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Chapter 12 - Data Warehousing Framework

Making better business decisions quickly is the key to succeeding in today's competitive marketplace. Organizations seeking to improve their decision-making ability can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and complexity of data available from their varied operational and production systems. In response to this challenge, many organizations choose to build a data warehouse to unlock the information in their operational systems.

What is Data Warehousing?

A data warehouse is an integrated store of information collected from other systems that becomes the foundation for decision support and data analysis. Although there are many types of data warehouses, based on different design methodologies and philosophical approaches, they all have these common traits:

  • Information is organized around the major subjects of the enterprise (for example, customers, products, sales, or vendors), reflecting a data-driven design. 

  • Raw data is gathered from nonintegrated operational and legacy applications, cleansed, and then summarized and presented in a way that makes sense to end users. 

  • Based on feedback from end users and discoveries in the data warehouse, the data warehouse architecture will change over time, reflecting the iterative nature of the process. 

The data warehousing process is inherently complex and, as a result, is costly and time-consuming. Over the past several years, Microsoft has been working within the software industry to create a data warehousing platform that consists of both component technology and leading products that can be used to lower the costs and improve the effectiveness of data warehouse creation, administration, and usage. Microsoft also has been developing a number of products and facilities, such as Microsoft SQL Server version 7.0, that are well suited to the data warehousing process. Coupled with third-party products that can be integrated using the Microsoft Data Warehousing Framework, customers have a large selection of interoperable, best-of-breed products from which to choose for their data warehousing needs.

SQL Server 7.0 offers broad functionality in support of the data warehousing process. In conjunction with the Data Warehousing Framework, Microsoft plans to deliver a platform for data warehousing that helps reduce costs and complexity, and improves effectiveness of data warehousing efforts.

Data Warehousing Process

From the information technology perspective, data warehousing is aimed at the timely delivery of the right information to the right individuals in an organization. This is an ongoing process, not a one-time solution, and requires an approach different from that required in the development of transaction-oriented systems.

A data warehouse is a collection of data in support of management's decision-making process that is subject-oriented, integrated, time-variant, and nonvolatile. The data warehouse is focused on the concept (for example, sales) rather than the process (for example, issuing invoices). It contains all the relevant information on a concept gathered from multiple processing systems. This information is collected and stored at regular intervals and is relatively stable.

A data warehouse integrates operational data by using consistent naming conventions, measurements, physical attributes, and semantics. The first steps in the physical design of the data warehouse are determining which subject areas should be included and developing a set of agreed-upon definitions. This requires interviewing end users, analysts, and executives to understand and document the scope of the information requirements. The issues must be thoroughly understood before the logical process can be translated into a physical data warehouse.

Following the physical design, operational systems are put in place to populate the data warehouse. Because the operational systems and the data warehouse contain different representations of the data, populating the data warehouse requires transformations of the data: summarizing, translating, decoding, eliminating invalid data, and so on. These processes need to be automated so that they can be performed on an ongoing basis: extracting, transforming, and moving the source data as often as needed to meet the business requirements of the data warehouse.

In the operational system, data is current-valued and accurate as of the moment of access. For example, an order entry application always shows the current value of inventory on hand for each product. This value could differ between two queries issued only moments apart. In the data warehouse, data represents information gathered over a long period, and is accurate as of a particular point in time. In effect, the data warehouse contains a long series of snapshots about the key subject areas of the business.

Finally, information is made available for browsing, analyzing, and reporting. Many tools assist in analysis, from simple report writers to advanced data miners. Ultimately, analysis drives the final iterations of the data warehousing process, causing revisions in the design of the data warehouse to accommodate new information, improve system performance, or allow new types of analysis. With these changes, the process restarts and continues throughout the life of the data warehouse.

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Data Warehousing Architecture

Many methodologies have been proposed to simplify the information technology efforts required to support the data warehousing process on an ongoing basis. This has led to debates about the best architecture for delivering data warehouses in organizations.

Two basic types of data warehouse architecture exist: enterprise data warehouses and data marts.

The enterprise data warehouse contains enterprise-wide information integrated from multiple operational data sources for consolidated data analysis. Typically, it is composed of several subject areas, such as customers, products, and sales, and is used for both tactical and strategic decision making. The enterprise data warehouse contains both detailed point-in-time data and summarized information, and can range in size from 50 gigabytes (GB) to more than 1 terabyte. Enterprise data warehouses can be very expensive and time-consuming to build and manage. They are usually created from the top down by centralized information services organizations.

The data mart contains a subset of enterprise-wide data that is built for use by an individual department or division in an organization. Unlike the enterprise data warehouse, the data mart is usually built from the bottom up by departmental resources for a specific decision-support application or group of users. Data marts contain summarized and often detailed data about a subject area. The information in the data mart can be a subset of an enterprise data warehouse (dependent data mart) or can come directly from the operational data sources (independent data mart).

Enterprise data warehouses and data marts are constructed and maintained through the same iterative process described earlier. Furthermore, both approaches share a similar set of technological components.

Data Warehousing Components

A data warehouse always consists of a number of components, including:

  • Operational data sources. 

  • Design/development tools. 

  • Data extraction and transformation tools. 

  • Database management system (DBMS). 

  • Data access and analysis tools.

  • System management tools. 

Several years ago, Microsoft recognized the need for a set of technologies that would integrate these components. This led to the creation of the Microsoft Data Warehousing Framework, a roadmap not only for the development of Microsoft products such as SQL Server 7.0, but also for the technologies necessary to integrate products from other vendors.

Microsoft Data Warehousing Framework

The goal of the Microsoft Data Warehousing Framework is to simplify the design, implementation, and management of data warehousing solutions. This framework has been designed to provide:

  • Open architecture that is easily integrated with and extended by third-party vendors. 

  • Heterogeneous data import, export, validation, and cleansing services with optional data lineage. 

  • Integrated metadata for data warehouse design, data extraction/transformation, server management, and end-user analysis tools. 

  • Core management services for scheduling, storage management, performance monitoring, alerts/events, and notification. 

The Data Warehousing Framework has been designed from the ground up to provide an open architecture that can be extended easily by Microsoft customers and third-party businesses using industry-standard technology. This allows organizations to choose best-of-breed components and still be assured of integration.

Ease of use is a compelling reason for customers and independent software vendors (ISVs) to choose the Data Warehousing Framework. Microsoft provides an object-oriented set of components designed to manage information in the distributed environment. Microsoft also provides both entry-level and best-of-breed products to address the many steps in the data warehousing process.

Data Warehousing Framework Components

Building the data warehouse requires a set of components for describing the logical and physical design of the data sources and their destinations in the enterprise data warehouse or data mart.

To conform to definitions laid out during the design stage, operational data must pass through a cleansing and transformation stage before being placed in the enterprise data warehouse or data mart. This data staging process can be many levels deep, especially with enterprise data warehousing architectures, but is necessarily simplified in this illustration.

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End-user tools, including desktop productivity products, specialized analysis products, and custom programs, are used to gain access to information in the data warehouse. Ideally, user access is through a directory facility that enables end-user searches for appropriate and relevant data to resolve questions and that provides a layer of security between the end users and the data warehouse systems.

Finally, a variety of components can come into play for the management of the data warehousing environment, such as for scheduling repeated tasks and managing multiserver networks.

The Data Warehousing Framework describes the relationships between the various components used in the process of building, using, and managing a data warehouse. Two enabling technologies comprise the core Data Warehousing Framework: the integrated metadata repository and the data transport layer (OLE DB). These technologies make possible the interoperability of many products and components involved in data warehousing.

OLE DB provides for standardized, high-performance access to a wide variety of data, and allows for integration of multiple data types.

Microsoft Repository provides an integrated metadata repository that is shared by the various components used in the data warehousing process. Shared metadata allows for the transparent integration of multiple products from a variety of vendors, without the need for specialized interfaces between each of the products:

  • Mainframe indexed sequential access method/virtual storage access method (ISAM/VSAM) and hierarchical databases 

  • E-mail and file system stores 

  • Text, graphical, and geographical data 

  • Custom business objects 

OLE DB defines a collection of COM interfaces that encapsulates various database management system services. These interfaces enable the creation of software components that implement such services. OLE DB components consist of data providers (which contain and expose data), data consumers (which use data), and service components (which process and transport data).

OLE DB interfaces are designed to integrate components smoothly so that vendors can bring high-quality OLE DB components to the market quickly. In addition, OLE DB includes a bridge to ODBC that enables continued support for the broad range of ODBC relational database drivers available today.

Defining ActiveX Data Objects

Microsoft ActiveX Data Objects (ADO) is a strategic application-level programming interface to data and information. ADO provides consistent, high-performance access to data and supports a variety of development needs, including creating front-end database clients and middle-tier business objects, and using applications, tools, languages, or Internet browsers. ADO is designed to be a data interface for one-to-multitier, client/server, and Web-based solution development.

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ADO provides an easy-to-use application-level interface to OLE DB, which in turn provides underlying access to data. ADO is implemented with a small footprint, minimal network traffic in key scenarios, and minimal layers between the front end and data source. The result is a lightweight, high-performance interface. ADO is called using the COM automation interface, a familiar metaphor available from all leading rapid application development (RAD) environments, database tools, and languages on the market today. And because ADO was designed to combine the best features of Remote Data Object (RDO) and Data Access Object (DAO), and eventually to replace them, ADO uses similar conventions with simplified semantics, making it a natural next step for today's developers.

Microsoft Repository: The Glue that Binds the Data Warehouse

One of the greatest implementation challenges is integrating all of the tools required to design, transform, store, and manage a data warehouse. The ability to share and reuse metadata reduces the cost and complexity of building, using, and managing data warehouses. Many data warehousing products include a proprietary metadata repository that cannot be used by any other components in the data warehouse. Each tool must be able to access, create, or enhance the metadata created by any other tool easily, while also extending the metadata model to meet the specific needs of the tool.

Consider the example of a data warehouse built with shared metadata. Metadata from operational systems is stored in the repository by design and data transformation tools. This physical and logical model is used by transformation products to extract, validate, and cleanse the data prior to loading it into the database. The database management system may be relational, multidimensional, or a combination of both. The data-access and data-analysis tools provide access to the information in the data warehouse. The information directory integrates the technical and business metadata, making it easy to find and launch existing queries, reports, and applications for the data warehouse.

The Microsoft Data Warehousing Framework is centered upon shared metadata in Microsoft Repository, which is a component of Microsoft SQL Server 7.0. Microsoft Repository is a database that stores descriptive information about software components and their relationships. It consists of an open information model (OIM) and a set of published COM interfaces.

OIMs are object models for specific types of information and are flexible enough to support new information types as well as extensible enough to fit the needs of specific users or vendors. Microsoft has developed OIMs in collaboration with the software industry for database schema, data transformations, and online analytical processing (OLAP). Future models may include replication, task scheduling, semantic models, and an information directory that combines business and technical metadata.

The Meta Data Coalition, an industry consortium of 53 vendors dedicated to fostering a standard means for vendors to exchange metadata, has announced support for Microsoft Repository, and Microsoft Repository OIMs have received broad third-party support.

Designing the Data Warehouse

The development phase of the data warehousing process often begins with the creation of a dimensional model that describes the important metrics and dimensions of the selected subject area based on user requirements. Unlike online transaction processing (OLTP) systems that organize data in a highly normalized manner, the data in the data warehouse is organized in a highly denormalized manner to improve query performance when stored in a relational database management system.

Relational databases often use star or snowflake schemas to provide the fastest possible response times to complex queries. Star schemas contain a denormalized central fact table for the subject area and multiple dimension tables for descriptive information about the subject's dimensions. The fact table can contain many millions of rows. Commonly accessed information is often preaggregated and summarized to further improve performance.

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Although the star schema is primarily considered a tool for the database administrator to increase performance and simplify data warehouse design, it also represents data warehouse information in a way that makes better sense to end users.

The Data Warehouse Database

At the heart of the data warehouse is the database. It is crucial to build the data warehouse on a high-performance database engine that will meet both current and future needs of the organization. Relational database management systems (RDBMS) are the most common reservoirs for the large volumes of information stored in data warehouses. Increasingly, relational systems are being augmented with multidimensional OLAP (MOLAP) servers that provide enhanced navigational capabilities and increased performance for complex queries. Also important are facilities for replicating databases reliably from central data warehouses to dependent data marts, and ensuring consistency between mirrored data marts distributed geographically.

Scalable and Robust RDBMS

Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 contains a number of features that makes it an excellent RDBMS for enterprise data warehouses and data marts, including:

  • Support for terabyte-sized databases to manage the largest data warehouses.

  • Scalability for large databases, but also for departmental servers and laptop computers with the 100 percent code-compatible Desktop Edition, providing the ultimate flexibility and access to central data sources.

  • Advanced query processing to support the optimization and execution of complex queries typical in data warehouse applications, including star schemas.

  • Intraquery parallelism to provide faster performance by breaking a complex single query into component parts and distributing the workload to multiple processors, including remotely linked servers.

  • High-performance utilities to provide performance tuning, data loading, and index construction.

  • Heterogeneous join capabilities to enable retrieval and consolidation of information from any OLE DB source. 

SQL Server 7.0 is appropriate for nearly every data warehouse size and complexity. However, data warehouse implementations usually require more than one central database. In practice, organizations will implement decision support systems with additional analytical tools and with distributed information architectures. SQL Server 7.0 includes essential facilities for managing these additional tasks.

Integrated OLAP Analytical Capabilities

OLAP is an increasingly popular technology that can dramatically improve business analysis. Historically, OLAP has been characterized by expensive tools, difficult implementation, and inflexible deployment. Microsoft SQL Server OLAP Services is a new, fully featured OLAP capability provided as a component of SQL Server 7.0. OLAP Services includes a middle-tier server that allows users to perform sophisticated analysis on large volumes of data with exceptional results. OLAP Services also includes a client-side cache and calculation engine called Microsoft PivotTable Service, which helps improve performance and reduce network traffic. PivotTable Service allows end users to conduct analyses while disconnected from the network.

OLAP Services is a middle-tier OLAP server that simplifies user navigation and helps improve performance for queries against information in the data warehouse.

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OLAP is a key component of data warehousing, and OLAP Services provides essential functionality for a wide array of applications ranging from reporting to advanced decision support. OLAP functionality within SQL Server 7.0 helps make multidimensional analysis much more affordable and bring the benefits of OLAP to a wider audience, from smaller organizations to groups and individuals within larger corporations. Coupled with the wide variety of tools and applications supporting OLAP applications through Microsoft OLE DB for OLAP, OLAP Services helps increase the number of organizations that have access to sophisticated analytical tools and can help reduce the costs of data warehousing.

For more information about Microsoft SQL Server OLAP Services, see SQL Server Books Online.

Replication

Creating distributed, dependent data marts from a central data warehouse, or even duplicating the contents of an independent data mart, requires the ability to replicate information reliably. SQL Server 7.0 includes facilities for reliably distributing information from a central publishing data warehouse to multiple subscribing data marts. Information can be partitioned by time, geography, and so on as part of the replication process.

SQL Server 7.0 provides a variety of replication technologies that can be tailored to your application's specific requirements. Each replication technology produces different benefits and restrictions across these dimensions:

  • Transactional consistency

  • Site autonomy

  • Data partitioning

Requirements along and across these three dimensions vary from one distributed application to the next.

In most decision-support applications, data is not updated at individual sites. Instead, information is prepared at a central staging area and pushed to distributed database servers for remote access. For this reason, snapshot replication is often used to distribute data.

As its name implies, snapshot replication takes a picture, or snapshot, of the published data in the database at one moment in time. Instead of copying INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements (characteristic of transactional replication) or data modifications (characteristic of merge replication), Subscribers are updated by a total refresh of the data set. Hence, snapshot replication sends all the data to the Subscriber instead of sending the changes only. If the information being sent is extremely large, it can require substantial network resources to transmit. In deciding if snapshot replication is appropriate, you must balance the size of the entire data set against the volatility of the data.

Snapshot replication is the simplest type of replication, and it guarantees latent consistency between the Publisher and Subscriber. It also provides high autonomy if Subscribers do not update the data. Snapshot replication is a good solution for read-only Subscribers that do not require the most recent data and can be totally disconnected from the network when updates are not occurring. However, SQL Server provides a full range of choices for replication depending on application requirements.

For more information about replication in SQL Server 7.0, see SQL Server Books Online.

Importing, Exporting, and Transforming Data

Before the data can be loaded into the data warehouse, it must first be transformed into an integrated and consistent format. A transformation is a sequence of procedural operations that is applied to the information in a data source before it can be stored in the specified destination. Data Transformation Services (DTS) is a new facility in Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 that supports many types of transformations, such as simple column mappings, calculation of new values from one or more source fields, decomposition of a single field into multiple destination columns, and so on.

DTS Goals

DTS was created to:

  • Provide better importing, exporting, and transformation of heterogeneous data using OLE DB. 

  • Provide an extensible architecture accessible to ISVs, customers, and consultants. 

  • Share rich metadata about the sources, destinations, transformations, and lineage through integration with Microsoft Repository OIMs. 

DTS allows the user to import, export, and transform data to and from multiple data sources using 100 percent OLE DB–based architecture. OLE DB data sources include not only database systems, but also desktop applications such as Microsoft Excel. Microsoft provides native OLE DB interfaces for SQL Server and for Oracle. In addition, Microsoft has developed an OLE DB wrapper that works in conjunction with existing ODBC drivers to provide access to other relational sources. Delimited and fixed-field text files are also supported natively.

DTS Architecture

DTS transformation definitions are stored in Microsoft Repository, SQL Server, or COM-structured storage files. Relational and nonrelational data sources are accessed using OLE DB. The data pump opens a rowset from the data source and pulls each row from the data source into the data pump. The data pump executes Microsoft ActiveX scripting functions (Microsoft Visual Basic, Scripting Edition; JScript development software; and PerlScript) to copy, validate, or transform data from the data source to the destination. Custom transform objects can be created for advanced data scrubbing. The new values for the destination are returned to the pump and sent to the destination by means of high-speed data transfers. Destinations can be OLE DB, ODBC, ASCII fixed field, ASCII delimited files, and HTML.

In DTS architecture, data is pulled from the data source with an OLE DB data pump, and optionally transformed before being sent to OLE DB destinations.

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Complex transformation and data validation logic can be implemented using ActiveX scripting. These scripts can invoke methods from any OLE object to modify or validate the value of a column. Advanced developers can create reusable COM transformation objects that provide advanced scrubbing capabilities. Custom tasks can be created that transfer files by means of FTP or launch external processes.

ISVs and consultants can create new data sources and destinations by providing OLE DB interfaces. The data pump will query the OLE DB interface for any provider to determine whether high-speed data loading is supported; if not, then standard loading mechanisms will be used.

Although standards like SQL-92 have improved interoperability between relational database engines, vendors still differentiate themselves in the marketplace by adding useful but proprietary extensions to SQL-92. SQL Server offers a simple programming language known as Transact-SQL that provides basic conditional processing and simple repetition control. Oracle Corporation, Informix Software, Inc., and other vendors offer similar SQL extensions.

The DTS Transformation Engine pass-through SQL architecture helps guarantee that most of the functionality of the source and destination are available to customers using the DTS Transformation Engine. This allows customers to leverage scripts and stored procedures that they have already developed and tested by simply invoking them from the DTS Transformation Engine. The pass-through architecture dramatically simplifies development and testing, since DTS does not modify or interpret the SQL statement being executed. Any statement that works through the native interface of the DBMS will work exactly the same way during a transformation.

DTS records and documents the lineage of each transformation in the repository so customers can know where their data came from. Data lineage can be tracked at both the table and row levels. This provides a complete audit trail for the information in the data warehouse. Data lineage is shared across vendor products. DTS packages and data lineage can be stored centrally in Microsoft Repository. This includes transformation definitions, Visual Basic scripting, Java scripting, and package execution history. Integration with Microsoft Repository allows third parties to build on the infrastructure provided by the DTS Transformation Engine. DTS packages can be scheduled for execution through an integrated calendar, and then executed interactively or in response to system events.

DTS Package

The DTS package is a complete description of all the work to be performed as part of the transformation process. Each package defines one or more tasks to be executed in a coordinated sequence. A DTS package can be created interactively using the graphical user interface or any language that supports OLE Automation. The DTS package can be stored in Microsoft Repository, in SQL Server, or as a COM-structured storage file. After being retrieved from the repository or structured storage file, the package can be executed in the same way as a DTS package that was created interactively.

A DTS package can contain multiple tasks, and each task can be as uninvolved as table-to-table mapping or as complex as invoking an external data cleansing process.

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A task defines a piece of work to be performed as part of the transformation process. A task can move and transform heterogeneous data from an OLE DB source to an OLE DB destination using the DTS Data Pump, and can execute ActiveX scripting or launch an external program. Tasks are executed by step objects.

Step objects coordinate the flow of control and execution of tasks in the DTS package. Some tasks must be executed in a certain sequence. For example, a database must be created successfully (Task A) before a table can be created (Task B). This is an example of a finish-start relationship between Task A and Task B; Task B, therefore, has a precedence constraint on Task A.

Each task is executed when all preceding constraints have been satisfied. Tasks can be executed conditionally based on run-time conditions. Multiple tasks can be executed in parallel to improve performance. For example, a package can load data simultaneously from Oracle and DB2 into separate tables. The step object also controls the priority of a task. The priority of a step determines the priority of the Win32 API thread running the task.

The DTS Data Pump is an OLE DB service provider that provides the infrastructure to import, export, and transform data between heterogeneous data stores. The OLE DB strategic data access interface provides access to the broadest possible range of relational and nonrelational data stores. The DTS Data Pump is a high-speed, in-process COM server that moves and transforms OLE DB rowsets.

A transformation is a set of procedural operations that must be applied to the source rowset before it can be stored in the desired destination. The DTS Data Pump provides an extensible, COM-based architecture that allows complex data validations and transformations as the data moves from the source to the destination. The DTS Data Pump makes the full power of ActiveX scripting available to the DTS package, allowing complex procedural logic to be expressed as simple, reusable ActiveX scripts. These scripts can validate, convert, or transform the column values using the scripting language of their choice as they move from the source, through DTS Data Pump, to the destination. New values can be calculated easily from one or more columns in the source rowset. Source columns also decompose a single field into multiple destination columns. ActiveX scripts can invoke and use the services of any COM object that supports automation.

DTS Packages

DTS packages can be created using import/export wizards, the DTS Package Designer, or a COM interface. The import/export wizards provide the simplest mechanism for moving data into or out of a data warehouse, but the transformation complexity is limited by the wizards' scope. For example, only single sources and single destinations are allowed in the wizard.

The DTS Package Designer exposes all the capabilities of DTS through an easy-to-use, visual interface. Within the DTS Package Designer, users can define precedence relationships, complex queries, flow of control, and access to multiple, heterogeneous sources.

The DTS Package Designer provides a graphical environment for describing data flow and package execution.

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Finally, applications can define and execute DTS package programming through a COM interface. This approach is primarily used by ISVs who want to use the features of DTS without requiring a user to define the packages separately.

Analyzing and Presenting the Data

In the Microsoft Office suite of productivity tools, both Microsoft Access and Microsoft Excel offer facilities for query and analysis of information in a data warehouse. Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 includes a component called English Query, which allows users to query the database using natural, English-language sentences. In addition, through the Data Warehousing Framework, many compatible products are available for sophisticated viewing and analysis of data.

Microsoft Office

Two of the most common tools used to access and manipulate data for decision support are Microsoft Access and Microsoft Excel. With the introduction of Microsoft Office 2000, users will have access to more facilities for analyzing and presenting the information in their data warehouses.

Excel 2000 will allow tabular and graphical representation of OLAP data sources through the OLE DB for OLAP interfaces. At the same time, the existing PivotTable dynamic views capability will be replaced with a more advanced OLAP facility based on the PivotTable Service component of Microsoft SQL Server OLAP Services.

Access 2000 will provide transparent support for SQL Server databases in addition to the existing Access database facilities. These new capabilities will allow customers to use their familiar desktop tools to perform increasingly sophisticated data analyses.

Microsoft Office 2000 will include components for simplifying the construction of Web-based applications by using prebuilt controls. These controls will provide access to relational databases and OLAP databases, allowing widespread viewing of information in the data warehouse.

English Query

English Query is a component of SQL Server 7.0 that allows an application builder to create an application to the data warehouse that allows users to retrieve information from a SQL Server database using natural language rather than a formal query language like SQL. For example, you can ask, "How many widgets were sold in Washington last year?" instead of using these SQL statements:

SELECT sum(Orders.Quantity) from Orders, Parts
WHERE Orders.State='WA'
and Datepart(Orders.Purchase_Date,'Year')='1996'
and Parts.PartName='widget'
and Orders.Part_ID=Parts.Part_ID 

English Query accepts natural, English-language commands, statements, and questions as input and determines their meaning. It then writes and executes a database query in SQL and formats the answer. English Query also can request additional information from a user if it cannot interpret a question.

English Query contains a deep knowledge of language syntax and usage, but the application developer must create a domain of information about the data being made available to the user. In English Query, a domain is the collection of all information that is known about the objects in the English Query application. This information includes the specified database objects (such as tables, fields, and joins), semantic objects (such as entities, the relationships between them, and additional dictionary entries), and global domain default options.

The first step to building an English Query application is to model the semantics of the data warehouse. The developer maps the English-language entities (nouns) and relationships (verbs, adjectives, traits, and subsets) to tables, fields, and joins in the database. This is accomplished by using an authoring tool that allows for domain testing outside the application.

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After the domain is modeled sufficiently for user testing and access, the developer makes the English Query application accessible through a Visual Basic-based application or a Web-based implementation using Active Server Pages (ASPs). With the increase of intranet-based information delivery to data warehouses, English Query is an excellent tool for providing access without costly query tools and training.

At run time, an end user of an English Query application connects to a Web page through Microsoft Internet Explorer software (or another Web browser) and enters a question. Microsoft Internet Explorer then passes the question to the Windows NT Server's built-in Web server, Internet Information Services (IIS), along with the URL of the ASP that executes the Visual Basic scripting.

The script passes the question to English Query for translation into an SQL statement. English Query uses domain knowledge about the target database (in the form of an English Query application) to parse the question and translate it into an SQL statement. The script then retrieves this SQL statement, executes it (using an ASP database control), formats the result as HTML, and returns the result page to the user.

English Query includes sample ASPs that can be used as delivered for rapid prototyping, or customized to fit the appearance and behavior of an existing Web application.

Third-Party Products

A fundamental philosophy of the Data Warehousing Framework is the openness of the solution to third-party components. Through the ODBC and OLE DB database interface standards, dozens of products can access and manipulate the information stored in SQL Server or another relational database. Likewise, the OLE DB for OLAP multidimensional database interface makes available the information in OLAP Services and other OLAP data stores. Because of these two access standards, organizations can select the most appropriate analytical tools for their needs. The reduced expenses for ISVs due to standardization also means that the costs of acquiring best-in-class products may diminish over time.

System Administration

One of the most significant hidden costs of implementing a data warehouse is the ongoing system maintenance and administration. With conventional technology, specialized skills typically are required to manage the relational database, the OLAP server, and the design and transformation technology. This means that multiple individuals with specific training often are needed to perform integral, related tasks. The Microsoft Data Warehousing Framework provides an integrated management and administration layer that can be shared across components in the data warehousing process.

Microsoft provides a console for the Microsoft product lines that simplifies the transition from task to task, even between separate products. Microsoft Management Console (MMC) is extensible by customers, consultants, and ISVs, providing a highly customized interface for specific environments. Applications are delivered as snap-ins to the console, and can be either a packaged user interface developed by an ISV or a customized interface developed separately, but accessing the capabilities of an underlying product such as SQL Server. Like much of the Microsoft BackOffice family of products, SQL Server 7.0 is delivered as a snap-in to MMC.

Microsoft Management Console

MMC provides a consistent, familiar interface for accessing the capabilities of Microsoft server products. The MMC user interface is similar to the Windows Explorer environment, with a vertically split work area containing a console tree of categories and objects relevant to a particular server on the left side, and a details pane about a selected item on the right. Detailed information in the details pane can be displayed in a variety of ways, including as an HTML document.

MMC allows for more sophisticated tools to assist the novice or infrequent database administrator. One significant addition is taskpads, which group multifaceted activities such as building a database, establishing user security, and monitoring the SQL Server database. Taskpads combine tutorial information, guided activities, and wizards.

Wizards

SQL Server 7.0 contains more than 25 wizards designed to simplify frequent tasks, including:

  • Creating databases, views, indexes, and stored procedures. 

  • Backing up or restoring a database. 

  • Configuring a publishing and distribution server for replication, and creating a publication for replication.

  • Managing SQL Server database security. 

  • Creating a maintenance file that can be run regularly. 

  • Defining full-text indexing on SQL Server character-based columns. 

  • Creating a Web task that creates an HTML page, imports data from an HTML page, or runs an existing Web task. 

Wizards can help reduce the learning curve required for a database administrator to become productive with SQL Server. In the data warehousing environment, where database administrators are often supporting many steps of the process with multiple products, this can translate into saving time and money.

Visual Database Diagrams

Because data warehousing applications are more iterative than OLTP systems, the database structures and schemas can change more often. Visual database diagrams provide physical data modeling tools for SQL Server database administrators, which can simplify the definition and change cycles.

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The visual database diagrams are stored on the database server using SQL Server Enterprise Manager. Changes to either the database or the diagrams are reflected in the other.

A wizard is available that automates the selection and layout of tables in an existing database. However, database entities (tables and their relationships) can be defined entirely within the diagram tool. The visual database diagram shows tables and their relationships, and allows changes to the structure of individual tables and to the constraints linking the tables.

SQL Server Profiler

Proper tuning of a relational database requires knowing how the database is used on a regular basis. SQL Server Profiler is a graphical tool that allows system administrators to monitor engine events in SQL Server by capturing a continuous record of server activity in real time. SQL Server Profiler monitors events that occur in SQL Server, filters events based on user-specified criteria, and directs the trace output to the screen, a file, or a table. SQL Server Profiler then allows the database administrator to replay previously captured traces to test changes to database structures, to identify slow-performing queries, to troubleshoot problems, or to re-create past conditions.

Examples of engine events that can be monitored include:

  • Login connects, fails, and disconnects.

  • SELECT, INSERT, UPDATE, and DELETE statements.

  • Errors written to the SQL Server error log.

  • Locks acquired or released on a database object.

Data from each event can be captured and saved to a file or SQL Server table for later analysis. Data from the engine events is collected by creating traces, which can contain information about the SQL statements and their results, the user and computer executing the statements, and the time the event started and ended.

Database administrators can filter event data to collect only the event data of interest to them. For example, they can collect only the events that affect a specific database or user and ignore all other events; or they can collect only data from queries that take longer than a specified time to execute.

SQL Server Profiler provides a graphical user interface to a set of extended stored procedures, which you can use directly. Therefore, it is possible to create your own application to monitor SQL Server that uses the SQL Server Profiler extended stored procedures.

SQL Server Query Analyzer

SQL Server Query Analyzer is an excellent tool for the ad hoc, interactive execution of Transact-SQL statements and scripts. Because users must understand Transact-SQL in order to use SQL Server Query Analyzer, this tool is primarily meant for database administrators and power users. Users can enter Transact-SQL statements in a full-text window, execute the statements, and view the results in a text window or tabular output. Users also can open a text file containing Transact-SQL statements, execute the statements, and view the results in the results window.

SQL Server Query Analyzer provides excellent tools for determining how SQL Server is interpreting and working with a Transact-SQL statement. A user can:

  • Display a graphical representation of the execution plan generated for the statement.

  • Start the Index Tuning Wizard to determine what indexes can be defined for the underlying tables to optimize the performance of the statement.

  • Display statistics about the performance of the statement.

SQL Server Query Analyzer shows how complex queries are resolved. In this illustration, portions of a query are parallelized for performance improvement.

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Index Tuning Wizard

One of the most time-consuming and inexact processes in managing a relational database is the creation of indexes to optimize the performance of user queries. The Index Tuning Wizard is a new tool that allows a database administrator to create and implement indexes without an expert understanding of the structure of the database, hardware platforms, and components, or of how end-user applications interact with the relational engine. The Index Tuning Wizard analyzes database workload and recommends an optimal index configuration for the SQL Server database.

The Index Tuning Wizard can:

  • Compare, contrast, and select the best mix of indexes using the Graphical Showplan cost formula.

  • Recommend the best mix of indexes for a workload (trace file or SQL script) against a database.

  • Provide index, workload, table use, and query cost analysis.

  • Allow the database administrator to tune the database for a small set of problem queries without changing the index configuration.

  • Allow the database administrator to prototype index configuration recommendations for different disk-space constraints.

The Index Tuning Wizard can analyze an SQL script or the output from a SQL Server Profiler trace and make recommendations regarding the effectiveness of the current indexes referenced in the trace file or SQL script. The recommendations consist of SQL statements that can be executed to drop existing indexes and create new, more effective indexes. The recommendations suggested by the wizard can then be saved to an SQL script to be executed manually by the user at a later time, immediately implemented, or automatically scheduled for later implementation by creating a SQL Server job that executes the SQL script.

If an existing SQL script or trace is not available for the Index Tuning Wizard to analyze, the wizard can create one immediately or schedule one using SQL Server Profiler. When the database administrator has determined that the trace file has captured a representative sample of the normal workload of the database being monitored, the wizard can analyze the captured data and recommend an index configuration to improve database performance.

SQLServerAgent Service

Data warehouse administrators can benefit significantly from automation of routine tasks such as database backups. By using SQLServerAgent service, they can automate administrative tasks by establishing which tasks occur regularly, and can be administered programmatically by defining a set of jobs and alerts. Automated administration can include single server or multiserver environments.

The key components of automated administration are jobs, operators, and alerts. Jobs define an administrative task once so it can be executed one or more times and monitored for success or failure each time it executes. Jobs can be executed on one local server or on multiple remote servers; executed according to one or more schedules; executed by one or more alerts; and made up of one or more job steps. Job steps can be executable programs, Windows NT commands, Transact-SQL statements, ActiveX scripting, or replication agents.

Operators are individuals responsible for the maintenance of one or more servers running SQL Server. In some enterprises, operator responsibilities are assigned to one individual. In larger enterprises with multiple servers, many individuals share operator responsibilities. Operators are notified though e-mail, pager, or network messaging.

Alerts are definitions that match one or more SQL Server events and a response, should those events occur. In general, database administrators cannot control the occurrence of events, but they can control the response to those events with alerts. Alerts can be defined to respond to SQL Server events by notifying one or more operators, by forwarding the event to another server, or by raising an error condition that is visible to other software tools.

Through a combination of notifications and actions that can be automated through the SQLServerAgent service, administrators can construct a robust, self-managing environment for much of their day-to-day operational tasks. This frees administrators to tend to more complex tasks that cannot be automated.

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