Seven years ago I gave a presentation at SQLBits called “Building a reporting solution using Power Query”. You can watch the recording here:
In it I showed how you could build a simple reporting solution using just Excel and Power Query, loading data into tables, handling parameterisation, making sure you get the best performance and so on. I think the session holds up pretty well: the functionality I showed hasn’t changed at all, and while in the meantime Power BI has reinvented itself and taken over the world I still think there’s a strong argument for using Excel plus Power Query instead of Power BI for some reporting scenarios (although it may be heresy to say so…).
If you follow the Excel blog you’ll know there have been a number of exciting announcements in the last few months, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of them and consider the impact they have for BI and reporting use cases.
Power Query in Excel for the Mac
One of the priorities for the Excel Power Query team has been to get Power Query working in Excel on the Mac, and in the latest update we now have the Power Query Editor available. Data sources are still limited to files (CSV, Excel, XML, JSON), Excel tables/ranges, SharePoint, OData and SQL Server but they are some of the most popular sources. I’m not a Mac person so this doesn’t excite me much, but this does open up Power Query to a new demographic that has traditionally ignored Microsoft BI; for example, I was leafing through John Foreman’s excellent introductory data science book “Data Smart” recently and all the examples in it are in Excel to reach a mass audience, but… Excel for the Mac.
Power Query in Excel Online
This, on the other hand, is something I do care about: who cares what OS you’re running if you can do everything you need in the browser? Well now you can refresh Power Query in Excel Online, although again only a few data sources are supported at the moment: data in tables/ranges in the current workbook, or anonymous OData feeds. More data sources will be supported in the future and there will also be better integration with Office Scripts, so you’ll be able to refresh queries from Power Automate or via a button without needing VBA; you’ll also be able use the Power Query Editor in the browser too.
Before you get too excited about Power Query in Excel Online, though, remember one important difference between it and a Power BI report or a paginated report. In a Power BI report or a paginated report, when a user views a report, nothing they do – slicing, dicing, filtering etc – affects or is visible to any other users. With Power Query and Excel Online however you’re always working with a single copy of a document, so when one user refreshes a Power Query query and loads data into a workbook that change affects everyone. As a result, the kind of parameterised reports I show in my SQLBits presentation that work well in desktop Excel (because everyone can have their own copy of a workbook) could never work well in the browser, although I suppose Excel Online’s Sheet View feature offers a partial solution. Of course not all reports need this kind of interactivity and this does make collaboration and commenting on a report much easier; and when you’re collaborating on a report the Show Changes feature makes it easy to see who changed what.
More flexibility with Power Query data types
Being the kind of person who stores their data in Power BI I didn’t do much with Power Query data types when they were released; after all, you can create Organisation data types to access Power BI data from Excel and I prefer using Excel cube functions anyway. However if you’re not using Power BI then I can see how Power Query data types could be really useful for building reports that go beyond big, boring tables, making it much easier to create more complex report layouts.
Power Query connector for Power BI dataflows and Dataverse
Lastly, the feature I’m most excited about: the ability to load data from Power BI dataflows and Dataverse into Excel via Power Query. It’s not available yet although I promise it’s coming very soon! The ability to share cleaned and conformed data via dataflows direct to those Excel users who just want a data dump (rather than using Analyze in Excel on a Power BI dataset) will prove to be extremely popular, I think. There are a lot of improvements to dataflows coming soon too (you do remember to check the release notes regularly, don’t you?).
Overall it’s clear that Excel Power Query is getting better and better. It may never be able to keep pace with Power BI (what can?) but all these new features show that, for people who prefer to do everything in Excel, it’s making Excel a much better place to build reports. I feel like I need to update my SQLBits presentation now!