Tag Archives: Excel performance problems

Warning: Excel can get Volatile

Excel is a great tool for dashboard/report delivery and design (it’s why we created our addin in the first place), but there is a hidden performance trap:

Offset, Now, Today, Cell, Indirect, Info and Rand

If you’ve ever used any of these formulae, you may have noticed that whenever you change a cell, or collapse/expand a data grouping, Excel recalculates. That is because these are VOLATILE formulae, as soon as you use one of these, Excel will enter a mode where everything is always recalculating, and for good reason.

Offset & Now are the formulae we see used most often. Let’s look at each of these in turn and talk about some alternate approaches to avoid this issue.

Offset

This is by far the most common of these danger formulae that we see in use. Here’s the formula definition:

=Offset(reference,rows,cols,height,width)
Returns a reference to a range that is a given number of rows and columns 
from a given reference.

We typically see these as part of a named range definition for driving chart source data – it allows the number of rows/columns driving the chart data to change automatically; a not unusual requirement when it comes to building reports (especially when a report contains some user defined filters or slicers). Here’s an example:

 

 

 

 

 

 

A very simple spreadsheet – we can type the number of months to display in the chart. In reality the number of months to display will probably be driven by the data available for the criteria selected. The screenshot already shows the issue we have –  the chart is setup to display a max of 12 months, but we only have 3 months of data available.

 

The most obvious approach is to use the Offset formula to pick the chart area to use automatically, we could create a named range such as:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we just change the chart data source to be the named range:

 

 

 

 

The chart is now plotting 3 months, but will automatically update to show the required number of months:

BUT we have now used a volatile formula –  although this is a simple workbook, we are now in a position where Excel is going to have to recalculate everything all the time. It’s probably a good time to look at why Excel is going to do that. Let’s have a look at very simple formula to understand how Excel recalculates things.

Consider the formula:

C1    =A1 + B1

We can see that C1 is dependent upon A1 & B1 – so whenever a value in either of these cells changes C1 will need to be recalculated to show the correct answer. Excel knows about this dependency because it maintains a dependency tree; it knows which cells need to be recalculated whenever any other cell changes. This is a very efficient way of working, if a workbook has thousands of formula, but only one values changes, and this only needs 10 of these formula to recalculate, then only 10 will be calculated.

If C1 contained:

C1    =Sum(A1:A20)

We know that C1 depends upon any of the cells A1:A20, and so does Excel. But what if C1 was:

C1    =Sum(Offset(A1,0,0,B1,1))

Which cells is C1 dependent upon? At a glance you could say A1 & B1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

but  B1 contains the number 20, so actually C1 is dependent upon A1:A20 and B1 (I’ve highlighted the additional cells that are dependent):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just as we can’t see at a glance which cells C1 needs – Excel also can’t easily decide that. Therefore, Offset is volatile because, if it wasn’t then there is a danger that Excel would take so long to work out if it needs to be calculated that it might as well always calculate it.

There is an easy solution to this, INDEX. Here’s the formula definition (be careful, there are 2 ways to use Index, we want the REFERENCE one):

=Index(reference,row_num,column_num,area_num)
Returns a value of reference of the cell at the intersection of a 
particular row and column, in a given range
The big difference, compared to Offset, is that Index is going to return a single cell reference, so you need to use it as part of a range selection A1:Index(…). Here’s the same “Offset” Sum redefined as an “Index”:
C1    =SUM(A1:INDEX(A1:A20,B1,0))

The formula is simply saying the range we want starts at A1 and goes down the number of rows set in B1. The crucial difference is that the Index functions knows that A1:A20 is the maximum range we are likely to look at and therefore the dependencies are known just by looking at the formula itself:

We can now update the Named Range to use the Index function instead:

=Sheet1!$C$6:INDEX(Sheet1!$C$6:$C$17,Sheet1!$D$2,0)

 

 

Now/Today

The Now and Today functions return the current date to a cell – this is generally used so that when a report is loaded it will always show the data based on “Today”. Whilst this is not an unreasonable thing to want to do,  in reality what most people want is for the report to run for the most recent data, which could actually mean a number of things:

  • Yesterday (if the data is built in a nightly process)
  • The last working day (if the source transactional system is only used during office hours)
  • Current month etc.

The easiest solution is to let the data determine the date to use – if we use an XLCubed Grid or Query Table to retrieve the data we can simply setup a grid to retrieve the days/months where there is data:

And use the Sort option “Reverse” to display the most recent data first:

With the grid set to “Refresh on Open”  we know that A6 will always have the most recent date available in the cube and can base the rest of the report off that cell.

Incidentally, V6.2 of XLCubed introduces a new option to Slicers to automatically select the most recent date member when the report is loaded: