In the late 1980′s and the early 1990′s the term for software that business users executed to run reports, fire off canned queries, and/or to explore data ad hoc was called “decision support” software. Later, and still today, the term “business intelligence” came into use.
I never understood the sense of the switch. The term “business intelligence” is vague… sort of fluffy and pretentious. “Decision support” implies a purpose. In the years when the switch from one term to the other was in progress, if you asked the question: what do you mean by “business intelligence” the answer was… it is “decision support”.
Today the analytics that underlie both terms are becoming more sophisticated, and they execute in near-real-time. It could be said that there is business intelligence in the process that acquires data, analyzes it, discovers a pattern, and applies a rule automatically as a result. But the software programmer who built the system was focused on automating the decision process… not on creating intelligence.
A clear focus on supporting complex decisions will increase the chances of delivering a return on your investment in analytics. ”Intelligence” is not useful unless it is applied to make a better decision. I vote for a return to the phrase “decision support”.
So far this blog has focused on issues related to database architecture… so this title might not seem on message. But architecture has implications.
The aim of any BI system is to support the decision-making process of the business. BI infrastructure is clearly a success when your company learns to make fact-based decisions as part of the day-to-day operation of the business. The best data warehouse in the world would be one that provides such effective decision support that the business gains a competitive advantage over the competition.
But I often run into companies where sweet success has turned sour. Why, because in these sour situations the BI eco-system cannot keep up. In these bad cases the best data warehouse in the world becomes the worst.
Usually the problem comes in one of two flavors: either the required decision support is unavailable in time to make a decision, or the eco-system cannot extend to support new business opportunities.
The first case usually shows up during periods when decision-making increases: during seasonal peaks in business. The second appears when the business grows: after a merger or when a new product is introduced. In both cases the cost of the failure is significant.
But these worst cases do not happen out of the blue. They creep up on you. There are symptoms. Often the first symptom is when the nightly reporting process starts missing its service level targets. That is, the nightly load of the warehouse and the refresh of the indexes, materialized views, the summary tables, the cubes, and the marts; and then the running of reports cannot complete in the batch window. This is followed by slow response in your online query processing as the nightly process creeps into the day. Then, the business asks for more users and/or for more data to be added and the problem grows… until decision-making is delayed or unsupported altogether.
Sadly, this problem is avoidable and the solution is well understood. All that is required is a scalable foundation that can extend through the addition of relatively inexpensive hardware. If you could easily add storage and compute then as the constraints hit you can scale up.
A shared nothing architecture scales. We have examples at Greenplum of production systems that scale from hundreds of gigabytes to thousands of terabytes… and other shared nothing vendors: Teradata and Netezza at least, can boast the same. When our customers run out of gas we add hardware. And the architecture scales bigger still… shared nothing is the foundation for all web scale data base technology… scaling to hundreds of petabytes.
So why do companies build, and continue to build, on shared memory systems with built-in limits? Because… they continually underestimate the growth in data… the failure is a failure of vision (consider the name “Teradata”… selected when a terabyte was considered nearly unreachable). Data does not just grow, it explodes in leaps and bounds as technology advances.
But let’s be real… Why do companies really select limiting infrastructure? Because they mistakenly believe that they can build BI infrastructure on technology designed for OLTP… and they already have DBAs trained on this technology who heavily influence the decision. Or, they have an enterprise license for the OLTP database and they want to save some money.
I imagine that I’ve made my point. The worst data warehouse in the world is a warehouse that constrains your business… one that cannot scale as the demand for data and decision support grows… one that costs you hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time with every change… one that is tuned to the breaking point, rather than robust.
Why would anyone ever put their business at risk like this?