No, not Azure Data Studio or Databricks notebooks (yet) – I wanted to give Google Colab a spin and the big G hosted Jupyter notebook has an expansive free tier with more RAM than my work computer and a graphics card attached to boot!
Keep in mind its almost 500GB (zip + extract) – and while in an ideal situation we wouldn’t be torrenting a database, extracting, attaching, querying, etc to get at our insights I’ve honestly seen slower iterations at many enterprises so it wasn’t a big deal for me.
If you’ve never used Stack’s database its worth mentioning you an also avoid this all by running queries on their own servers at the Stack Exchange Data Explorer. There’s more tables there too!
If you haven’t touched Stack’s database before you might be surprised how svelte it is, the backup I am working with only has 12 tables. That’s right, just 12.
The truth is that you don’t need to make things complex to make a useful product, and of course Stack/Brent have removed some ancillary and internal things which is fine by me.
The first question I wanted to model out was a bigger issue with on-premises databases – when are we going to run out of storage?
Back in the day I’d cheat with msdb backups, comparing compressed sized to actuals, and moving on. However I don’t have a historical reference for Stack Overflow… so what can I do?
Taking a look at the tables we see a commonality in many tables – CreationDate! It looks like the rows faithfully are stamped when they are created.
We might not be able to truly look back in time but if trust the database we have a chance to query the contents and get back some interesting data about Stack.
So let’s head over to the notebook if you like, or sit back and read more.
The first text block contains the dynamic SQL to query the tables with CreationDate and construct additional queries to run – I could have automated this or added a cursor but given I am running it locally in SSMS and copying the CSV by hand today, it wasn’t worth it.
In our first code block () we install plotly==5.2.1 because of some newer and nicer features, setup the file upload of the csv(), and define the headers because SSMS is too lazy to include headers().
Next in code block () we define a DANGER_ZONE, the constant that should make us very worried because that’s how much space we have (in megabytes), and add a function to add DANGER_ZONES to figures easily.
We make a line figure, render it, and we see something!
We’re obviously not done yet, we’re going to need add some data to predict when this is going to fail.
In code block() we sum and group the RunningTotalMBUsage values such that we get an overall value for each month’s total megabytes for all tables.
And happily in code block() we see that we have our overall graph looking good, though obviously its a bit closer to our DANGER_ZONE!
Finally, in code block () we take all the lessons we’ve learned and project out a set of points to determine what a linear best fit line would look like.
Given a 500GB limit, we can see that a prediction of April 30th, 2026 is given for Stack’s storage being overwhelmed – and if you look closely you can see that Stack’s growth of data isn’t strictly linear, so it’s probably going to happen sooner than that. In reality I bet they have at least twice as much as that available 🙂
I had a good time using Colab, and the only frustrating moment during the process was when my sign in timed out, it silently switched me to a new login context and couldn’t save, porting that back over got annoying for a bit. Otherwise its great!
Feel free to copy/fork my notebook if you want to make the same predictions for you environment and try it out for yourself, I know I will. And if you were wondering, yes, I was listening to Kenny the entire time.
Over the last few years moving into more senior data roles I’ve gone from schlepping spreadsheets back and forth to having to justify and plan long term projects, simply distributed systems to management, and monitor for impending doom (ORDER BY most_impending).
Working through those problems I have found (mostly in desperation) that visualization allowed me to communicate much more easily than words alone, and meetings around problem solving ended much more quickly when we had a viz to hang our thoughts on.
This work didn’t happen overnight, so I wanted to share some resources I love as well as some practical implementation work.
Picture it: We’re in a brand new startup, working hard solving the problems of the day.
An influx of capital occurs, and huge televisions are purchased for all our new fancy dashboards we are going to create!
We start focusing on throwing up our immediate service issues, but with a few days of work the boss sees our progress and comes over. They ask us to include the current key performance indicators for the team, it seems like an ok fit, and we do.
The big boss comes down from the most recent sales meetings, sees the work, and calls it good.
Soon people are using the visualization to have discussions and make decisions. This gets noticed. People start asking you to include random metrics to the dashboard to help solve a specific issue, or track the progress of a team.
You make it work, but as the requests start piling up you break down and say “enough is enough!” and everyone’s confused – can’t we just add one more?
More information doesn’t mean better results – it just means more stuff to mentally juggle while you look for what you care about.
A common request I’ve heard is that we need a “Universal Dashboard” but if you’ve ever attempting to build one it will soon look like the dashboards in these cars, covered in dials and knobs nobody knows how to use and is probably afraid in many cases to even operate.
Instead of adding the kitchen sink of data, consider starting a new dashboard with asking Who, Why, and How.
Who is going to use this dashboard?
Know the audience for the information and have a sense of the model of the system they are observing.
Why are they going to use it? What problem are they trying to solve?
Are we trying to improve sales, adhere to a service level objective, or track some more ephemeral goal? Remember, we’re not trying to include something based on requirements, we’re trying to solve an actual problem.
How will we fix the problems we find?
This may be significantly harder to identify, and in a dashboard context the answer might just be “page X if Y is above 50% for 5 minutes” or “Buy more servers if capacity X drops below Y” but if you cannot form a plan of action from something you are showing, you probably can toss it.
Choose your display.
Consistent language is extremely important in any communication, and visual mediums are no different. When someone has the urge to increase the complexity of a viz everyone suffers.
Choosing a simple method to communicate what’s happening is critical for “at a glance” reporting.
Let’s take a look at a “good” dashboard example posted online and see what display we’ve chosen and what consistent language we can distill below.
We have some consistency in color (red bad, green good, black normal) but there’s plenty of improvements to be made here… we can see at least 10 different components.
We have a food court approach to visualizations; picking a mix of vertical and horizontal charts, waterfall charts, etc – at a glance it’s not clear to me whether performance is good or bad.
I see we have a big green thing in the top right? that seems like a lot of green! I see some red… but what does it all mean together? Is 42% a good gross margin? Some industries that would be great, others awful.
This might have met the requirements for the client’s request, but given we can see 9 tabs below this one implies managing this dashboard could be several full time jobs.
It’s might be tempting to make your dashboard “cool” or “compact” or low contrast but when you pack that clutter into your UI you increase the cost for every human lookup. New people are not welcome here.
Given the mental burden we put on our users, ask yourself these questions:
Does this element of the data we are showing service the narrative?
Can you shorten while remaining unambiguous?
Why, instead of why not?
Is there a simpler way?
Checking back into just one section of our example dashboard:
In this subsection of the report we often see just a tiny smear of red or green – a lot of space is taken up by useless/invisible data.
There’s no clear reason why we want the line of business doing well and not doing well just generally laid out; immediately breaking down the failing lines of business would yield more value.
We see visual guide lines added to they add a lot of visual noise with the small fonts.
We have both a dollar and percentage change, it seems like a pure dollar would work fine in this case and save half the space.
We have a label that has an alphanumeric identifier when probably just one of those would do.
As with many of these report sections it has the wonderful property of having enough information to make you ask questions but give few answers or leading indicators of a problem except pure profitability.
Draw attention where you want it.
Where’s your eye drawn here? (cheating, I know.)
The big black bar on the lower left takes up so much space that I first thought it was dividing up the page until I saw the off-grey/white bar on the far left. It’s so visually uninteresting that I did not include greys as part of the color palette.
The other obvious first place is visually interesting – red, blue, and black with the only circle on the page.
I have no idea what that circle is trying to tell me, and I constantly find myself shifting to the right to see the bar graph that wants to exist in both the header and the content.
Remember to be very intentional with your colors, shapes, and especially the “flow” of your viz. Storytelling with Data emphasizes this multiple times and recommends taking a look at both the horizontal flow and the vertical flow for anything that throws off simplified visual processing.
Think like a designer.
Take a step back and review up to this point the goals you started out with and the destination you’ve arrived it.
If you don’t make decisions based on this metric it probably should be on your dash.
Reconsider the visual gestalt, there’s so much on this we don’t really know what job function this would even be useful for.
Red and green are darlings of “simple viz” but are not accessible for colorblind users. If your dashboard requires the use of color, utilize color-blind friendly colors to ensure your data is accessible to all of your users.
I would consider changing the granularity of this reporting altogether (if the underlying data exists.) In the world of e-commerce having just month by month numbers to drive decision making is not impressive.
It’s also worth asking if PowerBI is the right solution for your problem. There’s a lot of other options for displaying your metrics out there and PBI is a fairly expensive one for the purpose – if you want eye candy then you probably would want to consider spending more time addressing the visual deficits here.
You’re telling a story.
This dashboard serves to tell a user the story of the business’s successes and failures of meeting financial goals. However, the lack of focus makes it difficult to understand what exactly that story is. Focus your story and ensure your graphics are necessary, useful, and accessible to your target audience.
Wrapping it up
I’d like to write more on the topic (and will in the future) but for today it’s gotten verbose and usually I set a flag for that. I leave you with some free (and one paid) tool to try out and remember
draw.io – (free) Download the desktop client and save once, it will auto save forever after that.
Mermaid.js -(free) An awesome little graphiz implementation with an online editor.
yFiles – (no affiliation) I’ve been meaning to put this in a project in the future, it’s the same viz library IntelliJ uses and I LOVE it for database work that I have been doing recently.
An interesting discussion/question in the SQL Community Slack today arose around how to implement blue/green deploys.
If you’re not familiar – blue/green refers to a deployment strategy with at least two hosts of your services, where you host in the green, deploy to the blue, and slowly drain the green to the blue until it becomes the green.
This has consequences in terms of keeping the lights on for both services, potentially rolling back the traffic to the green node (if the blue deployment fails some tests) and identifying things like dead code/data paths.
I was pondering how to answer the question in anything but the most generic way when this youtube video by Kevin Feasel was posted and it’s such a great resource I’m reposting it.
An interesting question asked by @danthesqlman in #sqlhelp (sqlcommunity.slack.com)
Having issues with Unicode in my XML, tried using a try_convert(varchar,fieldname) but not returning NULL. Set it to have a test on my box, and weird results. declare @n nvarchar(10) = N’ניקודות’ select try_convert(varchar(10),@n) This doesn’t return NULL, but ????????? I’m curious what would I be doing wrong, or how can i locate unicode within XML easily
And then when people suggested individual character shredding –
XML documents in a table over 200k rows, 2mb xml each, could take hours to parse 1 character at a time
There were a few suggestions, (my initial crap one was just dumping it to C#), but after a few jokes back and forth about how SQL Server was just returning normal question marks for TRY_CONVERT and how silly that was the idea came up… why not just:
Replace all question marks with something unique? (I suggested a GUID)
Run the conversion and then do a reverse replace, updating the data in place.
For a simple code example…
DECLARE @magic_value UNIQUEIDENTIFIER = NEWID() SELECT TRY_CONVERT ( VARCHAR(100), REPLACE(tar.name,'?',@magic_value) ) FROM target_table AS tar
Any new question marks that exist in the output would be characters that failed the conversion process.
The test ran in ten minutes instead of a few hours… great!
To be clear – I think you should be updating your PowerShell regularly, however the HUGE WHITE BLOCK ACROSS MY ENTIRE SCREEN EVERY TIME I LAUNCH VISUAL STUDIO CODE ISN’T GREAT.
Hated that caps? Yeah, that’s basically my eyes every time I see this nag window inverting the colors across my ennntiiirrreee screen.
I checked the PS repo and some one liners posted didnt work (and used SetEnvironmentVariableTarget which was not a method I had?), so I wanted to make this easy in case you are getting frustrated with the PowerShell update version check message and you want it to go away and didnt want to crack open the environment variables.
I have been busy working on some other non-SQL related side projects recently, and I wanted to note some of the pieces of code I have been appreciating recently.
https://github.com/PaesslerAG/django-currentuser is a simple plugin that allows you to reference your current user context in your models various functions. This greatly simplified some user management functions within my codebase, as I could express it all in the model.
https://www.django-rest-framework.org/ is a powerful framework on top of Django that allows you to build a straightforward rest framework. Django doesn’t have object based permissions and I have been building out the next version of my codebase with it, its definitely a lot more pluggable than anything I designed.
A simple problem I think plenty of people are having – can you take our data and whip up a simplified BI tool UI. Today I am reviewing PBI.
The PBI Service allows you to publish your reports with the PBI Desktop tool, which requires you to setup an embedded PBI service in your azure account.
To get data in PBI is straightforward and many data sources are acceptable – I am tempted to jump in with the SQL DB option, but as this is all prototype stages I stuck with the tried and true Excel. I know that this means I skip over the data load issue and the like, but that’s not the purpose of this activity.
As we are looking at an analytical dataset I created a calendar tab, a dimension tab, and two fact tabs with dummy data.
The PBI import process is pretty smooth on the first attempt but you’ll likely want to do some cleanup. Click on the modeling tab and verify its inferred your relations in the way you expect, or add a few of your own.
As the data was imported from Excel I noticed that the Sigma symbol was missing from many of the columns (a sign you can use the value in summary calculations) – because it was a numeric field with NULLs, and in the import process it was decided that the field was a string field.
For the purposes of this demo it was fine to switch from NULL to 0 values, so I updated the data in the sheet, updated the type in the model, and refreshed the data – no problem. This may not be the best solution if the zero is meaningful from NULL in your calculations.
I experimented with the various built in visuals and noted that there’s some pretty good third party “verified” visuals as well. I would say overall most of the visualizations are very straightforward to use with the one exception of the pie chart sub-groupings being the same colors.
Once I had published my starter visual, I immediately wanted to go back and make revisions, and the desktop client made that fairly easy until I wanted to remove a column. Removing a reference is seemingly verboten in PBI, and it would not merge the changes.
It looks like whenever you want to make a breaking change you might have a bit more GUI work to do, bringing me back to SSIS woes, and I didn’t see any nice ways to “update all references” or something like that, so this might be a tedious step if you are making many changes.
Other things that struck me:
The fact that there’s a desktop app (windows only) for PBI publishing is a bit of a pain at the moment, but it was quick at manipulating the various visualizations – its just weird that its clearly some electron app compromise (so why not just the web?)
Drilling into data, exporting data, analyzing data – these things are super nice compared to any previous reporting system I have worked with.
It was disappointing to learn that as a Pro PBI user you cant share with other users without a Pro license (unless you pony up 4995 a month to start.) It’s not a big deal, but hopefully one day there’s a usage based use case.
Creating dashboards and apps is confusing – you cant see a reference to anything unless you first go to a workspace, then you can create a dashboard from elements of a report. I don’t understand why this is so fragmented – just let me manage this in either the desktop client or at least make it available in the top level UI.
So a friend of mine had a query puzzle – he needed to print some W2 forms but the forms themselves only allows up to 4 groups of a value to be placed in a box or else they’d need to issue two forms.
The pickle is that the source data is freeform csv text, so what can we do on the database side?
I reached for my handy CROSS APPLY, a numbers table, windowing functions and a little modulo arithmetic – its not so bad to return a subgroup within a group in SQL as long as you are willing to lay out additional columns to count your grouping.