Microsoft's XML for Analysis: An Industry Standard?

Last week, the OLAP world changed for the better when Hyperion announced that it will fully promote and support Microsoft's XML for Analysis specification as an industry-standard access method for Hyperion's Essbase and other vendors' OLAP engines. IT professionals are rarely neutral about Microsoft, but you can't deny that 800-pound gorillas have the power to set de facto standards. Critics say that Microsoft abuses that power, but from time to time, the company does a lot of good in the standards world. XML for Analysis is one of those times.

XML for Analysis is a Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP)-based XML API designed specifically to standardize data-access between a client application and an analytical data provider (such as an OLAP or data mining tool) across the Internet.

XML for Analysis has the power to change the OLAP market and bring business intelligence (BI) to the masses in two fundamental ways. First, it provides a standard, client-level API that lets OLAP tool vendors easily support multiple engines. Second, it delivers OLAP solutions across the Internet in a practical, device-independent manner, using a development paradigm that's familiar to most Web developers. In this column, I discuss XML for Analysis' impact on the client market.

XML for Analysis promises to bring order to the OLAP client market by becoming the ODBC of the analytical world. Remember the relational database management system (RDBMS) market before ODBC? People laughed 10 years ago when some analysts suggested that ODBC could become a dominant cross-database standard. Today, most of you have used ODBC, which has unquestionably brought order and relatively seamless integration to the RDBMS client-tool market. Life before ODBC was tough in the RDBMS world, but client-side interoperability and data access in the OLAP world are significantly harder. At least RDBMSs share common roots with the SQL language. Historically, OLAP engines have offered both proprietary client APIs and proprietary Data Definition Languages (DDLs) and Data Manipulation Languages (DMLs). This mish-mash of APIs and languages wreaks havoc on client tools that try to work in a heterogeneous environment.

XML for Analysis isn't the first potential industry-standard client API, but it will likely be the one that succeeds. Last summer, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and other companies attempted to launch a common OLAP client API specification called Java OLAP Interface (JOLAP). The JOLAP specification is still under development, whereas XML for Analysis is available in beta form and set for official launch this month.

Together, Microsoft and Hyperion control the OLAP server market; even IBM licenses Essbase technology as its OLAP solution. To date, more than 22 leading OLAP tool vendors have expressed enthusiastic support for the XML for Analysis standard. Corporations tend to be selfish, but the best interest of everyone—except perhaps Oracle—is to see XML for Analysis succeed. The vendor community will likely give this specification wide and deep support.

But why would Hyperion want to support a standard from competitor Microsoft? "Hyperion has a tremendous interest in expanding the OLAP market," says Robert Gersten, general manager of the Essbase Technologies Business Unit. "One of the biggest impediments \[to that expansion\] has been the lack of a standardized query language."

Today, the OLAP market is miniscule compared to its potential. OLAP is all about making better decisions, so it stands to reason that most companies have some sort of analytical database solution in their future. Unfortunately, the lack of a consistent query language has made it difficult to build a commodity tool market and develop a critical mass of OLAP-trained developers. XML for Analysis will help solve both of these problems. Microsoft and Hyperion might still fight over the same piece of market-share pie, but everyone—including the customer—wins with a bigger pie.

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