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Introducing Office Online Server

Continuing the line of thought from my previous blog “Microsoft Unveils BI Roadmap”, one nagging question still remains. What to do with all these Excel files now that SSRS came with a vengeance and has been promoted to THE on-premises BI platform? It looks like Microsoft is thinking along these lines. Interestingly, Excel Services will be removed from SharePoint Server 2016 and replaced with Office Online Server, as explained here. And this page gives more details about Office Online Server which is currently in preview. In a nutshell, Excel rendering would work pretty much in the same way as in SharePoint Server 2013. The most common scenario that Microsoft plans now is to have the Excel workbook in SharePoint. When you open the workbook, SharePoint will redirect you to the Office Online Server using a WOPI frame (some sort of an Iframe), with some special tokens that enable Office Online Server to retrieve the workbook from SharePoint, and then render it as usual. This will work for Power Pivot models as well. Office Online Server (OOS) also supports loading Excel files from OneDrive which is how Power BI Excel rendering works today.

But wouldn’t be nice to extend SSRS 2016 and integrate with OOS so that you can deploy Excel reports to a report server installed in native mode? This would allow SSRS to handle all of the important Microsoft report formats (SSRS, Datazen, Power BI Desktop, and Excel). If OOS doesn’t require a SharePoint license, this will be a great value proposition as well as you will save you a SharePoint Server Enterprise Edition license. This is precisely the wish I communicated to Microsoft and posted it on the Excel wish list. Please vote if you like the idea.

You know that there is an Excel wish list site, right?

Fixing Power View to SQL Server 2014 SSAS Multidimensional

Scenario: You have Power View integrated with SharePoint. You attempt to create a Power View report that connects to a SQL Server 2014 cube. The connection fails with “Internal Error: An unexpected exception has occurred”. The connection used to work or works with SQL Server 2012 SSAS MD.

Resolution: On the SSAS 2014 server, install Cumulative Update 2 for SQL Server 2014. This article provides more details about the issue.

Power View Can’t Load Power Pivot Models

Scenario: You have created an SSRS application in SharePoint and specified that the application pool would use a specific domain service account that is designated to SSRS. When you attempt to create a Power View report from a deployed Power Pivot model, you get the following error:

An error occurred while loading the model for the item or data source ‘<path to Excel file>’. Verify that the connection information is correct and that you have permissions to access the data source.

Here is the full stack:

<detail><ErrorCode xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>rsCannotRetrieveModel</ErrorCode><HttpStatus xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>400</HttpStatus><Message xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>An error occurred while loading the model for the item or data source ‘<path>’. Verify that the connection information is correct and that you have permissions to access the data source.</Message><HelpLink xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=20476&amp;EvtSrc=Microsoft.ReportingServices.Diagnostics.Utilities.ErrorStrings&amp;EvtID=rsCannotRetrieveModel&amp;ProdName=Microsoft%20SQL%20Server%20Reporting%20Services&amp;ProdVer=11.0.5058.0</HelpLink><ProductName xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services</ProductName><ProductVersion xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>11.0.5058.0</ProductVersion><ProductLocaleId xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>127</ProductLocaleId><OperatingSystem xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>OsIndependent</OperatingSystem><CountryLocaleId xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>1033</CountryLocaleId><MoreInformation xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“><Source>ReportingServicesLibrary</Source><Message msrs:ErrorCode=”rsCannotRetrieveModel” msrs:HelpLink=”http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=20476&amp;EvtSrc=Microsoft.ReportingServices.Diagnostics.Utilities.ErrorStrings&amp;EvtID=rsCannotRetrieveModel&amp;ProdName=Microsoft%20SQL%20Server%20Reporting%20Services&amp;ProdVer=11.0.5058.0” xmlns:msrs=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>An error occurred while loading the model for the item or data source ‘<path>’. Verify that the connection information is correct and that you have permissions to access the data source.</Message><MoreInformation><Source>Microsoft.ReportingServices.ProcessingCore</Source><Message msrs:ErrorCode=”rsErrorOpeningConnection” msrs:HelpLink=”http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=20476&amp;EvtSrc=Microsoft.ReportingServices.Diagnostics.Utilities.ErrorStrings&amp;EvtID=rsErrorOpeningConnection&amp;ProdName=Microsoft%20SQL%20Server%20Reporting%20Services&amp;ProdVer=11.0.5058.0” xmlns:msrs=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices“>Cannot create a connection to data source ‘TemporaryDataSource’.</Message><MoreInformation><Source>Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Analysis Services</Source><Message>SetAuthContext need to be run as sysadmin.</Message></MoreInformation></MoreInformation></MoreInformation><Warnings xmlns=”http://www.microsoft.com/sql/reportingservices” /></detail>

Resolution: The most important information is the message “SetAuthContext need to be run as sysadmin“. This tells us that the SSRS account doesn’t have admin access to the SSAS instance configured in SharePoint mode. Another way to confirm this is to run the SQL Profiler connected to the SSAS instance, e.g. SERVER\POWERPIVOT, and attempt to create a Power View report. You would see the same error message in the Profiler.

How do we fix this horrible issue? Connect to the SSAS instance in SSMS, right-click on the server node and then click Security. Then, add the SSRS account to the list to grant it admin rights to SSAS. This is something SharePoint should have done during the setup of the SSRS application since the SharePoint farm account has admin rights to the SSAS instance but apparently this step has been omitted.

Presenting at SharePoint Saturday Atlanta 2014

I’ll be presenting “10 Ways to Maximize Your SharePoint BI Investment” at SharePoint Saturday Atlanta 2014 on June 21st.

“Join me to learn how to take the most out of your on-prem or cloud SharePoint investment to promote organizational and self-service BI. We’ll compare features of SharePoint editions and discuss options to visualize data from corporate databases and analytical models. Business users will learn how to share their self-service BI visualizations with teammates. We’ll discuss how Office 365 and Power BI can help you implement a cloud-based environment for ease of sharing, collaboration, and information access.”

I hope you can make it. You can register here.

Is SharePoint Overkill for BI?

As you know, Microsoft BI is tightly interwoven with Excel on the desktop and SharePoint on the server. Most complaints about SharePoint fall in two categories:

  • Complexity – SharePoint is like the ocean. The further you go, the deeper it gets. Troubleshooting is no fun. You know it and I know it.
  • Cost – Most BI features require SharePoint Server Enterprise. Besides the product cost, each user requires a client access (CAL) license (about $100 per user). With larger companies, cost quickly adds up when you roll BI to the masses. You can use the Microsoft License Advisor to estimate your investment but be sure to include additional cost for Windows and SQL servers.

So, is SharePoint overkill for BI? My answer is it depends. Let’s take a look at the graph that shows the correlation between the organization size and SharePoint features.

 

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A small organization might not need SharePoint at all. It’s likely that all BI needs of such a company will be met by SQL Server and Excel. As the company size increases, however, SharePoint might look attractive for what’s designed for. This company might decide to adopt SharePoint Foundation (freely available) for document storage and collaboration. Unfortunately, out of all Microsoft BI tools, only Reporting Services works on SharePoint Foundation (except Power View and Alerts), as explained in Microsoft Books Online.

Supported Features Minimum SharePoint Edition Required
General Reporting Services report viewing and feature integration with SharePoint SharePoint Foundation
Power View and Alerts SharePoint Server Enterprise

As the company continues to grow, its appetite for more BI features increases. This is the middle zone in the S curve. At this point, the company might be interested in team BI, including Power View and Power Pivot for SharePoint. At the same time, the company might not be interested in the SharePoint enterprise features but it’s out of luck. The BI features require SharePoint Enterprise. This is where it could be useful if Microsoft introduces a SharePoint BI Edition with a more attractive pricing model, such as an edition that has all BI features, doesn’t have the rest of the SharePoint enterprise features and it doesn’t require CAL licensing. SharePoint Online can mitigate some of the cost concerns but as it stands it’s limited to self-service BI (Power Pivot and Power View) only.

Moving to the upper mid-size and enterprise sector, you’re likely to be interested in more and more SharePoint enterprise features. For example, we’re currently working on a set of best practice documents for a Fortune 50 organization that’s rolling out Microsoft BI across the enterprise. They’re interested in data governance, taxonomy, retention, content approval, manageability, security, scalability, risk management, auditing, and others. You’ll be hard pressed to find such features in popular third-party BI offerings. And, one great thing about SharePoint is that it doesn’t discriminate among documents. As far as it’s concerned, a BI artifact, such as an SSRS report or Excel workbook, is just a document…all features just work. So, SharePoint Enterprise might be an attractive platform for larger companies although its CAL licensing might be difficult to swallow.

This table shows an expanded list of the Microsoft BI features but, as I mentioned, no further investigation is necessary. All BI features except general SSRS reporting requires SharePoint Enterprise.

Insights features SharePoint Foundation 2013 SharePoint Server 2013—Standard Edition SharePoint Server 2013—Enterprise Edition
Business Intelligence Center No No Yes
Calculated Measures and Members No No Yes
Data Connection Library No No Yes
Decoupled PivotTables and PivotCharts No No Yes
Excel Services No No Yes
Field list and Field Support No No Yes
Filter Enhancements No No Yes
Filter Search No No Yes
PerformancePoint Services No No Yes
Power View No No Yes
PowerPivot No No Yes
Quick Explore No No Yes
Scorecards & Dashboards No No Yes
SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) Integrated Mode Yes Yes Yes
SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) Web Part Yes Yes Yes
Timeline Slicer No No Yes
Visio Services No No Yes

SharePoint 2010 and Excel 2013 Power Pivot

I’ve start seeing customers moving to or considering Office 2013 for self-service BI. Naturally, the end users would like to share their Excel 2013 self-service data models by deploying to SharePoint. Does SharePoint 2010 support this scenario? Unfortunately not. The user can upload Excel 2013 files and view the embedded reports. However, when he attempts to perform an interactive action (triggers all backend services involved in processing Power Pivot workbooks) he gets the dreaded error “Unable to refresh data for a data connection in the workbook”. What’s wrong in this case is that due to the Excel 2013 changes to support Power Pivot natively, Excel Services must load the data model in a different way. This is discussed in more details in the “‘Unable to refresh data for a data connection in the workbook’ error when you interact with an Excel 2013 workbook in a SharePoint Server 2010 farm” article by Microsoft. Note that the only resolution path is to upgrade to Share Point 2013.

Again, the issue is with Excel Services and not with the Power Pivot version. If the user has Excel 2010 with the latest Power Pivot bits (SQL Server 2012 SP1 version of Power Pivot), then the SharePoint 2010 integration works. To make the upgrade story short:

  1. Match SharePoint version with the Office edition. If you need to support Excel 2013 Power Pivot workbooks, upgrade to SharePoint 2013.
  2. The SQL Server instance behind Power Pivot for SharePoint must match the Power Pivot version on the client. For example, if the users have Excel 2010 with the SQL Server 2012 SP1 version of Power Pivot, the SQL Server instance installed on the SharePoint server should be SQL Server 2012 SP1. SQL Server 2008 R2 won’t be able to handle the latest Power Pivot bits.

This is definitely something to watch and plan for when considering upgrading to Office 2013.

The SharePoint 2013 Data Model

Somehow, this PowerPivot for SharePoint gem escaped my attention but it’s a very important deployment enhancement that was more than likely initiated by Power BI and the cloud. Starting with SQL Server 2012 Service Pack 1 and SharePoint 2013, you can set up a dedicated SSAS server in SharePoint mode outside the SharePoint farm and configure the farm to point to it. This was possible as a result of all the integration work done between Excel Calculation Services, SharePoint and AS for the 2013 release. Previously, the SSAS in SharePoint configuration mode instance had to be installed on the SharePoint application server.

This brings more flexibility to scaling out your PowerPivot environment outside SharePoint and simplifies the PowerPivot setup. For example, to scale out Analysis Services, you can simply add a new SSAS server configured in SharePoint mode. Excel Calculation Services will balance the load between all available SSAS servers automatically based on health statistics obtained from these server instances. Same thing if you want to make the backend fault-tolerant. If one server goes down, the workbooks that used to be on the failed server will automatically get redeployed on the others by Excel Calculation Services. Specifically, the next time the workbook is accessed by a user, ECS would realize that the workbook is no longer on any active node and the workbook would get loaded once again on a different node.

To register a new server in SharePoint 2013:

  1. Open the SharePoint Central Administration, in the Application Management section, click Manage service applications.
  2. On the Manage Service Applications page, click the Excel Services service application that you want to manage.
  3. On the Manage Excel Services page, click Data Model.

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Then, in the Excel Services Application Data Model Settings, click Add Server to register the new server.

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The PowerPivot setup is simplified as well because you don’t need to install the PowerPivot for SharePoint add-in, as explained here. However, the add-in is still required for the PowerPivot for SharePoint full capabilities, including PowerPivot Gallery, scheduled data refresh, and the PowerPivot management dashboard. Finally, having a dedicated SSAS server might save you money if you need to scale out. That’s because you no longer need to license SSAS on each SharePoint application server assuming you don’t need the other SQL Server components, such as SSRS. Further savings can be realized by deploying SSAS in SharePoint as another instance to an existing SSAS server (Multidimensional or Tabular) you have. To my understanding, the same version instances are covered by a single license.

Power BI Expands Microsoft Cloud Self-service BI

Expanding its Office 365 feature set, Microsoft introduced Power BI. Power BI is an umbrella name of the following BI offerings in the cloud: Power Pivot, PowerView, Power Query (previously known as Data Explorer), and Power Map (previously known as GeoFlow), plus more. Microsoft demonstrated Power BI at WPC yesterday (scroll to the 30th minute marker to see the Amir’s heart attack-provoking demo) or see the YouTube extract.

The “more” is the intriguing part to me:

  • Data Management Gateway – not sure how exactly this will work but it will provide some sort of connectivity to on-premise data so you can schedule PowerPivot data refreshes between the Microsoft cloud and your corporate data. Expect your ISP speed provider speed to be a limiting factor here so don’t hope for fast refreshes of millions of rows.
  • BI Sites – a dedicated SharePoint site that will support finding and collaborating on BI artifacts.
  • Mobile support – Power View is going HTML5!
  • Natural language query – Amir covered this interesting feature pretty well. I don’t know how it works behind the scenes yet (probably a natural language-to-DAX translator).
  • Data views – data stewards can publish datasets so they can be easily discoverable by Power Query.
  • King of the Hill – an interesting new PowerView visualization (demonstrated by Amir toward the end of the demo).

We don’t know at this point when these features will make to on-premise SharePoint, which probably would have been a better starting point for these enhancements. And, pricing hasn’t been announced yet. Look for Power BI toward the end of the summer if cloud self-service BI makes sense to your organization.

The SharePoint 2013 Business Intelligence Center

Where should I put my BI reports? Should I upload them to department-level SharePoint sites or put them in one place?

These are common questions that we get from customers. Delivering on the promise of pervasive BI, my preference is to centralize BI artifacts in a single place. Ideally, this BI depository should be the SharePoint Business Intelligence Center. If organizational security is required, you can control security at SharePoint site or library level. For example, you can create department-specific PowerPivot galleries.

The BI Center is one of the SharePoint site templates that is specifically designed to host BI reports. In SharePoint 2013, Microsoft has extended the BI Center to accommodate various types of BI documents.

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When I first installed the BI Center in SharePoint 2013 (click Settings (the wheel in the top-right corner), Site Contents, New Subsite, Enterprise Tab, Business Intelligence Center), I was confused. The images are not clickable and the default home page doesn’t offer much more. It turned out that by default, the BI Center doesn’t add a navigation menu. To fix this:

  1. Navigate to the BI Center, navigate to the BI center link.
  2. Click Settings, Site Settings, and click the Navigation link (under the Look and Feel section).
  3. In the Current Navigation section, select the Structural Navigation option.
  4. In the Structural Navigation Sorting section, click Add Heading to add a new menu item for each library your users want to navigate to. To get the links, back to the BI Center, go to Settings, Site Contents, and then right-click the library you are interested in, such as Dashboards, and click Copy Shortcut. Then, paste the shortcut in the URL field in the Navigation Heading dialog box.

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This is what the resulting navigation pane might look like. One thing that might not be obvious is that the added benefit of creating your links using the SharePoint structural navigation is that links reflect security. For example, if the user doesn’t have permission to a library, the user won’t see the link. Note that there might be additional steps required, such as to enable the library content types, as with SharePoint 2010.

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SharePoint 2013 and SQL Server 2012

As I mentioned before, Microsoft released SharePoint 2013 and Office 2013 and the bits are now available on MSDN Subscriber Downloads. I am sure you are eager to try the new BI features. One thing that you need to be aware of though is that you need SQL Server 2012 Service Pack 1 in order to integrate the BI features (PowerPivot for SharePoint and SSRS) with SharePoint 2013. If you run the RTM version of SQL Server 2012 setup, you won’t get too far because it will fail the installation rule that SharePoint 2010 is required. That’s because the setup doesn’t know anything about SharePoint 2013 and the latest release includes major architectural changes.

Then the logical question is where is SQL Server 2012 SP1 now that is a prerequisite for SharePoint 2013 BI? As far as I know there isn’t a confirmed ship date yet but it should arrive soon. I’d suspect Microsoft to announce it at PASS.