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Representing Dates in Power BI: Date or Integer?

Marco Russo and Alberto Ferrari share their take on a classic debate:

A question that is often asked during the design of a Power BI data model is whether it is better to use an Integer or a Datetime column to link a fact table with the Date dimension. Historically, using Integers has always been a better choice in database design. However, Tabular is an in-memory columnar database, and its architecture is quite different from the relational databases we might be used to working with.

Indeed, in Tabular there are no technical differences between using a Datetime or an Integer to create a relationship. The database size, the query speed, and any other technical detail are absolutely identical. Therefore, the choice is not related to technical aspects, but rather on the convenience of the design. Depending on the specific requirements of your model, you might favor one data type against the other. In the most common scenarios, a Datetime proves to be better because it provides more possibilities to compute values on dates without having to rely on relationships. With that said, if your model uses Integers and you do not need to perform calculations on the dates represented in the table, then you can choose the most convenient data type – that is, the one already used in the original data source.

The remaining part of the article aims to prove the previous sentences, and to provide you with the technical details about how we tested the respective performance of the two options.

Click through for Marco and Alberto’s analysis, noting that “date” here does not include time of day, so it would have the same cardinality as the integer date key. This was a more important thing fifteen years ago, before columnstore technologies (like columnstore indexes and VertiPaq) were readily available and that 4-byte integer was considerably smaller than an 8-byte DATETIME.