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Issue of February 2006 
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Business Intelligence

Taking the first steps

Translating raw data into usable information is not as easy as it seems. As anybody who has implemented Business Intelligence software will tell you, the first steps in any BI deployment are the most important. For it is these steps that will determine whether your BI solution delivers or not. by Anil Patrick R

For most organisations, information means little more than data about the business that has been captured by transactional (OLTP in most cases) and legacy systems such as COBOL programs. This is the most basic element that business managers and other employees will want to analyse and use for their decision making.

For example, a manufacturing company will have an ERP and/or other transaction systems that continuously capture data (mass volumes, partners, sales, customers, and so on). A manager might need to extract reports from these systems for tracking performance over the past five years, say, of a single gauge the firm makes.

These kinds of analyses are crucial and frequent in most companies in helping to decide whether to invest more in a particular product or diversify. Now, the problem with getting this information is multi-fold in nature, leading to the need for a centralised system such as the data warehouse and data mining technologies that form the basis of business intelligence (BI) systems.

WHERE ERP COMES UP SHORT



Sanjay Deshmukh
Business Development Director India/SAARC
Business Objects

The first problem with traditional systems is that transactional systems such as an ERP or homegrown ones are inherently designed more for the capture of data than for data retrieval in the form of usable reports or graphs. “If you ask an ERP system to churn out a report or a query, it will probably take a few minutes or even hours to answer the question. This is because an ERP system’s design is not optimised to answer a question,” says Sanjay Deshmukh, Business Development Director, India/ SAARC, Business Objects.

Second, these systems do not store data for more than a couple of years (in most cases). Next is the fact that information is spread across multiple systems (ERP, SCM, CRM, databases, Excel spreadsheets, legacy systems, and competitive business information) and it is impossible to get the big picture from just the information in a single system or as multiple distributed reports.

The problem with traditional systems is that transactional systems such as an ERP or homegrown ones are inherently designed more for the capture of data than for data retrieval in the form of usable reports or graphs

“Budgeting, planning, and so on are not part of ERP. Often you find this information in Excel files. There are islands of information in such forms in addition to the ERP system. The biggest challenge for anybody is getting data from these islands and consolidating that information, which is where BI provides the best bang for the buck,” says Deepak Ramanathan, Solutions Architect, Business Intelligence, SAS India. These are the reasons why business executives lead when it comes to taking the call to implement a BI system.

Assessment for BI preparedness
Performance assessment
  • Are current systems adequate to handle increased reporting requirements?
  • Is the volume of data you store on your OLTP system raising your costs significantly?
  • Is your storage architecture capable of adapting to new data loads and increased access demands?
  • How difficult is it to maintain existing systems?

Data demands

  • Does the process of creating reports affect the production cycle?
  • Are increased user demands affecting your performance measures and associated costs?
  • Do you currently limit the data on your report server?
  • Are you building more summary tables to satisfy user performance requirements?
  • Do users need to access multiple databases to get answers to business questions?
  • Do you anticipate rapid growth in the amount of data that you will be keeping online for regulatory performance?
  • Are your data retention periods increasing?

Data evaluation

  • How often is the data on your primary OLTP systems required for reporting and modification?
  • Do you have established service levels for all applications and data types?
  • Are data types segregated by access requirements and storage options?

Simplify

  • Have you automated as many manual and repetitive tasks as possible?
  • Do you have a plan to rationalise and consolidate applications?
  • Can you reduce or eliminate customisation requirements from applications?
  • Are costs a consideration when evaluating legacy systems?
  • Does your IT team have the right skill sets to manage the various applications and systems?

Standardisation

  • Do you use standard interfaces and common technologies?
  • Does your architecture share commonality across the enterprise?
  • Do you have standardised processes for application controls and data management?

Modular

  • Can you break down monolithic structures?
  • Do you employ reusable components?
  • Are logical architectures implemented across your enterprise?

Business goal check-in

  • Do IT goals map to current business imperatives?
  • Does your IT team offer innovative and effective solutions to business challenges?
  • Are your IT outreach efforts proactive?

Courtesy: Sybase

DRILLING DOWN TO THE BRASS TACKS

To take a common case, Mumbai is entered as Mumbai 21 despite a separate box being provided for the pin code. Data quality is challenging in India, unlike in Western countries, where addresses are standardised. Here it is common to find addresses like ‘behind Lakshminarayan temple,’ ‘Under the flyover’ and things like that

Before going into the actual steps of how to harness organisational data, it is important to understand that it takes more than a CIO and his team to get BI to work the way it is supposed to. To start with, business intelligence implementations are typically not proposed by IT departments, but by the business function or unit heads.

This is why the first step needs active ownership and involvement of the business. “BI is not an application which can be driven by the individual manager of a department. There needs to be senior management buy-in and support, because BI as an application will take care of the information needs of every single user, whether it is a senior executive, middle management user or an operational user,” explains Deshmukh.

Once this is guaranteed, it is time to conduct BI readiness checks. Different organisations and vendors follow different approaches for assessing BI preparedness. These include user requirement studies or even GAP analysis. The most common objective behind all these studies is to find the driving factors for BI and the technical preparedness in the firm.

According to Zoeb Adenwala, Chief, IT, Pidilite Industries there are a few things to be kept in mind before an organisation deploys a BI solution such as data integrity, data warehouse and compatibility, integration with back-end transaction systems along with the suitable BI software to meet the requirements. "But the most important aspect for a successful implementation of BI is the organisational readiness along with the commitment from the management," he further adds.

Things to look out for while deploying BI
The rollout of BI is a huge task in itself. Keeping some of these aspects in mind will be a starting point in streamlining design, implementation, and rollout.
  • BI is of no use if it is not used across the organisation (across top management, middle management and operational users). Restricting access to just a select few defeats the purpose of such a huge investment.
  • Large organisations need to have a unified BI vision. This can help avoid the situation of many large organisations faced with challenges such as distributed BI silos from multiple vendors. Having a dedicated BI team will go a long way in getting this single vision.
  • Initially, BI is leveraged mostly by analytical business users. It is always beneficial to identify and get such users actively involved in the initial stages of BI to gain wider user acceptance of the project.
  • Information needs of top management, middle management and operational users are different. User studies will define the extent of information access that each of these users will require.
  • Business rules may have to be evaluated and refined on a continuous basis to ensure that the raw data remains clean. Legacy data will need setting of global business rules as well as manual cleaning.
  • It is not always possible to clean data completely, especially in legacy systems. A call might have to be taken at times not to include certain data that is beyond repair, to avoid erroneous results.
  • If you choose an RDBMS-based solution, its best to go in for the same RDBMS as the one that the organisation uses to leverage existing skill sets.
  • Training as well as user feedback will be required during the initial days of the project.

CO-OPTING BUSINESS USERS

First, it is necessary to find out if the organisation really needs to have a BI system in place. This is where inputs from users are of paramount importance. The results of this study will help determine if reporting capabilities of existing systems can be tweaked to meet requirements.

Once you have determined that BI is the answer, this study will help identify the key driving factors for the required BI implementation. Time has to be spent with the business users at this stage to ensure that requirements such as the need, kind of analysis, and so on are understood. Otherwise, it is very difficult to get the required results from a BI initiative.

The technology side of BI preparedness checks on whether the basic infrastructure is in place. This will first consider the different transaction systems and platforms that the organisation has. This stage will also evaluate your systems for parameters such as data management and availability. One of the main things checked during this stage is the reporting performed on existing systems. Next is to determine whether these systems have sufficient headroom to handle increased reporting requirements.

Once these have been achieved, it is time to define the scope of the work document that is required for the implementation.

SCRUBBING DATA CLEAN

Organisations need to define business rules to ensure data validity. These rules have to be defined by business users. This will ensure data accuracy for the present and the future. This is why top management has to take ownership of BI projects

Before even contemplating BI, it is essential to get a proper status check done on the status of organisational data. This is because having data spread across multiple sources is not the same as having accurate, analysable data.

The first stage of any BI implementation called extract, transform, load (ETL) or data integration (DI), depending on the vendor, calls for the use of accurate and standardised data without which reports generated are highly inaccurate. At this stage, the biggest challenge for an organisation is the availability of data, followed by the transformation or cleaning up of data. While extraction is pretty much standard across products (for example using means such as ODBC and JDBC), ETL as a process is the most important one in a BI application.

“It is very important to understand in this context, that data sources are not cleaned, it is in reality the data from sources that is cleaned before being put in the data warehouse—as cleaning or modification of data sources would break the applications,” says Vaibhav Phadnis, Director, Server Business Group, Microsoft India.

“ETL is the most underestimated area in a BI application in terms of effort required, cost, and importance. If this stage goes wrong, the quality of the data that goes into the system will be poor, leading to wrong decisions by users. In terms of effort required, ETL will cover 40 to 50 percent of the efforts required for the entire BI initiative,” says Deshmukh.

“Tools used in the transformation element vary. Some data validation and data accuracy checking can be accomplished with straightforward Transact-SQL code,” adds Phadnis.

Cleaning up data is not a simple task. “To take a common case, Mumbai is entered as Mumbai 21 despite a separate box being provided for the pin code. Data quality is challenging in India unlike in Western countries where addresses are standardised. Here it is common to find addresses like ‘behind Lakshminarayan temple’, ‘under the flyover’ and things like that, which are the most challenging,” explains Ramanathan.

Data quality is of primary importance even in ERP systems where wrong naming can occur. For example, the system might designate a valve as part number 35, and elsewhere the same part may be represented as valve 30. If a report has to be done on the demand for valve 30, the analysis might miss the wrongly named part. This is a mismatch from the reporting perspective.

SPRING-CLEANING

If the data quality itself is not addressed during ETL, reporting down the line will be ambiguous. It will not be up to date on the required objectives. This is why it is crucial to clean up your data sources, and set policies and processes in place to ensure that it remains clean.

A data quality audit in terms of looking at how much data can be retrieved is a good way to begin. This should look at the state of existing data, and then the data quality. A report on the data quality should then be presented to the management, business heads or the IT team to inform them of issues with data and what will have to be done to resolve them. Many of the issues might also require process changes.

In addition to these, there are also many validation tools available in ETL to clean up data. When data is being extracted, the workflow of how data is going to be extracted also has to be defined. “No technology on its own can ensure the quality of existing data. Once the data model is defined, we define data accuracy rules for every element in the model. Then the changes are effected whenever something is detected,” says Arun Ramachandran, Presales Head, India and SAARC, Sybase.

The organisation needs to define business rules to ensure data validity. These rules have to be defined by business users. Only this will ensure data accuracy for the present and future. This is why top management has to take ownership of a BI project. “Data quality is a cyclical task. You can’t do it once and forget about it. But the ownership of data quality resides with the company. They have to clean the data, polish it and, more importantly, make sure that data is captured correctly down the line. Sanctity of the data is a corporate ownership,” says Ramanathan.

Global business rules will have to be set for legacy data. A cut-off date for cleaning up the data will also have to be defined to ensure timely completion of this cleanup. A call may also have to be taken at times to cut off irreparably inaccurate data from the BI system to avoid faulty reporting.

CENTRALISING AFFAIRS

Once the ETL phase is sorted out, it is time to create the central repository or the data warehouse. These are usually RDBMS solutions from vendors such as Oracle, Sybase, IBM and Microsoft or specialised RDBMS such as those from SAS and NCR Teradata hosted on a physically separate server.

On the technical side, data warehouses are typically built on an enterprise framework, but with a difference—being made up of small data marts. Usage of these data marts ensures that the data warehouse can be scaled up easily when required.

The choice of the data warehouse is based on different factors including data volumes, performance, future scalability potential, and available skill sets. Many organisations prefer to have their data warehouses on RDBMS platforms that they already use to leverage existing skill sets. It is also very important to define the objectives required from the data warehouse. For example, if the goal is to optimise delivery and analysis, the data warehouse has to be built keeping those objectives foremost.

Data mining is then conducted to exploit data in the warehouse. Different tools available in the market have different capabilities and strengths when it comes to reporting, as we shall examine soon.

REPORTING TIME

When it comes to evaluating the reporting features of a BI solution, it is important to remember that the system is meant for use across the organisation. This means that it has to cater not only to senior executives, but also the middle management and operational users.

When it comes to evaluating the reporting features of a BI solution, it is important to remember that the system is meant for use across the organisation. This means that it has to cater to not just senior executives but also the middle management as well as operational users.

The information requirements of these users vary considerably. For operational users, the information needs are going to be very basic in nature. All they need is data in the form of reports for particular functions. This data can come from the warehouse or any transactional system.

Next is the middle management user who is typically an analyst. These users look for features such as OLAP, or drill and dice capabilities to analyse data and trends.

As opposed to this, the senior management will be looking for quick data snapshots. These users are interested in keeping an eye on key performance indicators (KPI), dashboards and balanced scorecards.

Says Phadnis, “The value of BI is in its pervasive usage. Most organisations assume that BI is expensive and limit its usage to top executives or selected business roles. To derive maximum returns from a BI investment, it is essential that every employee in the organisation should have access to the intelligence generated by the Business Intelligence solution deployed by the company.”

All these varying requirements have to be identified and translated to achievable formats before charting out reporting. It will also have to be kept in mind that it will take a fair amount of work, rework and training (during the initial phase) before the users are satisfied and empowered to make the right decisions using the BI solution.

—with inputs from Shivani Shinde
anilpatrick@networkmagazineindia.com

 
     
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