announcements at the PASS Summit this year – I guess we get so much amazing new stuff every month with Power BI that there’s no need to make ‘big’ announcements at conferences any more. However there have been several cool new features unveiled that I thought it would be good to highlight.

Azure SSAS automated scale-out

I’m a big fan of Azure SSAS, and what I particularly like is the way the dev team are making tasks that are complex with on-premises SSAS much easier when you go to the cloud. SSAS scale-out is a great example: on-premises you have to solve this by buying multiple servers, licensing and maintaining multiple instances of SSAS, and then setting up network load balancing on top of them. Today the Azure SSAS team announced their automated scale-out feature is live, and now all you need to do to scale out is drag a slider to the right:


Of course this is all scriptable too, so if you know you need to have to handle more users on a Monday morning you can scale-out appropriately and then when the rush is over you can reduce the number of query replicas and pay less.

Power BI Report Server

There’s a new release of Power BI Report Server available, and you can read all about it here:

The blog post highlights the fact that you can connect to SSRS shared datasets via OData – which is basically what I was talking about here.

Preview of in-memory/DirectQuery hybrid datasets

Christian Wade of the SSAS dev team gave a very cool demo of building Power BI reports on a trillion row dataset. Not many details are available about how this works, or when it will be released, but it seems to be through a feature where you can combine tables stored in-memory and tables that use DirectQuery storage (in the demo this was DirectQuery on Spark) in the same dataset. It sounds a bit like HOLAP: queries that request aggregated values hit the fast, in-memory data, but when you want to look at detail-level data queries use DirectQuery. Someone is very excited about this:


PowerApps/Power BI integration

Something that was going to be demoed – but the demo failed so we didn’t see it – was the promised integration between PowerApps and Power BI. Apparently this will be released soon.

ESRI Plus subscription for Power BI

Mentioned in the keynote but again with very few details is the fact that ESRI is going to offer a special subscription for users of the ESRI maps visual in Power BI. It looks like this is it and it is slated for release in November:

Here’s what the ESRI site says the benefits will be:

  • Access global demographics
  • Access verified ready-to-use data, curated from authoritative sources
  • Access more basemaps including satellite imagery and terrain
  • Map and view more locations on your visualization
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