Monday, April 14, 2008

The Bee and the Eye

A new paradigm…

Information technology is probably not the only science that has gone through some drastic improvements during the last couple of decades. Many other sciences have lifted themselves from the ground level to a much higher level where humans now find it difficult to live without them. Some new sciences have popped up from nowhere and have managed to entirely change the way humans used to look at the nature and the universe at the beginning of the last century. Some sciences have combined together to create so powerful technologies giving rise to a variety of new application domains.

Business management, technology management and human resource management are few such sciences that have really become key aspects of any organization, society or nation today. Even though these sciences are not at all strange or peculiar to the present day human beings, I seriously doubt that people who lived about 100 years back had even heard the terms. Above sciences which are sometimes collectively referred to as ‘management’ have really become absolute necessities of organizations and people than just areas of study. So many new theories and principles have emerged in these sciences which in turns have affected the way people now carry out various tasks within an organizational environment.

In the meantime information technology has always been in its usual ever developing mode discovering more and more new application domains. It is now impossible to find an area of study or a science that hasn’t been touched by information technology. Management sciences have also been vastly reshaped and reworked with the introduction of information technology. Computer has become the most widely used business tool in the world (Paul Fremantle, one of the co-founders of WSO2 believes that a laptop computer is one of the basic things one needs to have, in order to start a business) and most of the software systems developed today are targeted towards organizations to help them with their management activities. Information technology is now so tightly entwined with management sciences and that has given birth to a new area of study formally known as ‘Business Intelligence’ or in short BI.

Explaining the Bee(B) and the Eye(I) …

BI is mainly concerned with applications and technologies used to gather, provide access to and analyze data related to organizational operations. A business intelligence system of an organization is one of the most important and key factors which directly affects the organization’s decision making process. Business intelligence systems generally have powerful data processing capabilities and effective presentation methods. A business intelligence system enables the administration of an organization to make more informed, timely and accurate decisions while contributing to the organization’s competitive advantage. With a BI system the administration no longer has to depend solely on the common sense and the experience. Also risky, ad-hoc methods of problem solving and decision making can be avoided.

Talking about BI systems there are hundreds of software tools, (for different types of platforms) each optimized for one or more subtasks associated with BI. Some of these subtasks are data gathering and storing, data security, data analysis, reporting and communication. BI systems are ideally suited for handling huge amounts of data. They can generally work well with multiple databases or data warehouses. BI systems are slightly smarter than usual software systems in that they can consider a large number of parameters while analyzing data and make accurate decisions. In the industry we can see BI systems being used in three modes.

  • As a means of analyzing performance, projects and operations internal to organizations

  • As a means of data storing and analyzing

  • As a tool for managing the human side of businesses (marketing, HRM etc.)

BI has its own terminology with unique technical terms and buzzwords. Each of the above mentioned usages of BI are backed by a variety of BI systems and tools, both proprietary and open source.

OLAP Overlapped!!!

Since I have strongly emphasized on the usefulness and power of BI systems it is worth mentioning something about OLAP (On-Line Analytical Processing) as well which is a concept associated with BI. The term ‘OLAP’ is probably the most popular buzzword in the study of BI. Some common applications of OLAP are business reporting, management reporting, budgeting and forecasting. With OLAP the primary concern is to optimize databases and other related applications to support fast retrieval, analysis and reporting of data. In OLAP, databases are optimized for fast retrieval rather than efficient use of space. There are special APIs (eg: ODBO) and query languages (eg: MDX) to be used with OLAP. (In fact MDX is the de-facto standard being used with OLAP)

Here Comes Web Services…

Web services being the next ‘big thing’ in the world of IT has already begun to make an impact on BI. Web services can take BI to the next level by adding the notion of interoperability to BI systems. With Web services there is no limit to the number of data sources a BI system might use as Web services can enable the BI system to talk to remote APIs, databases and other data sources, even ones implemented using incompatible technologies. Also one can use Web services to expand the usability of a BI system by distributing the services offered by the system over the web. It is almost impossible imagine what a BI system can become when used along with Web services.

However there are some pitfalls that we should lookout for. When the services of a BI system are exposed to the external world as Web services some critical measures should be taken to enforce security and reliability of the system. Many BI system providers use various tools, protocols and technologies for this purpose (ranging from tools like LDAP to protocols like HTTPS). Also using Web services with BI systems has a significant impact on how metadata is handled by the BI system. Metadata management is one of the most influential features of a BI system. When used with Web services almost all the metadata management tasks including metadata modification and synchronization across applications should be exposed as Web services.

By combining the power of interoperability of Web services with the power of mega scale data analysis of BI systems we can create dynamic real time BI systems so that organizations can monitor events in real time and make very accurate decisions based on the most up-to-date information. All the users of such a system can be dynamically notified and kept in synchronism with the organizational activities by sending constant data feeds or periodic updates. Data gathering and reporting processes can be fully automated in this approach. Traditional BI systems are more or less batch processing systems that takes a collection of data and perform some operations on it as and when users make requests. But with Web services BI systems can constantly monitor data and related events in real time and take actions as and when a situation arises.

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