The other week I went to an evening event at Microsoft’s UK office in Reading, given by Matt Stephen. It was a general introduction to BI in SQL2005 and as such, attended by people who didn’t know much at all about the new features in AS, RS, IS and so on. All the familiar Powerpoints were shown and much was made of the Unified Dimensional Model as being the best thing since sliced bread. I’m sure almost everyone reading this has seen these presentations, especially the slides where the relational reporting and olap reporting worlds ‘come together’ like two pieces of a jigsaw and the one where Analysis Services is described as a cache on top of your data warehouse. At the end of the session, though, the very first question that was asked was which I think had been on a lot of people’s minds – "What exactly is the UDM?". This reminded me of the first time I saw any presentations on Yukon AS at an airlift in Redmond two-and-a-half years ago: for a while afterwards I was confused over what exactly the UDM was too. And Myles Matheson in a blog entry from a month or so back feels obliged to answer exactly the same question so I suspect this is a common reaction.
The answer of course is actually pretty simple. Put simply, the UDM is just the cube in Analysis Services 2005; because it can now model so many more features of a relational data warehouse (eg many-to-many dimensions, role-playing dimensions) the message is that there’s now no reason to run queries directly against your data warehouse at all because you’ll get much better performance and query-flexibility by building a cube and querying that instead. From a technical point of view I have no problems at all with the claims being made here – in my experience AS2005 lives up to its hype as much as any software product can – but I didn’t understand why all this talk of the UDM and the resulting confusion was necessary. Why not just talk about the new capabilities of cubes in AS2005?
Then I came up with the following theory. The UDM doesn’t exist as a feature, really, but is more of a marketing concept. Marketing concepts are meant to help sell a product. For AS2005, who are the new customers that Microsoft is trying to target? Probably the same new customers that AS2000 won over, people who hadn’t been customers of other BI companies but who had either been priced out of the market or were trying to hand-code their own BI solutions using a relational database and encountered the usual problems. They’re going to be easier to sell to than someone who already has a big investment in Cognos, Essbase or Oracle. In my experience there’s a vast amount of people out there who are still in this position, but in contrast to the people who picked up on AS2K they’re by nature a bit more cautious and unwilling to leave their relational comfort-zone – they know about OLAP but they’re not sure they want to learn a new technology. This constituency is, in my opinion, who the whole UDM pitch is aimed at: let’s not talk about cubes, because that might frighten you, but let’s talk about the cube as a cache (which is less threatening) and the UDM as something that is the successor of both relational reporting and OLAP reporting.
So this is why I think I was confused: I was meant to be confused. Quite a clever strategy to avoid knee-jerk anti-cube prejudice or fear, then, if it works. But does it work? Well, maybe, maybe not. The fact I was confused doesn’t really matter because I’m cube-friendly anyway, but for the confused relational guy his first reaction to hearing about the UDM is to start asking questions to try to clarify the situation. And what I found interesting at Matt Stephen’s presentation was that the second question asked was exactly the same question that I asked when I was trying to understand what the UDM was: since the UDM is a replacement for both OLAP and relational reporting, can you therefore run both SQL and MDX queries against the UDM? The answer is a qualified no, because although AS2005 like AS2K does support querying using a very limited subset of SQL, it is a very limited subset and isn’t practically useful. You have to learn MDX to query your UDM or buy a tool that will generate MDX for you. I suspect that this is the point where many relational guys turn off, having realised that the UDM is the cube and that they’ll still have to learn a completely new, non-SQL technology.
This then leads on nicely to the question of whether OLAP is better off shoe-horned into the relational world and queried with SQL, as I understand Oracle have done with what used to be Express, or whether it’s better off as a distinct technology with its own query language as Microsoft have done. I touched on this topic a few months ago here, and as you might have guessed I’m in favour of the Microsoft approach. I don’t blame Microsoft for trying to blur this distinction though, as anything that will get people to look at AS2005 is a good thing in my book. It’s just that I’m not sure that your average BI customer can be hoodwinked in this way for very long, that’s all…