DirectQuery · Power BI · Power BI Desktop

What Is The Difference Between A Live Connection And DirectQuery Mode In Power BI?

It’s very easy to get confused between a Live connections and DirectQuery mode in Power BI: the customers I work with frequently get them mixed up, partly because they are similar concepts, partly because other BI tools use the term “live connection” to refer to what Power BI calls DirectQuery mode. In this post I will explain the differences between these two terms.

Power BI Datasets, Azure Analysis Services and SQL Server Analysis Services

The first thing to understand is that when a Power BI report runs it can only get data from one of three places: a Power BI dataset; an Azure Analysis Services (AAS) database; or an on-premises instance of SQL Server Analysis Services(SSAS). There are some exceptions to this rule but we can ignore them for the purposes of this post. Each of these three sources run variations of the same engine, ie the Analysis Services engine, and can be queried in DAX. These sources may in turn get data from other sources when they are queried but as far as the Power BI report is concerned the only sources it can talk to directly are Power BI datasets, AAS databases and SSAS databases.

Live connections

Normally, when you open up Power BI Desktop and start developing, your .pbix file contains the definition of a Power BI dataset and a report that connects to it. When you publish this .pbix file they are split up and you see separate dataset and report objects in your Power BI workspace.

However, in Power BI Desktop you may instead choose to connect to a Power BI dataset that has already been published to the Power BI Service, or an instance of AAS or SSAS, and use that as the source for the report. The main advantage of doing this is that different developers can work on the dataset/AAS database/SSAS database definition and the report at the same time. When you connect to an already-published dataset or an AAS or SSAS database from Power BI Desktop you are creating a Live connection.

To connect to a published Power BI dataset and create a Live connection choose the “Power BI datasets” option under the Get Data menu:

If you want to create a Live connection to AAS or SSAS choose the Analysis Services source and then make sure the “Connect live” option is selected:

After you’ve created the Live connection you’ll see a message telling you this in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen in Power BI Desktop:

The key thing to understand is that when you create a Live connection your .pbix file no longer contains a dataset definition – it only contains a report, and that report connects to a dataset, AAS database or SSAS database that already exists elsewhere.

The concept of a Live connection only really makes sense in Power BI Desktop: as I said, in the Power BI Service reports and datasets are separate objects anyway. A report can only have one Live connection because a report can only ever connect to a single dataset, AAS database or SSAS database.

If you publish a report with a Live connection to an already-published Power BI dataset, then the only new thing that will appear in the Power BI Service is the report . If you publish a report with a Live connection to AAS or SSAS then you will see a new dataset appear in the Power BI Service but this isn’t really a dataset, it’s really just a pointer to the AAS or SSAS database where the data is really being held.

DirectQuery mode

There are two fundamental ways a Power BI dataset, AAS database or SSAS Tabular database can work with data: Import mode and DirectQuery mode. In Import mode the data needed for your dataset is copied into the dataset and stored inside it. In DirectQuery mode, when a Power BI report requests data from the dataset by running a DAX query against it, the dataset in turn generates queries that are run on your data source to get the data it needs on demand. If your data source is a SQL Server database then Power BI will generate SQL queries to get the data it needs; for other sources it may generate queries in other query languages. A Power BI dataset is always a semantic layer, an easily consumable interface for your BI data: in Import mode it is a semantic layer and it also stores the data it needs; in DirectQuery mode it is just a semantic layer.

The only data sources that Power BI can use in DirectQuery mode are those that have some kind of query language that Power BI can generate. You can’t connect to a CSV file in DirectQuery mode, for example, because there’s no way of running queries against it unless you load the data in it into some other form of database. Other data sources may have rich query languages but Power BI will only be able to connect to them in DirectQuery mode if a suitable connector exists for that source. Most commonly-used relational databases can be used in DirectQuery mode. If your data source supports DirectQuery mode you’ll see that as an option on the dialog when you first connect:

The key thing to understand here is that the term “DirectQuery mode” describes where the data for a dataset is kept, ie outside the dataset as opposed to inside it in Import mode.

Composite models

Different tables in a single Power BI dataset can have different storage modes: some can be in Import mode and some can be in DirectQuery mode. Furthermore, different DirectQuery tables in the same Power BI dataset can connect to different data sources. When you have different tables using different storage modes or different tables using different DirectQuery datasets then you have what is called a “composite model“.

DirectQuery on Power BI datasets and Analysis Services

One final twist is that you can create Power BI datasets in DirectQuery mode and use other Power BI datasets, AAS databases or SSAS databases, as a data source. This means you can have DirectQuery datasets that connect to other datasets that can potentially connect to other datasets. It’s useful because, for example, you can have a single, centrally-developed dataset containing all of your company’s sales data and then other Power BI developers can create their own datasets that connect to this central dataset and extend it by adding extra tables of data and new measures without ever duplicating the data in the central dataset.

Although the way things behave behind the scenes is somewhat different, a Power BI dataset in DirectQuery mode that connects to another Power BI dataset as its source is conceptually very similar to a Power BI dataset in DirectQuery mode that connects to a relational database like SQL Server: it just generates DAX queries to get the data it needs when it is queried rather than SQL queries.


Live connections and DirectQuery mode are two distinct concepts. Live connections occur when you create reports in Power BI Desktop that connect to already-published Power BI datasets, AAS databases or SSAS databases. DirectQuery mode is one of the two fundamental ways that a Power BI dataset can work with data (the other being Import mode) and is the mode where a dataset does not contain any data but instead queries other data sources to get the data it needs when it is itself queried.

[Thanks are due to my friend Peter Myers – this blog post expands on some explanations we developed last year in a session we co-presented at various Power BI user groups called “Demystifying Power BI Datasets”. Several recordings of this session exist on YouTube, for example here.]

10 thoughts on “What Is The Difference Between A Live Connection And DirectQuery Mode In Power BI?

  1. Can you show how to use a relative date time slicer in direct query mode?

    It won’t let me use the drop down date picker.

    Is there a workaround?

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this. It would be awesome if you could highlight if there is any performance penalty to be expected to use a Power BI dataset in Direct Query mode, vs Live Connection.

    Direct Query for PBI dataset allows a lot of additional features such as ability to create calculated columns etc, but not sure if there is a trade off there?

    1. Following your comment, i would love to see the use of Calculation Groups in Live connection and DQ mode.

      What is possible and what are the restrictions.

      For instance, Format Measure Expressions (created in central dataset) are not pushed alongside the measure itself in both mentioned connection modes.

  3. I miss the simple picture – the official ‘architectural visualization’ of all this.

    I usually draw a Rectangle with three sections to the left : Query, Flow and Storage.
    The Storage Types – at the bottom – goes from Input/source to output/visualization.
    The Query Types – at the top – are Direct, Live or Import.
    The Flow is the refining information process (the layers).
    Power BI sit on top of this Rectangle.

  4. Great explanation. I came across this article while researching if there is a performance difference when you choose DirectQuery on Power BI datasets and Analysis Services over a Live Connection. I have not been able to find anything definitive, do you have insights you can share?

    From my perspective, there is a lot of upside to use Direct Query on an existing PBI Dataset vs Live Connection. I am not sure at what cost though.

    1. Chris Webb – My name is Chris Webb, and I work on the Fabric CAT team at Microsoft. I blog about Power BI, Power Query, SQL Server Analysis Services, Azure Analysis Services and Excel.
      Chris Webb says:

      If you’re creating a composite model, use DirectQuery on a published dataset and don’t add any new tables, measures etc, then DirectQuery on a dataset should perform the same as a Live connection. If you start adding new tables, measures etc then DirectQuery on a dataset may start performing worse.

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