SQL Server 2005 : Basic OLAP - OLAP 101

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Wherefore BI?

To be frank, an organization that merely collects and manages its data, and perhaps reviews that data semi-regularly through basic and ad hoc reports, is losing out almost completely on the strategic value and the information that the data holds. Moreover, taking advantage of the basic features of Analysis Services isn’t that hard, and the concepts aren’t all that difficult for relational database experts to grasp.

If you look carefully at the entire suite of features and components in SQL Server 2005, you’ll find that the biggest advances have come from the BI side. Don’t get us wrong: New relational database features such as the Service Broker, native XML support, and the SQL CLR programming model are important in their own right. But their importance must be understood in the context of incremental change in a relational database engine that was already mature, sophisticated, scalable, and well understood by the market.

The advances in Analysis Services, meanwhile, are much more ground-breaking. The release of SQL Server 2005 Analysis Services marks the product’s crossover into mainstream ease of use, programmability, interoperability, and integration with the rest of SQL Server and its toolset.

We believe strongly that understanding Analysis Services is totally within reach for anyone proficient in the relational side of SQL Server. Our goal is to provide coverage of Analysis Services that is approachable, practical, and fun.

OLAP 101

Let’s begin our exploration of Analysis Services with a “quick hit” introduction to OLAP. You’ll learn the fundamentals of OLAP, including general OLAP concepts and the basics of how to build, maintain, and query OLAP cubes in Microsoft SQL Server 2005. Specifically, we’ll cover the following topics:

  • Definitions of several terms, including cubes, measures, dimensions, attributes, hierarchies, levels, members, and axes

  • Data warehousing concepts and the motivation behind so-called star and snowflake schemas

  • The basics of Visual Studio Analysis Services projects, such as data sources, data source views, the cube and dimension designers, and various wizards

  • Querying cubes in the cube designer’s Browser tab

As we just mentioned, SQL Server first brought OLAP functionality to us in version 7 with OLAP Services, a product that was essentially separate from, though bundled with, SQL Server proper. SQL Server 2000 Analysis Services included better OLAP functionality and new data mining capabilities but offered only slightly better integration with the SQL Server relational database. Analysis Services in SQL Server 2005 brings huge improvements in functionality over its predecessor, much better integration into the product, an architectural “rethink,” and impressive ease-of-use features.

OLAP, which is an acronym for the rather vague moniker “online analytical processing,” can be thought of as database technology optimized for drill-down analysis. That’s it! Forget all the confusing explanations you may have heard—there’s really no magic here, and it need not be confusing. OLAP allows users to perform drill-down queries incredibly quickly and does so in two ways:

  • OLAP cubes store so much data that in many cases, both the high-level roll-ups and midlevel and low-level drilled-down figures needed for any given query are already calculated and need only be output.

  • Even calculations that need to be done on the fly can be performed quickly because an OLAP engine is optimized for this task and doesn’t need to concern itself with the complex tasks of a relational database, such as managing indexes, performing joins, or (except in specific circumstances) dealing with updates and concurrency. OLAP cubes essentially contain data at the lowest drilled-down levels, calculate some or all of the higher-level aggregations when a cube is built, and calculate the others at query time by aggregating the lower-level numbers already in the cube.

The result is a technology that lets users do an incredible amount of exploration through their data, allowing them to entertain a number of ad hoc, what-if scenarios without worrying about the time and resources it would take a relational engine to satisfy the same queries. If users don’t have to be “afraid” to ask their questions, they’ll ask a lot more of them, gain useful insight into their data, make better business decisions, and get a much higher return on investment on the relational systems that supply the cubes’ data in the first place.

OLAP Vocabulary

A cube, which is the OLAP equivalent of a table in a relational database, consists of measures, which are the numeric data that users will analyze (for example, sales amount), and dimensions, which are the categories that the measures will be drilled down by (for example, Time, Geography, Shipper, or Promotion). Dimensions can be hierarchical. For example, a Geography dimension would likely be hierarchical and might consist of country, state/province, city, and postal code levels. The individual countries, states, and so on are called the members of their respective levels. Such a scheme allows users to break down sales by country, then drill down on a specific country (good to do if that country’s sales are particularly high or low), then on a specific state or province within that country, then on specific cities in that state or province, and then even on postal codes in one or more of those cities. (This would allow a user to pinpoint quickly why a particular country’s sales are so high or low.)

This all seems elementary and unsophisticated, doesn’t it? Are you disillusioned? Don’t be. Let’s up the ante a bit: Imagine a spreadsheet where the columns contain the set of countries in which a company operates, the rows contain each of the four quarters of the last fiscal year, and each cell contains a sales figure for each corresponding combination of country and fiscal quarter. Imagine further that users can drill down on any quarter (to reveal the three months within it) and/or any country to reveal the sales numbers for those cross-sections of the cube. Imagine that the spreadsheet is replicated numerous times, once for each salesperson’s sales data, where each of these spreadsheets offers the same drill-down capabilities, returning the specific results implied by the drill-down, quickly and easily.

This entire set of spreadsheets can be returned by an OLAP engine with one fairly simple query. Still not impressed? Imagine each of the sales numbers in each spreadsheet appearing next to the corresponding year-ago figure and that, even with this enhancement, the whole interactive drill-down report can still be produced with a single query. Hopefully, we’ve caught your attention and have given you some insight into the power and business value of OLAP.

Dimensions, Axes, Stars, and Snowflakes

Let’s go back to some definitions. Because OLAP cubes and even OLAP query result sets can contain data along multiple physical dimensions, not just rows and columns, the term multidimensional is often used to refer to OLAP databases. In fact, the language you use to query SQL Server OLAP cubes is called MDX (which stands for “multidimensional expression language”). The object models used to write OLAP applications are called ADO MD (the COMbased object model) and ADO MD.NET (its .NET managed equivalent); in both cases, the MD stands for multidimensional. Thinking tangibly about multidimensional data can be visually and logically challenging. Be prepared for this so that you are not discouraged along the way; meanwhile, we’ll do our best to get you through it.

OLAP cubes are created from a collection of special tables in a relational database: fact tables and dimension tables. To illustrate what’s in each of these, imagine a simple cube containing unit sales, total sales, and discount as its only measures and supplier and geography as its only dimensions. Imagine that the supplier dimension is flat, that is, nonhierarchical, and that the geography dimension is hierarchical, with its lowest level being postal code. The fact table then needs to contain the sales data for products from each supplier in each postal code. Each row contains a postal code in one column, a key for a supplier in a second column, and the corresponding measures data in additional columns. Each possible combination of postal code and supplier corresponds to a separate row in the fact table (except for postal codes where specific shippers were not responsible for any sales).

We also need dimension tables. Let’s start with a dimension table for the supplier. This is simply a lookup table containing the supplier key and name in separate columns. You can see how joining the fact table to this table on supplier ID will allow us to get the shipper’s name for each shipper/postal code fact data row.

Because geography is hierarchical, the relationship between the fact table and the dimension table is more complex. The geography dimension’s information can be captured in a single, denormalized table that corresponds to each unique postal code with a city, state/province, and country, or you can have separate, normalized lookup tables for each level in the hierarchy. (You can also have a combination of semi-denormalized tables, each combining a couple of hierarchical levels.) See Figure 1 for a sample representation of the data in the fact table and the two denormalized dimension tables. Notice that the fact table contains only measure data and foreign keys to the lowest level of each of the two dimensions.

Figure 1. The data and structure of the two hypothetical dimension tables and a very simple fact table that references them

Once the cube is built, the normalized or denormalized basis of its dimensions matter very little, so your choice at cube design time is essentially one of convenience. In the case of fully denormalized dimension tables, the schema ends up consisting of a fact table in the center with “spokes” branching out to each dimension table, as shown in Figure 2. The geometry of this type of schema suggests a star, so it is often referred to as a star schema. Dimensions that involve multiple tables somewhat weaken the star-like analogy because the spokes have multiple nodes. Dimensions with multiple tables are therefore more commonly referred to as having a snowflake schema (a snowflake essentially resembling a more geometrically complex version of a star).

Figure 2. Although this schema contains only two dimension tables, you can begin to see where the name star schema comes from.

Typically, databases with star/snowflake schemas are created by taking normalized databases and running scripts, stored procedures, or ETL (extract, transform, and load) processes on them to create the transformed fact tables and dimension tables. These tables can be created in a new standalone database, and they in effect form the basis of a data warehouse. As such, they can serve as excellent data sources for running relational reports as well. Given that these tables have some degree of denormalization, they are easy to create reports against, and because they’re in a separate database, or at least exist as separate tables in the main database, allowing users to run reports from them poses no strain on the production online transaction processing (OLTP) tables. If you find the physical transformation of the data inconvenient, remember that fact and also that dimension “tables” can, in fact, be views.

  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Server Architecture
  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Management - Publishing, SQL Server Management Studio
  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Access and Delivery (part 2) - Presentation Formats, Programming: Rendering
  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Access and Delivery (part 1) - Delivery on Demand, Subscriptions
  •  Transact-SQL in SQL Server 2008 : Change Tracking (part 2) - Identifying Tracked Changes, Identifying Changed Columns, Change Tracking Overhead
  •  Transact-SQL in SQL Server 2008 : Change Tracking (part 1) - Implementing Change Tracking
  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Definition and Design (part 3) - Report Builder
  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Definition and Design (part 2) - Report Designer
  •  SQL Server 2005 : Report Definition and Design (part 1) - Data Sources, Report Layouts
  •  Monitoring MySQL : Database Performance (part 2) - Database Optimization Best Practices
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