Row Level Security in Power BI – Part 1

The folks at Microsoft have been steadily adding features to both the Power BI service and the downloadable Power BI Desktop over the past eighteen months since it went General Availability in July of 2015. Row Level Security is one such feature, allowing the developer to restrict which data is seen by users. Like most other major features, it was introduced into Power BI Service first, then eventually added to the Desktop. However, unlike other features, upon its addition to the Desktop, it, or most of it, was removed from the Service. After all, you really only need it in one place. Having it in both places would just cause confusion and conflicts. However, there are some lingering aspects in the Power BI service that require attention after deploying a model that has Row Level Security defined. In this post, we’ll look at this feature of Power BI, how to get it up and running in the Desktop, what needs to be done on the Service, and some common scenarios for when it might be useful.

But before we get started, you need to be made aware of two points: First is that RLS in Power BI is NOT the same as RLS in SQL Server 2016. Yes, both are great new feature in their respective products, and do pretty much the same thing of restricting user access to certain rows of data. They even share the same acronym, and the results are pretty much the same, but the implementation methods of each are quite different. RLS in SQL Server uses T-SQL functions and other artifacts inside the SQL database, while Power BI uses DAX. Another major difference is that RLS in Power BI can be used regardless of the data source type.

The second major point is that RLS and Power BI Dashboard’s Q&A feature are mutually exclusive. You can have one or the other, but not both. While some readers may not really care about that, others may simply stop reading right here based on that revelation alone. But before you click off the page because of this limitation, take a moment to voice your opinion at the Power BI Feedback site for this particular issue. Even if you don’t care, some day you might and I encourage you to vote on the item. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Ok, you’re back? Good, let’s get started.

Row Level Security in Power BI Scenario 1

The first scenario we’re going to explore is one where you have hard-coded roles for each particular segment of data. For the demo model for all these scenarios, I generated data that was spread across the globe, and tied the access directly to continents, then later to countries. This makes it very easy to determine at a glance if data is being filtered properly. The Power BI map visualization is the ideal choice for this as your eyes can easily determine which geographic entities are represented by the data. We’ll see the map again later on, but for starters, the unfiltered data maps like this:

Row Level Security 1

 

Before we set the security for this data, I’ll explain a little about this particular model’s data structure: It is made up of three tables as shown here: country, customer, and Salessales. The country table lists all of the countries in the world, and which continent they are on. Also, that table is at the “one” side of a one-to-many relationship to Customer (on [CountryCode]), which is in turn on the “one” side of its relationship to the Sales table.

Row Level Security 21

 

If we can limit the countries to only those in, say, North America, that would limit the customers to those that are located there, and that would limit the sales, in a cascading filter sort of way. We end up seeing only sales to Customers that are in North America. It would be like adding a WHERE predicate to a SQL query which filters as follows:

SELECT * FROM dbo.Country WHERE Continent = ‘North America’

Let’s get started.

  • On the Modelling tab, click Manage Roles.
  • Click Create to add a new Role, and name it “North America”.
  • Under Tables, click the ellipsis next to Country and select Add Filter, then select the [Continent] field
  • Edit the Table Filter DAX Expression it generates, substituting “Value” for “North America”

row 3

 

To test out this Role, back on the Modelling tab, click View As Roles. Select the North America role. My resulting map looks like this: Row 4

 

Notice the yellow band at the top of the report page that not only shows the security context under which the data is being viewed, but also offers a link to go back to unfiltered data.

We’ve successfully created a Security Role for North America. With only six distinct continents in the Country table, it is a simple operation to add additional roles for the remaining five, each appropriately named.

After deploying the model to the Power BI service, we have some additional work. Locate the data set for the model, click the ellipsis next to it and select security. This is where you would specify who has membership in which role. And obviously, membership in any one role gives you access to see the data associated with that particular continent. There is nothing stopping you from adding any one name to multiple roles. As you can see from the screenshot below, I have already added someone to the North America role.

row 5

 

Get used to this operation as it will be referenced in each of the other two scenarios, but not directly explained again as the operation is exactly the same. Only the name of the Role(s) will change.

This Row Level Security approach is useful if you have a relatively small number of distinct values at the top of a hierarchy (Continent / Country / Sales in this case), and that list is not likely to change. Changes in that list of values would dictate corresponding changes to the Roles, and re-deployments of the Power BI model. But I think we’re safe with our six continents on this earth for at least another googol years or so.

Row Level Security in Power BI Scenario 2

In this scenario, we’re going to take the security role assignments out of the Power BI Service and hold them at the database layer. We’ll use the same model from the previous scenario, minus the six roles we defined before. This model includes one additional table, Continent as shown below: row 6

And as you can imagine, this table now moves the top of our de-facto hierarchy, with a one-to-many relationship between it and the Country table, on field [Continent]:

row 7

To set security in the model we will do the same thing using the Manage Roles dialog box. If you are continuing on from Scenario 1 and have added the Continent table, you can delete the six Roles you added before as they are not needed here. But this time the single role of “Users” will filter on the Continent table, with the DAX expression of: [UserName] = USERNAME()

Row 8

 

The DAX USERNAME() function returns the login name and domain of the logged in user in the format of <name>@<domain>. This returned value ties nicely with the [UserName] column of the Continent table.

To test out this method of securing the data, we will again go to the View As Roles button on the Modelling tab, but this time we’ll check off both the Role of “Users”, and also fill in the “Other user” option by supplying a user name. If you recall the Continent table above, Eustice is assigned to Europe, so she only sees data for Europe. Notice below also how the Continent slicer gets filtered to just one value, and the Country slicer below it gets filtered as well to only Countries to which Eustice has access — those in Europe.

Row 9

After deploying the model, we still need to add email addresses to our User role just like before, but this time we have one role to worry about, and so all six names can be added under that one Role. Control over who gets to see what continent is defined in the rows of the Continent table back in the database. By changing or removing a name and refreshing the data to Power BI, we will alter data access rights without the need to redeploy the model or make adjustments to the Dataset’s Security settings on the site.

This scenario is handy when you again have a clearly defined top-down hierarchy, and when the users’ access is mutually exclusive. One and only one person can have access to each continent. I foresee this being implemented in a model where a salesperson table is at the head of the hierarchy and by filtering the salesperson, the customers and their respective sales get filtered as well. One certainly would not want to be creating a role for each salesperson, re-deploying the model, and then assigning each salesperson to their respective role as we did in Scenario 1. Instead, this approach handles the security assignment dynamically with the USERNAME() function.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will look at a third scenario which is a bit more involved, with multiple users, multiple groups, multiple group memberships, and multiple geo-political regions.

About Todd: Todd Chittenden started his programming and reporting career with industrial maintenance applications in the late 1990’s. When SQL Server 2005 was introduced, he quickly became certified in Microsoft’s latest RDBMS technology and has added certifications over the years. He currently holds an MCSE in Business Intelligence . He has applied his knowledge of relational databases, data warehouses, business intelligence and analytics to a variety of projects for BlumShapiro since 2011. 

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