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Building a Data Warehouse, Part 1: When to Build

Most developers are scared of “Business Intelligence” or BI. Most think that BI consists of cubes, pivot/drill down apps, and analytical decision support systems. While those are very typical outcomes of a BI effort, many people forget about the first step, the data warehouse.

Typically this is what happens with a BI effort. A system is built, usually a system that deals with transactions. We call this an OLTP or on-line transaction processing system. Some time passes and reports are bolted on and some business analysts build some pivot tables from “raw dumps” of data. As the system grows, reports start to slow since the system is optimized to deal with one record at a time. Someone, usually a CTO type says: “we need a BI system.” A development effort is then spent to build a data warehouse and cubes, and some kind of analytical system on top of those cubes.

I make the argument that developers and project planners should embrace the data warehouse up front. When you design your OLTP system, also design the supporting data warehouse, even if you have no intention of building a full-fledged BI application with cubes and the like. This way you have two distinct advantages. First is that you have a separate system that is optimized for reporting. This system will allow the rapid creation of many new reports as well take the load off the OLTP system. Second, when you do decide to build a BI system based on cubes, you will already have the hard part done, building the data warehouse and supporting ETL.

Since a data warehouse uses more of a flatter data model (more on this in Part II), you can even design your application to use both the OLTP and data warehouse as data sources. For example, when you have highly normalized, 3rd normal form transactional tables to support transactions, it is never easy to use those tables for reporting and displaying of information. Those tables are optimized and indexed to support retrieving and editing (or adding/deleting) one record at a time. When you try to do things in aggregate, you start to stress your system, since it was designed to deal with one record at a time.

This design pattern is already in use today at many places. Consider your credit card company for example. I use American Express, and I never see my transactions show up for at least 24 hours. If go buy something and I phone American Express and say “what was my last transaction” they will tell you right away. If you look online, you will not see that transaction until the next business day. Why? When you call the customer service representative, they are looking at the OLTP system, pulling up one record at a time. When you are looking online, you are looking at the data warehouse, a system optimized for viewing lots of data in a reporting environment.

You can take this to an extreme, if you ran an e-commerce site, you can power your product catalog view portion of the site with the data warehouse and the purchase (inventory) system with the OLTP model. Optimize the site for browsing (database reads) and at the same time have super-fast e-commerce (database writes.) Of course you have to keep the purchasing/inventory (OLTP) and product display (data warehouse) databases in sync. I’ll talk about that in Part III. Next, I will take a look at how to build the data warehouse.

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