Getting The Users' Trust - Part 1

Looking back over some of my truly ancient Rittman Mead blogs (so old in fact that they came with me when I joined the company soon after Rittman Mead was launched), I see recurrent themes on why people “do” BI and what makes for successful implementations. After all, why would an organisation wish to invest serious money in a project if it does not give value either in terms of cost reduction or increasing profitability through smart decisions. This requires technology to provide answers and a workforce that is both able to use this technology and has faith that the answers returned allow them to do their jobs better. Giving users this trust in the BI platform generally boils down to resolving these three issues: ease of use of the reporting tool, quickness of data return and “accuracy” or validity of the response. These last two issues are a fundamental part of my work here at Rittman Mead and underpin all that I do in terms of BI architecture, performance, and data quality. Even today as we adapt our BI systems to include Big Data and Advanced Analytics I follow the same sound approaches to ensure usable, reliable data and the ability to analyse it in a reasonable time.

Storage is cheap so don’t aggregate away your knowledge. If my raw data feed is sales by item by store by customer by day and I only store it in my data warehouse as sales by month by state I can’t go back to do any analysis on my customers, my stores, my products. Remember that the UNGROUP BY only existed in my April Fools’ post. Where you choose to store your ‘unaggregated’ data may well be different these days; Hadoop and schema on read paradigms often being a sensible approach. Mark Rittman has been looking at architectures where both the traditional DWH and Big Data happily co-exist.

When improving performance I tend to avoid tuning specific queries, instead I aim to make frequent access patterns work well. Tuning individual queries is almost always not a sustainable approach in BI; this week’s hot, ‘we need the answer immediately’ query may have no business focus next week. Indexes that we create to make a specific query fly may have no positive effect on other queries; indeed, indexes may degrade other aspects of BI performance such as increased data load times and have subtle effects such as changing a query plan cost so that groups of materialized views are no longer candidates in query re-write (this is especially true when you use nested views and the base view is no longer accessed).

My favoured performance improvement techniques are: correctly placing the data be it clustering, partitioning, compressing, table pinning, in-memory or whatever, and making sure that the query optimiser knows all about the nature of the data; again and again “right” optimiser information is key to good performance. Right is not just about running DBMS_STATS.gather_XXX over tables or schemas every now and then; it is also about telling the optimiser about data relationships between data items. Constraints describe the data, for example which columns allow NULL values, which columns are part of parent-child relationships (foreign keys). Extended table statistics can help describe relationships between columns in a single table for example in a product dimensions table the product sub-category and the product category columns will have an interdependence, without that knowledge cardinality estimates can be very wrong and favour nested loop style plans that could be very poor performing on large data sets.

Sometimes we will need to create aggregates to answer queries quickly; I tend to build ‘generic’ aggregates, those that can be used by many queries. Often I find that although data is loaded frequently, even near-real-time, many business users wish to look at larger time windows such as week, month, or quarter; In practice I see little need for day level aggregates over the whole data warehouse timespan, however, there will always be specific cases that might require day-level summaries. If I build summary tables or use Materialized Views I would aim to make tables that are at least 80% smaller than the base table and to avoid aggregates that partially roll up many dimensional hierarchies; customer category by product category by store region by month would probably not be the ideal aggregate for most real-user queries. That said Oracle does allow us to use fancy grouping semantics in the building of aggregates (grouping sets, group by rollup and group by cube.) The in-database Oracle OLAP cube functionality is still alive and well (and was given a performance boost in Oracle 12c); it may be more appropriate to aggregate in a cube (or relational-look-alike) rather than individual summaries.

Getting the wrong results quickly is no good, we must be sure that the results we display are correct. As professional developers we test to prove that we are not losing or gaining data through incorrect joins and filters, but ETL coding is often the smallest factor in "incorrect results" and this brings me to part 2, Data Quality.

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