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Microsoft, OLAP, and the Web: An Insider's View

In previous Database Developer columns Ive discussed technology trends related to databases, and the purposes for which we use databases. Interest in the Web has surged in recent years, along with interest in decision support applications, OLAP, and business intelligence. Oracle, Informix, Sybase, and IBM have all supplemented their mainstay DBMSs with OLAP servers. With the release of SQL Server 7.0, Microsoft recently added OLAP services to its inventory of software products. Microsoft is also providing OLAP client software, and data access APIs that have a wide following among OLAP vendors.

Bill Baker is a long-time participant in the database, decision support, and data warehousing industry. He helped move Microsoft into the OLAP market with software such as SQL Server OLAP Services (included with SQL Server 7.0). Before moving to Microsoft, Bill was senior vice president for Development at IRI. When IRI sold its Express product to Oracle, Bill became an Oracle VP before moving to Microsoft. Bill recently provided an insiders view of the OLAP phenomenon. He discussed the marriage of OLAP and Web technology and Microsofts contribution to the growth of OLAP.

Web Techniques: As a veteran of the computer industry, youve seen data warehousing and OLAP grow to become a major area of competition between DBMS vendors. OLAP is becoming more affordable technology and more widely deployed. Has the business case and economic justification for OLAP undergone a fundamental change, or are we simply seeing the effect of ever-improving hardware price/performance ratios?

Bill Baker: I think we are seeing both. The improvement in hardware price/performance ratios is pretty obvious. PC servers are both cheap enough, and easy enough, to deploy that its easy to support OLAP in places that never used it before. But the more important driver for OLAP is a craving inside businesses of all sizes to multiply the value of all the operational data theyve been collecting for years and years. By now OLAP has proven its ability to enhance decision making in corporations. Its reached critical mass in terms of product offerings, consulting support, and integration with the rest of the corporate computing environment. So growing demand and more affordable platform prices have driven the market.

WT: Microsoft is shipping an OLAP server with SQL Server 7.0 and it has updated the Universal Data Access APIs to operate with multidimensional data sets. It has also extended SQL with multidimensional expressions (MDX) and added OLAP client capabilities to Excel. How well does this integrate with the Internet/intranet/extranet computing model? And how big a role will browsers such as Netscape and Internet Explorer play as decision-support clients?

BB: Browsers are very important to OLAP and data warehousing. One way to look at the Web, especially the intranet, is that it is a data projector. Its a way to push data and analysis of data into every finger of the organization. There is really a spectrum here. It runs from browser-based OLAP, to spreadsheets such as Excel with built-in access to OLAP data, all the way up to analysis tools from any number of independent software vendors (ISVs). Were aware of one ISV readying a $5000-per-seat analysis client. With SQL Server OLAP Services, we made sure that the client component, the OLE DB for OLAP data provider (PivotTable Services), had two attributes. First, it can run on the middle-tier (usually a Web) server. Second, it exports its functionality via Automation. This allows scripts running on the Web server, typically Active Server Pages, to access OLAP data and analysis.

WT: The growth in databases in the 1980s created a demand for DBAs. The Web explosion of the 90s created a demand for Webmasters, and analysts forecast an OLAP explosion in the next decade. Data mining and Web farming are also likely to play a greater role in the next decade. Microsoft has pushed to make SQL Server easier to administer. Will there be a similar push to make OLAP a tool for the masses, so that companies can draw from a talent pool of DBAs and Webmasters to do business intelligence projects?

BB: This reminds me of a forcast from much earlier in the century regarding the telephone. People realized that if the phone was to be completely ubiquitous, the phone company would need literally millions and millions of telephone operators. Of course, the solution was to allow each telephone user to be his or her own operator. We need to do the same thing with OLAP and data warehousing.

Are we there yet? No. But we've made a greatr start. OLAP has previously been both expensive and esoteric. Our goal is to increase the approachability of OLAP by orders of magnitude. This means lowering the cost, increasing the integration with the corporate computing environment and, as you suggest, making it possible for any DBA or power user to manage an OLAP database. TO go back to your previous question, using the Web and Excel to give literally all of your users access to OLAP requires an approach like the one taken with the telephone. That's exciting. -KN

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