What is a business intelligence data architecture strategy (BIDAS), and why do you need one? Odds are your company already has developed, invested in and maintains several technologies to deliver a variety of reporting solutions. How do you know when a technology is no longer beneficial or that users are still effectively utilizing the BI environment? Perhaps a business user has seen a demo of a new tool and would like to purchase it to fill a specific gap in their reporting needs. By creating a BIDAS, you could better align technology to the requirements of the business in order to effectively meet or exceed their needs.
A BIDAS is a comprehensive review of the current and future state of the reporting environment for your company. This document is considered a living document that can and will be modified as business strategies and technology change. It will contain information on at least the following areas of your BI environment:
- Strategic vision,
- Current state,
- Future state,
- Logical architecture,
- Physical architecture, and
- Usage analysis.
In most enterprises, there is the need to support three general areas of reporting: operational, tactical and strategic. For the purpose of this article, I define each as follows.
- Operational reporting supports the day-to-day operations of your company at a line-manager level. Examples would include transaction details on assets sold or the number of hamburgers sold. These types of reports have a limited life span and are valid only for a short time frame.
- Tactical reporting supports summarized views of the operation data used by a mid-level manager. Examples would include total volume for the week, month or year to date and net revenue consolidated from all transactional systems for a specific period of time.
- Strategic reporting supports highly summarized views or dashboards to highlight specific areas of interest in the enterprise. These reports are targeted at high-level management and generally show quick views of important information. Examples include trend analysis, performance metrics (actual versus forecast) and service level agreement compliance.
It is important to understand the granularity of the reporting that you are attempting to support across your company. By understanding how your company consumes and uses its data, you will be able to better define a strategy to support your needs.
To begin the process of developing a BIDAS, you must learn and document your business’s objectives and strategies to help formulate your strategic vision. This can be done by reviewing annual stockholder reports, reading internal documents or setting up interviews with key executives. Once you have acquired an initial list, meet with key stakeholders to ensure the list is accurate and has been prioritized. This will ensure that you start building your documentation with a proper foundation aligned with your business.
BI and reporting must deliver value that aligns with the business objectives, strategies and priorities. While the business is trying to execute all of the objectives throughout the year, you must rank each with a priority for available BI resources. By assigning each objective a BI priority, you and the business will have a better understanding of the order the projects may take in the upcoming year. Projects can then be evaluated for their overall contribution to the BI strategy by determining how a particular project helps align with the business strategy. IT departments always have limited resources; therefore it is crucial to maximize what projects they are involved in by leveraging how a project helps achieve business strategy. For example, a project to create and use data mining for cross-selling opportunities (BI priority 3) would align with the business strategy of increasing market share. However by reviewing the example Figure 1, a priority 3 project should not be started until BI priorities 1 and 2 (as assigned by the business leads) are nearing completion or resources are available.
Current State Analysis
This section of the document is used to detail how your organization is currently utilizing reporting and BI. This would include a complete inventory of all software that is used to deliver information. It is also helpful to gather information on the number of users and how long each type of software has been in use. A key area to document during this exercise is determining who the power users for the business are. These people will be critical to the success of any changes in the current environment. They can be your contact points for additional questions, prototypes of new technologies, or training. Keep in mind that the same software may be used differently in various parts of your organization. A sample form to collect this information is in Figure 2.
After determining the various technologies implemented and where they are being used by how many people, you can focus on how people are using the technology. Users often consume data in many formats to help them answer specific questions that arise during their work day. Are they currently receiving the best information in a format that allows for them to maximize the company’s resources? Also, where do users consume their information? Are they sitting at a desk most of the day or travelling between offices or appointments? Are they away from a computer but could use updates on critical events? These are all important question to keep in mind while you are gathering and documenting your current state information.
Now that you have an idea of the existing technology, you should look at the existing infrastructure. This includes both client and server hardware. What is the standard PC build for your company? How much RAM and what kind of processor does an average computer have? How large is the average monitor size? The best software solutions available may require heavy investment in your company’s infrastructure. Is this a viable option based on overall cost and company objectives?
Future State Analysis
Once you understand the environment that you have, you must decide where you want your environment to go in order to create a BIDAS. This section is primarily focused on how users get to the data and how they will use or share it. Additional sections are devoted to the logical and physical architecture. Often the first place to start is by creating or updating your organizations logical data model. This will enable you to see the major subject areas of your company and how they interact. In addition to creating the logical data model is identifying key stakeholders for this effort. These people will be critical to getting funding and moving the project forward to align with business objectives.
How should your users consume data? In the current state analysis, you identified how they are currently accessing and using data. Now you have to determine the best methods for each primary business area to consume their data. Ideas for this could include:
- Web applications,
- Portal product,
- Handheld devices,
- Disconnected data set applications, and
- High and low bandwidth delivery options.
Again, the method of delivery and the best fit may require utilizing multiple technologies in one business area. However, once you have an agreed-upon vision for each area’s needs, finding the technology will be the easy part to fill in any gaps.
Should your business users be able to easily share knowledge and information? If so, what formats will be available to them for collaboration? A few ideas to explore would be wikis, blogs, search appliances or applications.
This is the section that business users will be able to review and get a clear understanding of what tools the business is using. It should be constructed using, complete phrases instead of acronyms to ensure that everyone who may read it at least knows the concepts being portrayed in the documentation. For instance, someone may not understand “OLAP” written on a diagram, but would at least be able to know if has something to do with analysis by reading online analytical processing.
The logical architecture section should include diagrams and information that show simple interactions between technology and the primary business areas.
The information contained in the physical architecture is concerned with the actual setup of the environment. This would include data on the server such as:
- Operating system and version,
- Hard drive space,
- Processor speed,
- Network bandwidth and connection speed,
- Application software name and version,
- Clustering or load balancing, and
- Virtualization of any servers.
Also included would be diagrams showing the connections between the different servers, firewalls and external connectors (if present).
What good is all of this technology if no one is using it? Collecting and reviewing usage of the information provided by the BI platform is critical to determine the success of your overall BIDAS. If possible, try to track usage on any exposed object, such as a report or dashboard and who is using it. This way, you will be able to inform users of upcoming changes as well as inform management if certain areas of information delivery are not being utilized. Without this information, you are unable to help determine the ROI to create and maintain the environment.
Creating and maintaining a BIDAS provides a method to document and align the business objectives to technology investments. By documenting the various parts of the BIDAS, both IT and business partners can get a view of where the company currently is delivering information well and areas that need improvement. This improvement may be utilizing existing technology or by purchasing and implementing a technology to fill a specific gap in information delivery. The goal of IT is to bring value to the business. The creation of a BIDAS for your organization will help you better understand and deliver business value.
Derek Wilson is a database and business intelligence consultant.
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Source: Business Intelligence Data Architecture, Derek Wilson, BI Review Online, April 10, 2008