Microsoft BI Review

My 30 tips for building a Microsoft BI solution, Part V: Tips 21-25

I might just get all 30 done before summer vacation :)

#21: Avoid using discretization buckets for your dimension attributes

Discretization buckets lets you group numerical attributes into ranges. Say you have a customer dimension including the age of the customer you can use this feature to group them into age clusters such as 0-5, 6-10 and so on. While you can tweak how the algorithm creates groups and even provide naming templates for the groups you still have relatively limited control over them. Worst case scenario: A grouping is removed / changed by the algorithm which is referenced in a report. A better way of grouping these attributes is by doing it yourself either in the data source view or a view in the database (there will be a separate tip on this). This way you have complete control over the distribution of values into groups and the naming of the groups.

#22: Do not build a SSAS solution directly on top of your source system

SSAS has a couple of features that enable it to source data directly from a normalized data model typically found in business applications such as ERP systems. For instance you can “fake” a star schema through queries in the data source view. You can also utilize proactive caching to eliminate any ETL to populate your cube with data. This all sounds very tempting but unfortunatly I have never seen this work in reality. Unless you are working with a very small source system with impeccable data quality and few simultanous users you should avoid the temptation for all the usual reasons: Proactive caching will stress your source system, data quality will most likely be an issue, integrating new data sources will be nearly impossible,etc. There is a reason BI projects spend 70-80% of their time working with modelling and integrating data.

#23: Deploy SSAS cubes with the deployment tool

If you are working with multiple environments (dev/test/prod) do not use the deployment functionality of visual studio to deploy to another environment. This will overwrite partitions and roles that may be different between the environments. Use the deployment wizard.

#24: Remember that your SSAS cubes are a single point of failure

Keep in mind that most client tools do not cope well with changes to SSAS data models. Any renames or removals you do in the model will most likely cause clients that reference those entities to fail. Make sure you test all your reports against the changed model before deploying it to production. Also, if you allow ad-hoc access to your SSAS solution be aware that users may have created reports that you do not know about. Query logging may help you a little here (it gives you an indication of which attribute hierarchies are in use). The best way to avoid all of this is to thoughtfully design your cube and the naming of your SSAS objects so that there is no need to change or remove anything in the first place.

#25: Avoid “real time”

“Real time” means different things to different people. Some interpret it as “simultaneous to an event occurring” while others have more leeway and have various levels of tolerance for delays. I prefer the term “latency”: How old can the data in the BI solution get before it needs to be refreshed?. The lowest latency I have ever implemented is two hours. That is hours not minutes. I know this does not sound very impressive but that is honestly the best I have been able to do at a reasonable cost. When doing “real time” you need to consider a lot of factors: Partitioning, changes to dimensions, ROLAP vs MOLAP / direct query vs xVelocity, source system access, how to administer it, etc., etc. These things add up quickly to a point where the value simply does not justify the cost.

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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