Is a Data Model Needed in Power BI?

Power BI does of course need a data model, but often times there is no reason to create a new one for Power BI. After all the data model could always be contained within the data PowerBIDataModelsource Power BI is using. Figuring out if a data model is required is directly related to the data source(s) being used. In turn the selection of the data source also determines when to us Power BI online client and/or Power BI Desktop. Although they look the same, there are a couple of key differences which govern which to use.

When Should I Use the Power BI Online Client?

When comparing the features of the Online Client with the Desktop version of Power BI, there is one very obvious difference, there is no way to create a data model in Power BI online. It is not possible to create a data model using the online client. The online client is designed to connect to an existing online source such as Sales Force or Azure DB. If you are using an existing model, there is no need to create one. When using the enterprise gateway, which uses an on-premises database such as a SQL Server, SSAS or Hana, the data model is contained within the database exposed via the enterprise gateway, so again no reason exists to create a data model. Report creation can occur either using the online client or desktop as there is compelling technical reason that I am aware of which would determine where the report is created.

When Should I use the Power BI Desktop?

If the reports need to use data mashups, a data model is required to join the disparate data together. For example, if I need to create a report consisting of tables from two different SQL Server databases and an Excel Spreadsheet, relationships linking those tables need to be created. I need a data model, and since it is not possible to create a data model in Power BI Online, I will create my data model in Power BI Desktop. If later on the report data source needs to be changed, this is possible if you create it in Power BI Desktop. Again you have your choice of either creating the reports in Power BI Desktop or in the online client. Creating a data model in Power BI Desktop does not mean that you must to create the reports there too.

Refreshing the Power BI Report Data for the Online Client

The data model used in Power BI dictates how the report is refreshed. If you are using only a cloud based source, you don’t need a gateway of any kind. The data refresh can be automatic–meaning Power BI will do it for you, scheduled, or use a live dataset depending upon the source used. SQL Azure Database, SQL Azure Data Warehouse and Spark on HDInsight connect live. Changes in made in the source will be reflected in Power BI. The data source connected with an enterprise gateway operates the same way. When the source data is updated, Power BI will use the new data in the reports. Please note that the Analysis Services Connector has been deprecated. If you want to directly connect to a Tabular model located on-premises, use the enterprise gateway to make the connection. As I discussed in a previous post, the enterprise gateway uses local Active Directory information to connect, so users will need to have an AD Account with database access to be able to access data in an enterprise gateway. Unlike many web applications, you must set up each user to have access. All users cannot use one account to connect with the enterprise gateway, but you can do that with a personal gateway.

Personal Gateway – How to Refresh the data from Power BI Desktop

If you have created a data model in Power BI Desktop and want to refresh the data, install the personal gateway on a machine within your network, and set the schedule to perform the data refresh for each source within the model. The personal gateway uses the credentials which are entered when it is configured, which means that users who do not have database permissions can look at the data within Power BI updated by the personal gateway.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion surrounding the data models, the Power BI online client and Power BI Desktop. If you have any questions or are interested in other Power BI topics, please ping me on twitter @DesertIsleSql or post a comment as I am always interested in your feedback.

Yours Always

Ginger Grant

Data aficionado et SQL Raconteur

2 comments on “Is a Data Model Needed in Power BI?

  1. Leonard

    Very nice explanation.

    One additional reason to use Power BI Desktop to create reports, unless this has changed recently, is because you can’t export reports from Power BI Online. You can publish from the Desktop to Online, but you can’t take a report from Online back to the Desktop.

    For that reason, and since there’s no compelling reason to create reports online, I always default to creating them locally & publishing them. I don’t want to risk needing to export them and being unable to.

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