When I was in Orlando and New York last month, I spoke to a lot of business intelligence users. What they told me suggested a path of BI adoption. The user’s place on the path depends on the size and sophistication of their organisation.
Step 1: A company with a database of customer transactions will often want to examine particular data, like revenue and unit sales over the last period for each product and territory. To do this, they probably use simple SQL queries or stored procedures to produce data on demand.
Step 2: The results from step one are saved in an Excel document, so business users can analyse them with filters or pivot tables. Alternatively, SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) might be used to generate a report of the SQL query for display on an intranet page.
Step 3: If these queries are run frequently, or business users want to explore data from multiple sources more freely, it may become necessary to create a new database structured for analysis rather than CRUD (create, retrieve, update, and delete).
For example, data from more than one system – plus external information – may be incorporated into a data warehouse. This can become ‘one source of truth’ for the business’s operational activities. The warehouse will probably have a simple ‘star’ schema, with fact tables representing the measures to be analysed (e.g. unit sales, revenue) and dimension tables defining how this data is aggregated (e.g. by time, region or product). Reports can be generated from the warehouse with Excel, SSRS or other tools.
Step 4: Not too long ago, Microsoft introduced an Excel plug-in, PowerPivot, which allows users to bring larger volumes of data into Excel documents and create links between multiple tables. These BISM Tabular documents can be created by the database owners or other expert Excel users and viewed by anyone with Excel PowerPivot.
Sometimes, business users may use PowerPivot to create reports directly from the primary database, bypassing the need for a data warehouse. This can introduce problems when there are misunderstandings of the database structure or no single ‘source of truth’ for key data.
Step 5: Steps three or four are often enough to satisfy business intelligence needs, especially if users are sophisticated enough to work with the warehouse in Excel or SSRS. However, sometimes the relationships between data are too complex or the queries which aggregate across periods, regions etc are too slow. In these cases, it can be necessary to formalise how the data is analysed and pre-build some of the aggregations. To do this, a business intelligence professional will typically use SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) to create a multidimensional model – or “cube” – that more simply represents key measures and aggregates them across specified dimensions.
Step five is where our tool, SSAS Compare, becomes useful, as it helps review and deploy changes from development to production. For us at Red Gate, the primary value of SSAS Compare is to establish a dialog with BI users, so we can develop a portfolio of products that support creation and deployment across a range of report and model types. For example, PowerPivot and the new BISM Tabular model create a potential customer base for tools that extend beyond BI professionals.
We’re interested in learning where people are in this story, so we’ve created a six-question survey to find out. Whether you’re at step one or step five, we’d love to know how you use BI so we can decide how to build tools that solve your problems. So if you have a sixty seconds to spare, tell us on the survey!