Monitoring Power Query Memory Usage With Query Diagnostics In Power BI

In the April release of Power BI Desktop the Power Query Query Diagnostics feature was enhanced so that you can now return performance counter data. As the blog post says:

When you run performance counters, every half second Power Query will take a snapshot of resource utilization. This isn’t useful for very fast queries but can be helpful for queries that use up a lot more resources.

When might this be useful in the real world? In my last blog post I had a chart that shows the amount of data that Power Query reads from disk while loading a large-ish JSON file, created from data collected in Process Monitor using this technique. Here it is again:


The x axis is relative time in seconds from when Power Query started reading the data; the y axis shows the amount of data read. Notice how data is read at a constant rate for the first 1.5 seconds, but that after the 1.5 second mark the throughput flattens? What could be causing this?

Although this does not happen consistently, and I didn’t collect the necessary data when I ran this particular test, the answer is likely to be related to how the Power Query engine uses memory.

This is a topic I have blogged about before and I strongly recommend that before carrying on you read this post on the Container Size property that can be set on dataflows in Power BI Premium. Here’s a quote from Curt Hagenlocher of the Power Query dev team from that post that is relevant here too, about how the Power Query engine uses memory when a query executes:

Certain operations force the rows of a table value to be enumerated. If the enumeration operation itself is expensive, then using Table.Buffer can be a performance optimization because we store the values in memory so that second and subsequent enumerations of the rows go against memory.

If the table is only being enumerated once (which is the most common scenario) or if the underlying enumeration is fast anyway, then Table.Buffer won’t help performance.

Table.Buffer can actually hurt performance in some cases, because we cap RAM usage of the query at 256 MB — which means that a query which uses more than 256 MB is now forced to page RAM to/from disk. Enough paging, and the performance cost can be quite dramatic.

Currently, “table at a time” operations like joins, sort, many groupings, pivot, unpivot, etc., all happen in RAM (unless folded). For large tables, these will consume a lot of memory.

Now it turns out that when Power Query reads a JSON file it has to load the whole file into memory – something that isn’t true for other types of data source. So maybe, while reading the JSON file used in my test, the slow-down in throughput was caused by paging?

With the option to collect performance counters turned on (see the announcement blog post for how to do this) I opened up the pbix file with the query from my last blog post in, went to the Power Query Editor, and collected some query diagnostics data by right-clicking on the last step in my query and selecting Diagnose:

Diagnose Step

It soon became clear that the Power Query engine has a pool of mashup containers that it reuses (yes, go and read that blog post I told you to read!) and it seems like they often need to do some garbage collection before a query runs. So, to get a nice-looking graph, I did something highly unsupported that still seemed to work: I opened Task Manager and killed all the Microsoft Mashup Evaluation Container processes I could see under Power BI. Having done this, when I collected my performance counter data I could build the following graph showing Power Query memory usage while the query was evaluating:


The x axis shows the number of seconds elapsed since the start of the query; the y axis shows the value in bytes for the Commit and Working Set performance counters. The yellow line, for the Commit (bytes) performance counter, shows the amount of virtual memory used by Power Query. The blue line, for the Working Set (bytes) performance counter, shows the amount of physical memory used by Power Query; as you can see it reaches 256MB (indicated by the red dotted line) halfway through and never exceeds that. While Commit is greater than Working Set paging must be happening and Power Query performance may suffer as a result.

Over the years I have found that one of the most effective ways of improving Power Query performance is to try to avoid transformations like those that Curt mentions above that require a large tables to be held in memory – although that’s easier said than done. At least now we have an easy way of seeing where memory might be causing problems for Power Query performance using this new feature.

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