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Trey Johnson, Vice President and Chief Architect of Idea Integration, sat down with us to discuss the value that Business Intelligence (BI) and OLAP can bring to enterprises.

Trey Johnson, Vice President and Chief Architect at Idea Integration, sat down with FTPOnline to discuss the value that Business Intelligence (BI) and On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) can bring to enterprises. (Trey will also present "SQL Server Integration Services: Patterns and Practices for the Real World" at VSLive! Orlando next month.)

FTPOnline: What is Business Intelligence and how does it affect the everyday developer?

Trey Johnson: Business Intelligence (BI) is a set of related technologies that provides organizations with visibility into their current and historical operations through the accumulation of information from heterogeneous data sources and business processes. These technologies, while intended to be pervasive, are often utilized by decision makers at a certain "level" within organizations. Microsoft set out many years ago to change the philosophy that BI was suited for one core group within an organization through its "BI for the Masses" philosophy.

Many times at Idea Integration, I've seen that a BI solution's value grows exponentially as it is used in organizations to make decisions. ROI is often realized in rather short intervals the more broadly the overall platform can be deployed. That's probably one of the stronger characteristics of Microsoft's offering (SQL Server Integration Services, Analysis Services, Reporting Services, the Office System, and the .NET Framework)—you can put information in the hands of any decision maker, at nearly every organizational level using SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services, SharePoint, Business Scorecard Manager, and the wide array of development technologies.

This means developers can use this information within traditional, transactional applications. Embedding BI using the broad capabilities of the Microsoft platform ensures that decisions that happen everywhere in the business are being made in a much better context. Looking past BI often puts transactional systems in a fairly poor—if not entirely unacceptable—position not to support the daily decisions of the business. As a developer/architect, you should factor [in] the BI portion of a transactional system well before a need for the information is expressed.

FTPOnline: How does BI differ from OLAP?

Trey Johnson: Business Intelligence is a "solution" to a set of questions or information demands that are routinely asked by decision makers. OLAP is a platform upon which decisions are made. In its simplest definition, OLAP is a queriable repository against which Microsoft and third-party technologies provide the ability to ask questions. OLAP is to BI what an RDBMS is to On-Line Transaction Processing (OLTP).

FTPOnline: Describe a few real-world applications and advantages of using BI.

Trey Johnson: My company has had the chance to work in a number of diverse decision-making environments. A couple of examples include a solution that provides tens of thousands of educators with access to the historical performance data of the students within their curriculum. Reporting Services, hosted within a SharePoint environment, provides access to data that has been acquired from multiple sources about the standardized test scores of a student population using Microsoft's extraction, transformation, and load (ETL) technologies on SQL Server. Using BI here provides the educator with visibility into the performance of teachers, their education curriculum, and the students. This provides for a far more tailored approach to the education of the next generation of our society.

Within retail organizations, we have seen Business Intelligence applied to countless disciplines within the organization. BI technologies help identify the top-performing products, address critical enhancement to an organization's supply chain, support the deep look into the behaviors of customers, and alleviate quite a bit of the reactive side of many organizations. Having this information at a decision-maker's fingertips provides for a more rigorous approach to running the business. In the retail space, this rigor often adds points to the gross profit of the organization, allowing for innovation to be more readily funded and capitalized upon.

FTPOnline: Let's assume I'm a traditional database developer. How do I start to take advantage of both BI and data mining?

Trey Johnson: First and foremost, get an introduction to the technology. Events such as VSLive!/SQL Live! offer insight into the technology from a "been there, done that" perspective. This practical experience supports leap-frogging the mundane and often low-value tasks of coming up to speed on a technology.

After that, build something! There are loads of online resources. I seem to be consumed by the blogs out there—my favorite blog is by Brian Knight, SQL Server MVP and Idea Integration BI Practice Manager. Getting started with SQL Server's Business Intelligence tools is fairly painless. There are many levels of knowledge that can be attained with the product, but attaining early success is about having practical guidance, a reasonable demonstration environment (such as the AdventureWorks sample in SQL Server 2005), and a willingness to apply the technologies to an expressed business need.

Personally, I think data mining (DM) is one of those items that's a bit down the maturity continuum for many organizations inappropriately. The ability to use heuristics of the DM algorithms to predict, group, or otherwise enrich an end user's experience with a large volume of data is a very good thing that can be used right away.

FTPOnline: You speak at a lot of conferences and user events. What areas of SQL Server do you feel need to be addressed?

Trey Johnson: That's fairly tough. SQL Server 2005 is great on so many levels. The biggest gap I see at this point in time is the venues and curriculums where people can learn about SQL Server 2005. I am on the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS) board of directors, and we've worked hard to stimulate local user groups as a vehicle for people to learn from one another.

The void I see is the limited-to-no curriculum in the market for classroom training. We've had customers take it upon themselves (or ask us to build a training curriculum) to create boot camps for SQL Server 2005 internally to get as broad a group as possible up to speed.

One other related area that could be addressed is "adoption." We see many of our customers not moving SQL Server 2005 from development to production due to internal policies and readiness of the people in those crucial supporting roles. These same customers have significant developments on all facets of SQL Server 2005. I see this void being addressed more quickly in the months ahead, but right now, people should be made ready and start moving forward, even if incrementally with the empowering capabilities of SQL Server 2005 in their environments.

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