Integrated Project Control system using PowerBI

One of the most popular discussion in planning forum is how to have an integrated project control system, every practitioner has a different opinion how it must be done, and of course you get a lot of marketing from people trying to sells their systems

In this blog, we share high level description of a data warehouse built using PowerBI desktop.

Data warehouse are not widespread in the construction industry, because the reporting specifications are different from project to project, and every client has a different systems and tools, and trying to have a standard system works only if you are the main contractor but if you are a subcontractor you have to adopt the client system.

Another reason is; it required a specialised IT skills, we are just business users not programmers, we do understand data very well, but not necessarily having the skills and tools to manage it, The good news is, with the rise of self-service Business intelligence, we have exactly that, Powerful data management tools yet accessible (assuming you want to learn something else than Excel).

So at high level this is how it works.

 Project Controls Data Warehouse

  • The Data warehouse was built using PowerBI desktop, I know it should be called sematic model, (for me data model, data warehouse are fundamentally the same thing), initially it was using Excel PowerPivot but it did not scale well with the increase of the volume of data.
  • As the data is not always in the format we want, PowerQuery is very handy in this case, as virtually it can transform any source of data, example lookup the subsystem using the tag field, trying to do that if you have 8 Million rows using Excel or Access is not feasible.
  • We maintain Master tables to integrate all the different source of data (tags, WBS, subsystems etc)
  • Every week, we get new Export from the source systems (Cobra, proprietary database systems etc), we load the new data and keep the historical records, it took 15 minute to refresh, which is quite impressive, Cobra alone is a folder 60 Excel file, and nearly 2 Giga in size.
  • Usually you publish your reports into PowerBI.com service to end users once your refresh your data model, in our case we can’t use the cloud for privacy reason, instead we use Excel as a reporting tool that pull the data from PowerBI desktop, the advantage of this approach is that we have different reports for different users, Skyline, Gantt chart, Client reports (in their required format), management reports etc.

Some thoughts.

  • As you can see Primavera P6 is used only as a forecasting tool and to calculate the critical path, the earned value calculation is done in the data model, personally I think P6 should not be used as the centre of your project control system, I remember the first time I start learning Primavera P3 ( a long time ago:), we kept asking the trainer how it is possible to track the spent hours at the activity level, the answer is we don’t, actually deciding at which level you track you spent hours it is the most important decision to make when you start a new project.
  • the basic idea here is in order to have an integrated project controls system is stop trying to have one, data will be always in silo, don’t try to change other department how they manage their specific data, it will not work and they will not listen to you anyway, So instead of trying to have one system to rule them all, just use the existing systems and build a data warehouse for reporting and Integration with P6.
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How to use Excel as a Front End to Power BI Desktop

You can download the data model, the excel frond ends and the data sets in this folder.

The techniques used in the spreadsheet for connecting to PowerBI Desktop are not officially supported by Microsoft,  but I think are useful to understand how the MS BI stack works, especially if you are coming from an Excel Background, and Installing SQL server developer is either intimidating or not allowed.

I really appreciate if you vote for this idea to make this scenario offically supported by Microsoft

As far I am aware there are two approach to access PowerBI desktop, or more correctly the SSAS instance launched by Power BI Desktop.

  • Connecting using a live connection, detailed here
  • Connecting using PowerQuery, detailed here

 

The live connection is very interesting but it has the drawback that if you close PowerBI Desktop the pivot table stop working, so you can not share the spreadsheet, one solution is to use cube formula as they are persistent, if you don’t use know what a cube formula is then you are missing of the most powerful feature of Excel.

But what if you want to have a pivot chart, or a pivot table that you can keep using even if you lose the connection, or if you want to share the results with people that have not access to the data model,  turn out it is possible, welcome to Excel Pivot cache

 

  • Invoke the function SSAS_QUERY
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  • The Parameter is optional:
    • Either you write a DAX Query to retrieve the fields you want, MDX is supported too, personally I find MDX more suitable to import measures with different dimensions, I understand that DAX support this scenario too using crossjoin but I never manage to make it works correctly.
    • or Just click ok, than you can browse the SSAS cube, you can select any dimensions and measures you want, but mind that for a big cube, a query fetch the result faster.
  • Keep Powerquery as a connection only.
  • Insert a pivot table, use an external data source, choose connection, select the Powerquery Query, and voila

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Excel cache the data in the Pivot, not only that it is extremely compressed.

Notice here PowerPivot is not used at all, Excel is acting as visualisation layer to PowerBI Desktop, leveraging two well known capabilities cube formula and Pivot cache.

Microsoft plan to release SQL server v.next this year, and then we can deploy the data model built with Power BI /Powerpivot /Powerquery into a production system, that’s what I call a natural growing path from self service to corporate BI.