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Business Intelligence:
The Secondhand Data Store

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
September 1998 Issue
  By Susan Osterfelt

The definition of a data warehouse as a "place for secondhand data that originates elsewhere" is typical of the humorous (but true, if you think about it!) perspective on data warehousing provided in Data Warehousing for Dummies, by Alan R. Simon, published by IDG Books. While I don't normally review books in this column, I am making an exception because of this book's uniqueness among data warehousing reading material. This is a familiar yellow and black "For Dummies" book, complete with a tear-out "cheat sheet" covering data warehouse levels of complexity, trends and Web sites, along with an OLAP glossary. Imagine tearing the cheat sheet out and keeping it in your day-timer or on your bulletin board so that you have "what to do with a data warehouse" at your immediate fingertips.

  • Basic querying and reporting: "Tell me what happened."
  • OLAP: "Tell me what happened and why."
  • Data mining: "Tell me what may happen," or "Tell me something interesting."
  • EIS: "Tell me lots of things, but don't make me work too hard."

Believe it or not, with these phrases Simon has captured the essence of what value various types of business intelligence tools bring to data warehousing. The book has cartoons, bullet points on what's to be found in each part and chapter, and icons in the margins to alert the reader to tips, cautions, trends, things to remember and technical stuff. (The icon for technical stuff shows a geek, while the caution icon shows a bomb, etc.) Every data warehouse book has a brief history of the concept. However, most books don't mention disco, leisure suits and platform shoes in that section. Data Warehousing for Dummies does! Simon's writing style gets to the point in an engaging manner. Whether discussing the restocking of data, the use of data warehousing consultants or data warehouse project management, Simon makes the reader want to keep reading.

Consider Chapter 13, "Data Warehousing and Other IT Projects: The Same but Different" (which, by the way, is also true), which begins, "Psst! Yes, you. Do you want to know a secret? No this isn't the Beatles' song; this secret is about data warehousing projects and how you can almost guarantee success." He goes on to explain how secondhand data is different and the special considerations needed when developing a data warehouse project plan. To me this is great advice, since I believe recognizing these differences and taking them into account in the project plan is something rarely found in project plans, yet a critical factor for data warehouse success.

Part III of the book covers business intelligence (which Simon says is not an oxymoron). Of particular interest to me is the BI architecture section and its discussion of server-based and Web-enabled functionality, support for mobile users, and agent and push technology. Simon makes an important architectural distinction between data warehouses and operational data stores. Since an ODS can be based on real-time or almost real-time updating of information for BI, "a [legacy] application must be warehouse-enabled and be capable of pushing data into the ODS instead of having the data pulled out, as with traditional data extraction services. In these situations, the business intelligence tools must detect that new data has been pushed into its environment and, if necessary, update measures and indicators that are already on a user's screen." Good advice for those of us entering into the ODS world to design architectures which facilitate triggers.

One thing I find really trying in my job is dealing with vendors of data warehousing products. Obviously Simon agrees, by stating, "Help! I'm up to my armpits in hype!" in Chapter 20, entitled "Surviving in the Computer Industry (and Handling Vendors)." He provides tips on how to be a smart shopper at trade shows and conferences, as well as vendor claims to watch out for (such as "order of magnitude increases in performance over our previous product version"). He advises, with the requisite "bomb" caution icon in the margin, to never buy a data warehousing product at a trade show. Instead, he suggests using the show as a fact-finding mission.

Many of us who build data warehouses and ODSs have made our livings dealing with used data. We recycle data into a secondhand data store to provide real business value to our organizations. Data Warehousing for Dummies, written in plain English, is recommended reading that provides an engaging perspective on our work. By following Simon's advice, we can, in effect, play the "Simon Says" game (get it?) to make data warehousing work for us. Whether it's providing advice on what to do with existing "sort-of" data warehouses or entering the new dimension of multidimensional databases, Simon says, "Succeed at data warehousing! "


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
DW Basics.

Susan Osterfelt is senior vice president at Bank of America, in Charlotte, North Carolina. She can be reached at susan.osterfelt@bankofamerica.com.

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