Building blocks of Power BI

Everything you do in Microsoft Power BI can be broken down into a few basic building blocks. After you understand these building blocks, you can expand on each of them and begin creating elaborate and complex reports. After all, even seemingly complex things are built from basic building blocks. For example, buildings are created with wood, steel, concrete and glass, and cars are made from metal, fabric, and rubber. Of course, buildings and cars can also be basic or elaborate, depending on how those basic building blocks are arranged.

Let's take a look at these basic building blocks, discuss some simple things that can be built with them, and then get a glimpse into how complex things can also be created.

Here are the basic building blocks in Power BI:

  • Visualizations
  • Datasets
  • Reports
  • Dashboards
  • Tiles

Visualizations

A visualization (sometimes also referred to as a visual) is a visual representation of data, like a chart, a color-coded map, or other interesting things you can create to represent your data visually. Power BI has all sorts of visualization types, and more are coming all the time. The following image shows a collection of different visualizations that were created in the Power BI service.

Power BI visualizations

Visualizations can be simple, like a single number that represents something significant, or they can be visually complex, like a gradient-colored map that shows voter sentiment about a certain social issue or concern. The goal of a visual is to present data in a way that provides context and insights, both of which would probably be difficult to discern from a raw table of numbers or text.

Datasets

A dataset is a collection of data that Power BI uses to create its visualizations.

You can have a simple dataset that's based on a single table from a Microsoft Excel workbook, similar to what's shown in the following image.

Power BI datasets

Datasets can also be a combination of many different sources, which you can filter and combine to provide a unique collection of data (a dataset) for use in Power BI.

For example, you can create a dataset from three database fields, one website table, an Excel table, and online results of an email marketing campaign. That unique combination is still considered a single dataset, even though it was pulled together from many different sources.

Filtering data before bringing it into Power BI lets you focus on the data that matters to you. For example, you can filter your contact database so that only customers who received emails from the marketing campaign are included in the dataset. You can then create visuals based on that subset (the filtered collection) of customers who were included in the campaign. Filtering helps you focus your data—and your efforts.

An important and enabling part of Power BI is the multitude of data connectors that are included. Whether the data you want is in Excel or a Microsoft SQL Server database, in Azure or Oracle, or in a service like Facebook, Salesforce, or MailChimp, Power BI has built-in data connectors that let you easily connect to that data, filter it if necessary, and bring it into your dataset.

After you have a dataset, you can begin creating visualizations that show different portions of it in different ways, and gain insights based on what you see. That's where reports come in.

Reports

In Power BI, a report is a collection of visualizations that appear together on one or more pages. Just like any other report you might create for a sales presentation or write for a school assignment, a report in Power BI is a collection of items that are related to each other. The following image shows a report in Power BI Desktop—in this case, it's the fifth page in a six-page report. You can also create reports in the Power BI service.

Power BI reports

Reports let you create many visualizations, on multiple pages if necessary, and let you arrange those visualization in whatever way best tells your story.

You might have a report about quarterly sales, product growth in a particular segment, or migration patterns of polar bears. Whatever your subject, reports let you gather and organize your visualizations onto one page (or more).

Dashboards

When you're ready to share a single page from a report, or a collection of visualizations, you create a dashboard. Much like the dashboard in a car, a Power BI dashboard is a collection of visuals from a single page that you can share with others. Often, it's a selected group of visuals that provide quick insight into the data or story you're trying to present.

A dashboard must fit on a single page, often called a canvas (the canvas is the blank backdrop in Power BI Desktop or the service, where you put visualizations). Think of it like the canvas that an artist or painter uses—a workspace where you create, combine, and rework interesting and compelling visuals. You can share dashboards with other users or groups, who can then interact with your dashboards when they're in the Power BI service or on their mobile device.

Tiles

In Power BI, a tile is a single visualization on a report or a dashboard. It's the rectangular box that holds an individual visual. In the following image, you see one tile (highlighted by a bright box), which is also surrounded by other tiles.

Power BI tiles

When you're creating a report or a dashboard in Power BI, you can move or arrange tiles however you want. You can make them bigger, change their height or width, and snuggle them up to other tiles.

When you're viewing, or consuming, a dashboard or report—which means you're not the creator or owner, but the report or dashboard has been shared with you—you can interact with it, but you can't change the size of the tiles or their arrangement.

All together now

Those are the basics of Power BI and its building blocks. Let's take a moment to review.

Power BI is a collection of services, apps, and connectors that lets you connect to your data, wherever it happens to reside, filter it if necessary, and then bring it into Power BI to create compelling visualizations that you can share with others.

Now that you've learned about the handful of basic building blocks of Power BI, it should be clear that you can create datasets that make sense to you and create visually compelling reports that tell your story. Stories told with Power BI don't have to be complex, or complicated, to be compelling.

For some people, using a single Excel table in a dataset and then sharing a dashboard with their team will be an incredibly valuable way to use Power BI.

For others, the value of Power BI will be in using real-time Azure SQL Data Warehouse tables that combine with other databases and real-time sources to build a moment-by-moment dataset.

For both groups, the process is the same: create datasets, build compelling visuals, and share them with others. And the result is also the same for both groups: harness your ever-expanding world of data, and turn it into actionable insights.

Whether your data insights require straightforward or complex datasets, Power BI helps you get started quickly and can expand with your needs to be as complex as your world of data requires. And because Power BI is a Microsoft product, you can count on it being robust, extensible, Microsoft Office–friendly, and enterprise-ready.

Now let's see how this works. We'll start by taking a quick look at the Power BI service.