SQL Server 2014 product guide available

From a BI perspective I do not see much new stuff except a lot of emphasis on Hadoop (“Big Data”) integration. One interesting thing I noted was that they actually mention PerformancePoint, which they have not talked about in a long time. I had my money on the service being killed or merged into something else like PowerView. Guess I was wrong, in the short term at least. And perhaps columnstore indexes + tabular in directquery mode is something to explore?

Get it here: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=39269

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My 30 tips for building a Microsoft Business Intelligence solution, Part IV: Tips 16-20

A note about the SSAS tips: Most tips are valid for both dimensional and tabular models. I try to note where they are not. 

#16: Implement reporting dimensions in your SSAS solution

Reporting dimensions are constructs you use to make the data model more flexible for reporting purposes. They usually also simplify the management and implementation of common calculation scenarios. Here are two examples:

  • A common request from users is the need to select which measure to display for a given report in Excel through a normal filter. This is not possible with normal measures / calculations. The solution is to create a measure dimension with one member for each measure. Expose a single measure in your measure group (I frequently use “Value”) that you assign the correct measure to in your MDX script / DAX calculation based on the member selected in the measure dimension. The most frequently used measure should be the default member for this dimension. By doing this you not only give the users what they want, but you also simplify a lot of calculation logic such as the next example.
  • Almost all data models require various date related calculations such as year to date, same period last year, etc. It is not uncommon to have more than thirty such calculations. To manage this effectively create a separate date calculation dimension with one member for each calculation. Do your time based calculations based on what is selected in the time calculation dimension. If you implemented the construct in the previous example this can be done generically for all measures that you have in your measure dimension. Here is an example for how to do it tabular. For dimensional use the time intelligence wizard to get you started.

#17: Consider creating separate ad-hoc and reporting cubes

Analysis Services data models can become very complex. Fifteen to twenty dimensions connected to five to ten fact tables is not uncommon. Additionally various analysis and reporting constructs (such as a time calculation dimensions) can make a model difficult for end users to understand. There are a couple of features that help reduce this complexity such as perspectives, role security and default members (at least for dimensional) but often the complexity is so ingrained in the model that it is difficult to simplify by just hiding measures / attributes / dimensions from users. This is especially true if you use a “reporting cube” which I talked about in tip #16. You also need to consider the performance aspect of exposing a large, complex model to end user ad-hoc queries. This can very quickly go very wrong. So my advice is that you consider creating a separate model for end users to query directly. This model may reduce complexity in a variety of ways:

  • Coarser grain (Ex: Monthly numbers not daily).
  • Less data (Ex: Only last two years, not since the beginning of time).
  • Fewer dimensions and facts.
  • Be targeted at a specific business process (Use perspectives if this the only thing you need).
  • Simpler or omitted reporting dimensions.

Ideally your ad-hoc model should run on its own hardware. Obviously this will add both investment and operational costs to your project but will be well worth it when the alternative is an unresponsive model.

#18: Learn .NET

A surprisingly high number of BI consultants I have met over the years do not know how to write code. I am not talking about HTML or SQL here but “real” code in a programming language. While we mostly use graphical interfaces when we build BI solutions the underlying logic is still based on programming principles. If you don’t get these, you will be far less productive with the graphical toolset. More importantly .Net is widely used in Microsoft based  solutions as “glue” or to extend the functionality of the core products. This is especially true for SSIS projects where you quite frequently have to implement logic in scripts written in C# or VB.net but also applies to most components in the MS BI stack. They all have rich API’s that can be used for extending their functionality and integrating them into solutions.

#19: Design your solution to utilize Data Quality Services

I have yet to encounter an organization where data quality has not been an issue. Even if you have a single data source you will probably run into problems with data quality. Data quality is a complex subject. Its expensive to monitor and expensive to fix. So you might as well be proactive from the get-go. Data Quality Services is available in the BI and Enterprise versions of SQL Server. It allows you to define rules for data quality and monitor your data for conformance to these rules. It even comes with SSIS components so you can integrate it with your overall ETL process. You should include this in the design stage of your ETL solution because implementing it in hindsight will be quite costly as it directly affects the data flow of your solution.

#20: Avoid SSAS unknown members

Aside from the slight overhead they cause when processing, having unknown members means that your underlying data model has issues. Fix them there and not in the data model.

My 30 tips for building a Microsoft Business Intelligence solution, Part III: Tips 11-15

#11: Manage your own surrogate keys.

In SQL Server it is common to use an INT or BIGINT set as IDENTITY to create unique, synthetic keys. The number is a sequence and a new value is generated when we execute an insert. There are some issues with this. Quite often we need this value in our Integration Services solution to do logging and efficient loads of the data warehouse (there will be a separate tip on this). This means that sometimes we need the value before an insert and sometimes after. You can obtain the last value generated by issuing a SCOPE_IDENTITY command but this will require an extra trip to the server per row flowing through your pipeline. Obtaining the value before an insert happens is not possible in a safe way. A better option is to generate the keys yourself through a script component. Google for “ssis surrogate key” and you will find a lot of examples.

#12: Excel should be your default front-end tool.

I know this is a little bit controversial. Some say Excel lacks the power of a “real” BI tool. Others say it writes inefficient queries. But hear me out. Firstly, if you look at where Microsoft is making investments in the BI stack, Excel is right up there at the top. Contrast that to what they are doing with PerformancePoint and Reporting Services and its pretty clear that Excel is the most future proof of the lot. Microsoft  have added lot of BI features over the last couple of releases and continue to expand it through new add-ins such as data explorer and geoflow. Additionally, the integration with SharePoint gets tighter and tighter. The Excel web client of SharePoint 2013  is pretty on par with the fat Excel client when it comes to BI functionality. This means that you can push out the new features to users who have not yet upgraded  to the newer versions of Excel. When it comes to the efficiency with which Excel queries SSAS a lot has become better. But being a general analysis tool it will never be able to optimize its queries as you would if you wrote them specifically for a report.Please note that I am saying “default” not “best”. Of course there are better, pure bred,  Business Intelligence front-ends out there. Some of them even have superior integration with SSAS.  But its hard to beat the cost-value ratio of Excel if you are already running a Microsoft shop. If you add in the fact that many managers and knowledge workers already do a lot of work in Excel and know the tool well the equation becomes even more attractive.

#13: Hug  an infrastructure expert  that knows BI workloads.

Like most IT solutions, Microsoft BI solutions are only as good as the hardware and server configurations they run on. Getting this right is very difficult and requires deep knowledge in operating systems, networks, physical hardware, security and the software that is going to run on these foundations. To make matters worse, BI solutions have workloads that often differ fundamentally from line of business applications in the way they access system resources and services. If you work with a person that knows both of these aspects you should give him or her a hug every day because they are a rare breed. Typically BI consultants know a lot about the characteristics of BI workloads but nothing about how to configure hardware and software to support these. Infrastructure consultants on the other hand know a lot about hardware and software but nothing about the specific ways BI solutions access these. Here are three examples: Integration Services is mainly memory constrained. It is very efficient at processing data as a stream as long as there is enough memory for it. The instant it runs out of memory and starts swapping to disk you will see a dramatic decrease in performance. So if you are doing heavy ETL, co-locating this with other memory hungry services on the same infrastructure is probably a bad idea. The other example is the way data is loaded and accessed in data warehouses. Unlike business systems that often do random data access (“Open the customer card for Henry James”) data warehouses are sequential. Batches of transactions are loaded into the warehouse and data is retrieved by reports / analysis services models in batches. This has a significant impact on how you should balance the hardware and configuration of your SQL Server database engine and differs fundamentally from how you handle workloads from business applications.  The last example may sound extreme but is something I have encountered multiple times. When businesses outsource their infrastructure to a third party they give up some of the control and knowledge in exchange for an ability to “focus on their core business”. This is a good philosophy with real value. Unfortunately if you do not have anyone on the requesting side of this partnership that knows what to ask for when ordering infrastructure for your BI project what you get can be pretty far off from what you need. Recently a client of mine made such a request for a SQL Server based data warehouse server. The hosting partner followed their SLA protocol and supplied a high availability configuration with a mandatory full recovery model for all databases. You can imagine the exploding need for disk space for the transaction logs when loading batches of 20 million rows each night. As these examples illustrate, it is critical for a successful BI implementation to have people with infrastructure competency on your BI team that also understand how BI solutions differ from “traditional” business solutions and can apply the right infrastructure configurations.

#14: Use Team Foundation Server for your BI projects too.

A couple of years ago putting Microsoft BI projects under source control was a painful experience where the benefits drowned in a myriad of technical issues.  This has improved a lot. Most BI artifacts now integrate well with TFS and BI teams can greatly benefit from all the functionality provided by the product such as source control, issue tracking and reporting. Especially for larger projects with multiple developers working against the same solution TFS is the way to go in order to be able to work effectively in parallel. As an added benefit you will sleep better at night knowing that you can roll back that dodgy check-in you performed a couple of hours ago. With that said there are still issues with the TFS integration. SSAS data source views are a constant worry as are server and database roles. But all of this (including workarounds) is pretty well documented online.

#15: Enforce your attribute relationships.

This is mostly related to SSAS dimensional but you should also keep it in mind when working with tabular. Attribute relationships define how attributes of a dimension relate to each other (roll up into each other). For example would products roll up into product subgroups which would again roll into product groups. This is a consequence of the denormalization process many data warehouse models go through where complex relationships are flattened out into wide dimension tables. These relationships should be definied in SSAS  to boost general performance. The magic best-practice analyzer built into data tools makes sure you remember this with its blue squiggly lines. Usually it takes some trial and error before you get it right but in the end you are able to process your dimension without those duplicate attribute key errors. If you still don’t know what I am talking about look it up online such as here. So far so good. Problems start arising when these attribute relationships are not enforced in your data source, typically a data warehouse. Continuing with the example from earlier over time you might get the same product subgroup referencing different product groups (“parents”). This is not allowed and will cause a processing of the dimension to fail in SSAS (those pesky duplicate key errors). To handle this a bit more gracefully than simply leaving your cube(s) in an unprocessed state (with the angry phone calls this brings with it) you should enforce the relationship at the ETL level, in Integration Services. When loading a dimension you should reject / handle cases where these relationships are violated and notify someone that this happened. The process should make sure that the integrity of the model is maintained by assigning “violators” to a special member of the parent attribute that marks it as “suspect”. In this way your cubes can still be processed while highlighting data that needs attention.

My 30 tips for building a Microsoft Business Intelligence solution, Part II: Tips 6-10

# 6: Use a framework for your Integration Services solution(s) because data is evil

I know how it is. You may have started your ETL project using the SQL Server import / export wizard or you may have done a point integration of a couple of tables through data tools. You might even have built an entire solution from the ground up and been pretty sure that you thought of everything. You most likely have not. Data is a tricky thing. So tricky in fact that I over the years have built up an almost paranoid distrust against it. The only sure thing I can say is that it will change (both intentionally and unintentionally) over time and your meticulously crafted solution will fail. Best case scenario is that it simply will stop working. Worst case scenario is that this error / these errors have not caused a failure technically but have done faulty insert / update / delete operations against your data warehouse for months. This is not discovered until you have a very angry business manager on the line who has been doing erroneous reporting up the corporate chain for months. This is the most likely scenario. A good framework should have functionality for recording data lineage (what has changed) and the ability to gracefully handle technical errors. It won’t prevent these kinds of errors from happening but it will help you recover from them a lot faster. For inspiration read The Data Warehouse ETL Toolkit.

#7: Use a framework for your Integration Services solution(s) to maintain control and boost productivity

Integration Services is a powerful ETL  tool that can handle almost any data integration challenge you throw at it. To achieve this it has to be very flexible. Like many of Microsoft’s products its very developer oriented. The issue with this is that there are as many ways of solving a problem as there are Business Intelligence consultants on a project. By implementing a SSIS framework (and sticking with it!) you ensure that the solution handles similar problems in similar ways. So when the lead developer gets hit by that bus you can put another consultant on the project who only needs to be trained on the framework to be productive. A framework will also boost productivity. The up-front effort of coding it, setting it up and forcing your team to use it is dwarfed by the benefits of templates, code reuse and shared functionality. Again, read  The Data Warehouse ETL Toolkit for inspiration.

#8: Test and retest your calculations.

Come into the habit of testing your MDX and DAX calculations as soon as possible. Ideally this should happen as soon as you finish a calculation, scope statement, etc. Both MDX and DAX get complicated really fast and unless you are a Chris Webb you will loose track pretty quickly of dependencies and why numbers turn out as they do. Test your statements in isolation and the solution as a whole and verify that everything works correctly. Also these things can have a severe performance impact so remember to clear the analysis services cache and do before and after testing (even if you have cache warmer). Note that clearing the cache means different things to tabular and dimensional as outlined here.

#9: Partition your data and align it from the ground up.

Note that you need the enterprise version of SQL Server for most of this. If you have large data sets you should design your solution from the ground up to utilize partitioning.  You will see dramatic performance benefits from aligning your partitions all the way from your SSIS process to your Analysis Services cubes / tabular models. Alignment means that if you partition your relational fact table by month and year, you should do the same for your analysis services measure group / tabular table. Your SSIS solution should also be partition-aware to maximize its throughput by exploiting your partitioning scheme.

#10: Avoid using the built-in Excel provider in Integration Services.

I feel a bit sorry for the Excel provider. It knows that people seeing it will think “Obviously I can integrate Excel data with my SSIS solution, its a MS product and MS knows that much of our data is in Excel”. The problem is that Excel files are inherently unstructured. So for all but the simplest Excel workbooks the provider will struggle to figure out what data to read. Work around this by either exporting your Excel data to flat files or look at some third party providers.

My 30 tips for building a Microsoft Business Intelligence solution, Part I: Tips 1-5

Having worked with Microsoft BI for more than a decade now here are the top 30 things I wished I knew before starting development of a solution. These are not general BI project recommendations such as “listen to the business” or “build incrementally” but specific lessons I have learned (more often than not the hard way) designing and implementing Microsoft based Business Intelligence solutions. So here are the first five:

#1: Have at least one SharePoint expert on the team.

The vast majority of front-end BI tools from Microsoft are integrated with SharePoint. In fact, some of them only exist in SharePoint (for instance PerformancePoint). This means that if you want to deliver Business Intelligence with a Microsoft solution, you will probably deliver a lot of it through SharePoint. And make no mistake: SharePoint is very complex. You have farms, site collections, lists,  services, applications, security… the list goes on and on. To make matters worse you may have to integrate your solution with an already existing SharePoint portal. There is a reason there are professional SharePoint consultants around, so use them.

#2: Do not get too excited about Visio integration with Analysis Services.

Yes, you can query and visualize Analysis Services data in Visio. You may have seen the supply chain demo from Microsoft which looks really flashy.  You might think about a hundred cool visualizations you could do. Before you spend any time on this or start designing your solution to utilize it, try out the feature. While its a great feature, it requires a lot of work to implement (at least for anything more than trivial). Also, it (currently) only supports some quite specific reporting scenarios (think decomposition trees).

#3: Carefully consider when to use Reporting Services.

Reporting Services is a great report authoring environment. It allows you to design and publish pixel perfect reports with lots of interactivity.  It also provides valuable services such as caching, subscriptions and alerts. This comes at a cost though. The effort needed to create SSRS reports is quite high and needs a specialized skill set. This is no end user tool. There are also  issues with certain data providers (especially Analysis Services). But if you need any combination of multiple report formats , high scalability (caching, scale-out),  subscriptions or alerts, you should seriously consider Reporting Services.

#4: Use Nvarchar / unicode strings throughout the solution.

Unless you live in the US (and are pretty damn sure you will never have “international data”) use unicode. Granted, varchars are more efficient but you do not want to deal with collations / codepages. Ever. Remember this is not only an issue with the database engine but also with other services such as Integration Services.

#5: Check if it exists on codeplex.

Do not build anything before you have checked codeplex. Chances are someone has already done the same or something similar that can be tweaked. If you are skeptical of including “foreign” code in your solution (like me) use the codeplex code as a cheat-sheet and build your own based on it. There is a lot stuff there including SSAS stored procedures, SSIS components and frameworks and much more.

Bring back the default member in SSAS tabular

Even though tabular models are a lot less complex than dimensional we still have the need to simplify the model for the end user for ad-hoc reporting and analysis. One of the more helpful tools we had for doing this was using a default member referencing  the most commonly used member in an attribute hierarchy so the user did not have to select this unless he explicitly wanted to see something else. Please bring it back!