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Who Has My Personal Data?

20131129WhoHasMyData

In order to prepare for the cooking gauntlet that often occurs with the end of year holiday season, I decided to purchase a new rotisserie oven.  The folks at Acme Rotisserie include a large amount of documentation with their rotisserie. I reviewed the entire pile and was a bit surprised by the warranty registration card. The initial few questions made sense: serial number, place of purchase, date of purchase, my home address.  The other questions struck me as a bit too inquisitive: number of household occupants, household income, own/rent my residence, marital status, and education level. Obviously, this card was a Trojan horse of sorts; provide registration details –and all kinds of other personal information.  They wanted me to give away my personal information so they could analyze it, sell it, and make money off of it.

Companies collecting and analyzing consumer data isn’t anything new –it’s been going on for decades.  In fact, there are laws in place to protect consumer’s data in quite a few industries (healthcare, telecommunications, and financial services). Most of the laws focus on protecting the information that companies collect based on their relationship with you.  It’s not the just details that you provide to them directly; it’s the information that they gather about how you behave and what you purchase.  Most folks believe behavioral information is more valuable than the personal descriptive information you provide.  The reason is simple: you can offer creative (and highly inaccurate) details about your income, your education level, and the car you drive.  You can’t really lie about your behavior.

I’m a big fan of sharing my information if it can save me time, save me money, or generate some sort of benefit. I’m willing to share my waist size, shirt size, and color preferences with my personal shopper because I know they’ll contact me when suits or other clothing that I like is available at a good price.  I’m fine with a grocer tracking my purchases because they’ll offer me personalized coupons for those products.  I’m not okay with the grocer selling that information to my health insurer.  Providing my information to a company to enhance our relationship is fine; providing my information to a company so they can share, sell, or otherwise unilaterally benefit from it is not fine.  My data is proprietary and my intellectual property.

Clearly companies view consumer data to be a highly valuable asset.  Unfortunately, we’ve created a situation where there’s little or no cost to retain, use, or abuse that information. As abuse and problems have occurred within certain industries (financial services, healthcare, and others), we’ve created legislation to force companies to responsibly invest in the management and protection of that information. They have to contact you to let you know they have your information and allow you to update communications and marketing options. It’s too bad that every company with your personal information isn’t required to behave in the same way.  If data is so valuable that a company retains it, requiring some level of maintenance (and responsibility) shouldn’t be a big deal.

It’s really too bad that companies with copies of my personal information aren’t required to contact me to update and confirm the accuracy of all of my personal details. That would ensure that all of the specialized big data analytics that are being used to improve my purchase experiences were accurate. If I knew who had my data, I could make sure that my preferences were up to date and that the data was actually accurate.

It’s unfortunate that Acme Rotisserie isn’t required to contact me to confirm that I have 14 children, an advanced degree in swimming pool construction, and that I have Red Ferrari in my garage. It will certainly be interesting to see the personalized offers I receive for the upcoming Christmas shopping season.

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Hadoop Replacing Data Warehouse Processing

20131126HadoopReplacingDW-SnakeOilSalesMan

I was recently asked about my opinion for the potential of Hadoop replacing a company’s data warehouse (DW).  While there’s lots to be excited about when it comes to Hadoop, I’m not currently in the camp of folks that believe it’s practical to use Hadoop to replace a company’s DW.  Most corporate DW systems are based on commercial relational database products and can store and manage multiple terabytes of data and support hundreds (if not thousands) of concurrent users.  It’s fairly common for these systems to handle complex, mixed workloads –queries processing billions of rows across numerous tables along with simple primary key retrieval requests all while continually loading data.  The challenge today is that Hadoop simply isn’t ready for this level of complexity.

All that being said,  I do believe there’s a huge opportunity to use Hadoop to replace a significant amount of processing that is currently being handled by most DWs.  Oh, and data warehouse user won’t be affected at all.

Let’s review a few fundamental details about the DW. There’s two basic data processing activities that occur on a DW: query processing and transformation processing. Query processing is servicing the SQL that’s submitted from all of the tools and applications on the users’ desktops, tablets, and phones.  Transformation processing is the workload involved with converting data from their source application formats to the format required by the data warehouse. While the most visible activity to business users is query processing, it is typically the smaller of the two.  Extracting and transforming the dozens (or hundreds) of source data files for the DW is a huge processing activity.  In fact, most DWs are not sized for query processing; they are sized for the daily transformation processing effort.

It’s important to realize that one of the most critical service level agreements (SLAs) of a DW is data delivery.  Business users want their data first thing each morning.  That means the DW has to be sized to deliver data reliably each and every business morning.  Since most platforms are anticipated to have a 3+ year life expectancy, IT has to size the DW system based on the worst case data volume scenario for that entire period (end of quarter, end of year, holidays, etc.) This means the DW is sized to address a maximum load that may only occur a few times during that entire period.

This is where the opportunity for Hadoop seems pretty obvious. Hadoop is a parallel, scalable framework that handles distributed batch processing and large data volumes. It’s really a set of tools and technologies for developers, not end users.  This is probably why so many ETL (extract, transformation, and load) product vendors have ported their products to execute within a Hadoop environment.  It only makes sense to migrate processing from a specialized platform to commodity hardware. Why bog down and over invest in your DW platform if you can handle the heavy lifting of transformation processing on a less expensive platform?

Introducing a new system to your DW environment will inevitably create new work for your DW architects and developers. However, the benefits are likely to be significant.  While some might view such an endeavor as a creative way to justify purchasing new hardware and installing Hadoop, the real reason is to extend the life of the data warehouse (and save your company a bunch of money by deferring a DW upgrade)

My Dog Ate the Requirements, Part 2

DogAteRequirements2

There’s nothing more frustrating than not being able to rely upon a business partner.  There’s lots of business books about information technology that espouses the importance of Business/IT alignment and the importance of establishing business users as IT stakeholders. The whole idea of delivering business value with data and analytics is to provide business users with tools and data that can support business decision making.  It’s incredibly hard to deliver business value when half of the partnership isn’t stepping up to their responsibilities.

There’s never a shortage of rationale as to why requirements haven’t been collected or recorded.  In order for a relationship to be successful, both parties have to participate and cooperate.  Gathering and recording requirements isn’t possible if the technologist doesn’t meet with the users to discuss their needs, pains, and priorities.  Conversely, the requirements process won’t succeed if the users won’t participate. My last blog reviewed the excuses that technologists offered for explaining the lack of documented requirements; this week’s blog focuses on remarks I’ve heard from business stakeholders.

  • “I’m too busy.  I don’t have time to talk to developers”
  • “I meet with IT every month, they should know my requirements”
  • “IT isn’t asking me for requirements, they want me to approve SQL”
  • “We sent an email with a list of questions. What else do they need?”
  • “They have copies of reports we create. That should be enough.”
  • “The IT staff has worked here longer than I have.  There’s nothing I can tell them that they don’t already know”
  • “I’ve discussed my reporting needs in 3 separate meetings; I seem to be educating someone else with each successive discussion”
  • “I seem to answer a lot of questions.  I don’t ever see anyone writing anything down”
  • “I’ll meet with them again when they deliver the requirements I identified in our last discussion.
  • “I’m not going to sign off on the requirements because my business priorities might change – and I’ll need to change the requirements.

Requirements gathering is really a beginning stage for negotiating a contract for the creation and delivery of new software.  The contract is closed (or agreed to) when the business stakeholders agree to (or sign-off on) the requirements document.  While many believe that requirements are an IT-only artifact, they’re really a tool to establish responsibilities of both parties in the relationship.

A requirements document defines the data, functions, and capabilities that the technologist needs to build to deliver business value.  The requirements document also establishes the “product” that will be deployed and used by the business stakeholders to support their business decision making activities. The requirements process holds both parties accountable: technologists to build and business stakeholders to use. When two organizations can’t work together to develop requirements, it’s often a reflection of a bigger problem.

It’s not fair for business stakeholders to expect development teams to build commercial grade software if there’s no participation in the requirements process.  By the same token, it’s not right for technologists to build software without business stakeholder participation. If one stakeholder doesn’t want to participate in the requirements process, they shouldn’t be allowed to offer an opinion about the resulting deliverable.  If multiple stakeholders don’t want to participate in a requirements activity, the development process should be cancelled.  Lack of business stakeholder participation means they have other priorities; the technologists should take a hint and work on their other priorities.

My Dog Ate the Requirements

20131016DogAteMyHomework

I received a funny email the other day about excuses that school children use to explain why they haven’t done their homework.  The examples were pretty creative:  “my mother took it to be framed”, “I got soap in my eyes and was blinded all night”, and (an oldie and a goody) –“my dog ate my homework”.  It’s a shame that such a creative approach yielded such a high rate of failure. Most of us learn at an early age that you can’t talk your way out of failure; success requires that you do the work.  You’d also think that as people got older and more evolved, they’d realize that there’s very few shortcuts in life.

I’m frequently asked to conduct best practice reviews of business intelligence and data warehouse (BI/DW) projects. These activities usually come about because either users or IT management is concerned with development productivity or delivery quality. The review activity is pretty straight forward; interviews are scheduled and artifacts are analyzed to review the various phases, from requirements through construction to deployment. It’s always interesting to look at how different organizations handle architecture, code design, development, and testing.  One of the keys to conducting a review effort is to focus on the actual results (or artifacts) that are generated during each stage. It’s foolish to discuss someone’s development method or style prior to reviewing the completeness of the artifacts. It’s not necessary to challenge someone approach if their artifacts reflect the details required for the other phases.

And one of the most common problems that I’ve seen with BI/DW development is the lack of documented requirements. Zip – zero –zilch – nothing.  While discussions about requirements gathering, interview styles, and even document details occur occasionally, it’s the lack of any documented requirements that’s the norm.   I can’t imagine how any company allows development to begin without ensuring that requirements are documented and approved by the stakeholders.  Believe it or not, it happens a lot.

So, as a tribute to the creative school children of yesterday and today, I thought I would devote this blog to some of the most creative excuses I’ve heard from development teams to justify their beginning work without having requirements documentation.

  •  “The project’s schedule was published. We have to deliver something with or without requirements”
  • “We use the agile methodology, it’s doesn’t require written requirements”
  • “The users don’t know what they want.”
  • “The users are always too busy to meet with us”
  • “My bonus is based on the number of new reports I create.  We don’t measure our code against requirements”
  • “We know what the users want, we just haven’t written it down”
  • “We’ll document the requirements once our code is complete and testing finished”
  • “We can spend our time writing requirements, or we can spend our time coding”
  • “It’s not our responsibility to document requirements; the users need to handle that”
  • “I’ve been told not to communicate with the business users”

Many of the above items clearly reflect a broken set of management or communication methods. Expecting a development team to adhere to a project schedule when they don’t have requirements is ridiculous.  Forcing a team to commit to deliverables without requirements challenges conventional development methods and financial common sense. It also reflects leadership that focuses on schedules, utilization and not business value.

A development team that is asked to build software without a set of requirements is being set up to fail. I’m always astonished that anyone would think they can argue and justify that the lack of documented requirements is acceptable.  I guess there are still some folks that believe they can talk their way out of failure.

 

 

Data Quality, Data Maintenance

20121009 DataMaintenance

I read an interesting tidbit about data the other day:  the United States Postal Service processed more than 47 million changes of addresses in the last year.  That’s nearly 1 in 6 people. In the world of data, that factoid is a simple example of the challenge of addressing stale data and data quality.  The idea of stale data is that as data ages, its accuracy and associated business rules can change.

There’s lots of examples of how data in your data warehouse can age and degrade in accuracy and quality:  people move, area codes change, postal/zip codes change, product descriptions change, and even product SKUs can change.  Data isn’t clean and accurate forever; it requires constant review and maintenance. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise for folks that view data as a corporate asset; any asset requires ongoing maintenance in order to retain and ensure its value.  The challenge with maintaining any asset is establishing a reasonable maintenance plan.

Unfortunately, while IT teams are exceptionally strong in planning and carrying out application maintenance, it’s quite rare that data maintenance gets any attention.  In the data warehousing world, data maintenance is typically handled in a reactive, project-centric manner.  Nearly every data warehouse (or reporting) team has to deal with data maintenance issues whenever a company changes major business processes or modifies customer or product groupings (e.g. new sales territories, new product categories, etc.)  This happens so often, most data warehouse folks have even given it a name:  Recasting History.   Regardless of what you call it, it’s a common occurrence and there are steps that can be taken to simplify the ongoing effort of data maintenance.

  • Establish a regularly scheduled data maintenance window.  Just like the application maintenance world, identify a window of time when data maintenance can be applied without impacting application processing or end user access
  • Collect and publish data quality details.  Profile and track the content of the major subject area tables within your data warehouse environment. Any significant shift in domain values, relationship details, or data demographics can be discovered prior to a user calling to report an undetected data problem
  • Keep the original data.  Most data quality processing overwrites original content with new details.  Instead, keep the cleansed data and place the original values at the end of your table records. While this may require a bit more storage, it will dramatically simplify maintenance when rule changes occur in the future
  • Add source system identification and creation date/time details to every record.  While this may seem tedious and unnecessary, these two fields can dramatically simplify maintenance and trouble shooting in the future
  • Schedule a regular data change control meeting.  This too is similar in concept to the change control meeting associated with IT operations teams.  This is a forum for discussing data content issues and changes

Unfortunately, I often find that data maintenance is completely ignored. The problem is that fixing broken or inaccurate data isn’t sexy; developing a data maintenance plan isn’t always fun.   Most data warehouse development teams are buried with building new reports, loading new data, or supporting the ongoing ETL jobs; they haven’t given any attention to the quality or accuracy of the actual content they’re moving and reporting.   They simply don’t have the resources or time to address data maintenance as a proactive activity.

Business users clamor for new data and new reports; new funding is always tied to new business capabilities.  Support costs are budgeted, but they’re focused on software and hardware maintenance activities.  No one ever considers data maintenance; it’s simply ignored and forgotten.

Interesting that we view data as a corporate asset – a strategic corporate asset – and there’s universal agreement that hardware and software are simply tools to support enablement.  And where are we investing in maintenance?  The commodity tools, not the strategic corporate asset.

Photo courtesy of DesignzillasFlickr via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

Advanced Data Virtualization Capabilities

20130925 AdvancedDV

In one of my previous blogs, I wrote about Data Virtualization technology — one of the more interesting pieces of middleware technology that can simplify data management.   While most of the commercial products in this space share a common set of features and functions, I thought I’d devote this blog to discussing the more advanced features.  There are quite a few competing products; the real challenge in differentiating the products is to understand their more advanced features.

The attraction of data virtualization is that it simplifies data access.  Most IT shops have one of everything – and this includes several different brands of commercial DBMSs, a few open source databases, a slew of BI/reporting tools, and the inevitable list of emerging and specialized tools and technologies (Hadoop, Dremel, Casandra, etc.) Supporting all of the client-to-server-to-repository interfaces (and the associated configurations) is both complex and time consuming.  This is why the advanced capabilities of Data Virtualization have become so valuable to the IT world.

The following details aren’t arranged in any particular order.  I’ve identified the ones that I’ve found to be the most valuable (and interesting).  Let me also acknowledge not every DV product supports all of these features.

Intelligent data caching.  Repository-to-DV Server data movement is the biggest obstacle in query response time.  Most DV products are able to support static caching to reduce repetitive data movement (data is copied and persisted in the DV Server).  Unfortunately, this approach has limited success when there are ad hoc users accessing dozens of sources and thousands of tables.  The more effective solution is for the DV Server to monitor all queries and dynamically cache data based on user access, query load, and table (and data) access frequency.

Query optimization (w/multi-platform execution). While all DV products claim some amount of query optimization, it’s important to know the details. There are lots of tricks and techniques; however, look for optimization that understands source data volumes, data distribution, data movement latency, and is able to process data on any source platform.

Support for multiple client Interfaces.  Since most companies have multiple database products, it can be cumbersome to support and maintain multiple client access configurations.  The DV server can act as a single access point for multiple vendor products (a single ODBC interface can replace drivers for each DBMS brand).  Additionally, most DV Server drivers support multiple different access methods (ODBC, JDBC, XML, and web services).

Attribute level or value specific data security.  This feature supports data security at a much lower granularity than is typically available with most DBMS products.  Data can be protected (or restricted) at individual column values for entire table or selective rows.

Metadata tracking and management.  Since Data Virtualization is a query-centric middleware environment, it only makes sense to position this server to retrieve, reconcile, and store metadata content from multiple, disparate data repositories.

Data lineage. This item works in tandem with the metadata capability and augments the information by retaining the source details for all data that is retrieved.  This not only includes source id information for individual records but also the origin, creation date, and native attribute details.

Query tracking for usage audit. Because the DV Server can act as a centralized access point for user tool access, there are several DV products that support the capture and tracking of all submitted queries.  This can be used to track, measure, and analyze end user (or repository) access.

Workflow linkage and processing.  This is the ability to execute predefined logic against specific data that is retrieved. While this concept is similar to a macro or stored procedure, it’s much more sophisticated.  It could include the ability to direct job control or specialized processing against an answer set prior to delivery (e.g. data hygiene, external access control, stewardship approval, etc.)

Packaged Application Templates.  Most packaged applications (CRM, ERP, etc.) contain thousands of tables and columns that can be very difficult to understand and query.  Several DV vendors have developed templates containing predefined DV server views that access the most commonly queried data elements.

Setup and Configuration Wizards. Configuring a DV server to access the multiple data sources can be a very time consuming exercise; the administrator needs to define and configure every source repository, the underlying tables (or files), along with the individual data fields.  To simplify setup, a configuration wizard reviews the dictionary of an available data source and generates the necessary DV Server configuration details. It further analyzes the table and column names to simplify naming conventions, joins, and data value conversion and standardization details.

Don’t be misled into thinking that Data Virtualization is a highly mature product space where all of the products are nearly identical.  They aren’t.  Most product vendors spend more time discussing their unique features instead of offering metrics about their their core features.  It’s important to remember that every Data Virtualization product requires a server that retrieves and processes data to fulfill query requests. This technology is not a commodity, which means that details like setup/configuration time, query performance, and advanced features can vary dramatically across products.  Benchmark and test drive the technology before buying.

The Misunderstanding of Master Data Management

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Not long ago, I was asked to review a client’s program initiative that was focused on constructing a new customer repository that would establish a single version of truth.  The client was very excited about using Master Data Management (MDM) to deliver their new customer view.  The problem statement was well thought out: their customer data is spread across 11 different systems; users and developers retrieve data from different sources; reports reflect conflicting details; and an enormous amount of manual effort is required to manage the data.  The project’s benefits were also well thought out:  increased data quality, improved reporting accuracy, and improved end user data access.    And, (as you can probably imagine), the crowning objective of the project was going to be creating a Single View of the Customer.  The program’s stakeholders had done a good job of communicating the details:  they reviewed the existing business challenges, identified the goals and objectives, and even provided a summary of high-level requirements.  They were going to house all of their customer data on an MDM hub.  There was only one problem:  they needed a customer data mart, not an MDM hub.  

I hate the idea of discussing technical terms and details with either business or IT staff.  It gets particularly uncomfortable when someone was misinformed about a new technology (and this happens all the time when vendors roll out new products to their sales force).  I won’t count the number of times that I’ve seen projects implemented with the wrong technology, because the organization wanted to get a copy of the latest and greatest technical toy.  A few of my colleagues and I used to call this the “bright shiny project syndrome”.   While it’s perfectly acceptable to acquire a new technology to solve a problem, it can be a very expensive to purchase a technology and force fit a solution that it doesn’t easily address.

It’s frequent that folks confuse the function and purpose of Master Data Management with Data Warehousing.  I suspect the core of the problem is that when folks hear about the idea of “reference data” or a “golden record”, they have this mental picture of a single platform containing all of the data.  While I can’t argue with the benefit of having all the data in one place (data warehousing has been around for more than 20 years), that’s not what MDM is about.   Data Warehousing became popular because of its success in storing a company’s historical data to support cross-functional (multi-subject area) analysis.   MDM is different; it’s focused on reconciling and tracking a single subject area’s reference data across the multitude of systems that create that data.  Some examples of a subject area include customer, product, and location.

If you look at the single biggest obstacle in data integration, it’s dealing with all of the complexity of merging data from different systems.  It’s fairly common for different application systems to use different reference data (The CRM system, the Sales system, and the Billing system each use different values to identify a single customer). The only way to link data from these different systems is to compare the reference data (names, addresses, phone numbers, etc.) from each system with the hope that there are enough identical values in each to support the match.   The problem with this approach is that it simply doesn’t work when a single individual may have multiple name variations, multiple addresses, and multiple phone numbers.  The only reasonable solution is the use of advanced algorithms that are specially designed to support the processing and matching of specific subject area details.  That’s the secret sauce of MDM – and that’s what’s contained within a commercial MDM product.  

The MDM hub not only contains master records (the details identifying each individual subject area entry), it also contains a cross reference list of each individual subject area entry along with the linkage details to every other application system.  And, it’s continually updated as the values change within each individual system.  The idea is that an MDM hub is a high performance, transactional system focused on matching and reconciling subject area reference data.  While we’ve illustrated how this capability simplifies data warehouse development, this transactional capability also enables individual application systems to move and integrate data between transactional systems more efficiently too. 

The enormous breadth and depth of corporate data makes it impractical to store all of our data within a single system.  It’s become common practice to prune and trim the contents of our data warehouses to limit the breadth and history of data.   If you consider recent advances with big data, cloud computing, and SaaS, it becomes even more apparent that storing all of a company’s subject area data in a single place isn’t practical.  That’s one of the reasons that most companies have numerous data marts and operational applications integrating and loading their own data to support their highly diverse and unique business needs.  An MDM hub is focused on tracking specific subject area details across multiple systems to allow anyone to find, gather, and integrate the data they need from any system.

I recently crossed paths with the above mentioned client.  Their project was wildly successful – they ended up deploying both an MDM hub and a customer data mart to address their needs.  They mentioned that one of the “aha” moments that occurred during our conversation was when they realized that they needed to refocus everyone’s attention towards the business value and benefits of the project instead of the details and functions of MDM. While I was thrilled with their program’s success,  I was even more excited to learn that someone was finally able to compete against the “bright shiny project syndrome” and win. 

Photo “Dirt Pile 2” courtesy of CoolValley via Flickr (Creative Commons license).

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