OLAP: Think Outside the Box

Do your company leaders want to make better decisions? Do they want to improve operational efficiency and profit margins? If you answered no to either question, stop reading and immediately update your resume because your company will likely be out of business soon. However, if your company wants to make better decisions and improve profits, you should be evaluating Microsoft's current and next-generation Business Intelligence (BI) offerings.

Modern OLAP-based BI tools offer decision makers incredible value. BI and Microsoft's related tool sets are all about letting the right people ask the right questions at the right time, then applying the right answers to achieve competitive advantage. You'd think all organizations would be using OLAP by now. But the strange thing is that most organizations haven't applied modern OLAP techniques to their decision-making processes.

Let's play a quick word-association game to highlight one fundamental reason more companies aren't tapping OLAP to address their data-analysis needs. Read the following word, then note the first thought that floats through your mind:


So, what did you think of? From past experience with customers, colleagues, and conference attendees, I suspect many of you thought "data warehousing." True, modern data-warehousing solutions often include some type of OLAP presentation layer. And the industry often discusses OLAP and data warehousing in the same breath. But you're wrong if you think you must have a data warehouse before you can use OLAP tools to slice and dice your data.

Here's another quick word-association test:


What did you think of this time? I'd be surprised if many of you initially thought of OLAP. Interestingly enough, everyone does reporting—whether or not they have a well-architected data warehouse. I'm not suggesting OLAP tools are a cure-all for every reporting need the world will ever see, but we have to break out of the box that says we can use OLAP tools to address reporting problems only if we've already built a data warehouse. Don't let anyone fool you: Building a data warehouse is hard, but using OLAP doesn't have to be.

Does your data include numerical measures—cost, profit, units sold, number of employees? Do you measure these attributes over time? Do you filter and aggregate data based on different columns? Chances are, you're using traditional reporting tools to generate reports against this critical business data—and your users aren't completely satisfied with their ability to analyze the resulting information. Many "reporting systems" are ideal candidates for simple, high-impact OLAP implementations. One of my clients even uses Microsoft Excel 2000 PivotTable functionality (yes, that's an OLAP solution) against a SQL Server database without building or populating a back-end OLAP Server.

We often consider reporting the least exciting part of system development, which is a shame. Well-crafted reporting and analytical-system extensions can mean the difference between an adequate solution and an outstanding IT solution. You might not have the time or resources to build the perfect data warehouse your organization keeps talking about, but that doesn't mean your current reporting needs will magically disappear. You can solve traditional reporting problems by using nontraditional OLAP tools. Don't be afraid to think outside the box.

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