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Barry Devlin

As one of the founders of data warehousing back in the mid-1980s, a question I increasingly ask myself over 25 years later is: Are our prior architectural and design decisions still relevant in the light of today's business needs and technological advances? I'll pose this and related questions in this blog as I see industry announcements and changes in way businesses make decisions. I'd love to hear your answers and, indeed, questions in the same vein.

About the author >

Dr. Barry Devlin is among the foremost authorities in the world on business insight and data warehousing. He was responsible for the definition of IBM's data warehouse architecture in the mid '80s and authored the first paper on the topic in the IBM Systems Journal in 1988. He is a widely respected consultant and lecturer on this and related topics, and author of the comprehensive book Data Warehouse: From Architecture to Implementation.

Barry's interest today covers the wider field of a fully integrated business, covering informational, operational and collaborative environments and, in particular, how to present the end user with an holistic experience of the business through IT. These aims, and a growing conviction that the original data warehouse architecture struggles to meet modern business needs for near real-time business intelligence (BI) and support for big data, drove Barry’s latest book, Business unIntelligence: Insight and Innovation Beyond Analytics, now available in print and eBook editions.

Barry has worked in the IT industry for more than 30 years, mainly as a Distinguished Engineer for IBM in Dublin, Ireland. He is now founder and principal of 9sight Consulting, specializing in the human, organizational and IT implications and design of deep business insight solutions.

Editor's Note: Find more articles and resources in Barry's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel and blog. Be sure to visit today!

Claudia Imhoff and Colin White have a lengthy history of insightful and provocative contributions to the development of Business Intelligence. Their recent article, Decision Intelligence, is no exception. Their thesis is that the IT support needed for decision-making, now known as "Business Intelligence", today extends far beyond the traditional domain of data warehousing and is in need of a new architecture and a new name - Decision Intelligence.

I fully agree. I've been using the terms "Highly Evolved Business" and "Business Insight" over the past year or so to express exactly the same thought. Indeed, Claudia, Colin and I have discussed this whole idea already at length and are very much on the same page. But I hadn't seen their architecture picture before, and it gives me the opportunity to discuss the whole topic from a higher perspective in this and the next post.

Under Decision intelligence, the architecture shows three vertical blocks called "Business process intelligence", "Business data intelligence" and "Business content intelligence". The meanings of these blocks are fairly obvious, but take a look at the linked article for a full explanation. My thought is that they are almost too obvious: they closely reflect our current arrangement of systems building blocks in the IT world.

Let's first examine the data and content blocks. Today, if you look at typical enterprise implementations, you will certainly see databases and separate content stores. You'll also notice independent systems built upon these separate stores. But, if you step back from the storage and processing issues, it's pretty difficult to distinguish between the two categories. Try explaining the difference to a business user!

Take an example of a clinician who's trying to make a treatment decision. She's looking at a chest x-ray - content in our terms. And she's also looking at the "structured data" that goes with it: this x-ray is of a 45 year old male, smoker of 20 cigarettes a day for the past 30 years who has been admitted with shortness of breath. Does she see unstructured content and structured data that must somehow be combined in her decision making? I'd argue not. She simply sees a set of information she's using.

And some of the old barriers between the storage of structured data and unstructured content are breaking down. Where is the EXIF data (structured metadata) of a photo stored? Yes, in the JPG file along with the unstructured content. Where do e-mail systems store the structured metadata about sender, subject, date sent, etc? Sure, in the database with the unstructured e-mail body content.

I could make a similar argument about the lack of distinction between real-time data (or operational) data and historical (data warehouse) data.

My point is that if we want to create a new vision for the future, we need to start seeing the world through non-IT eyes. It's all information. It's a single concept; a single category of "stuff". And we in IT need to start creating the tools and methods that allow us to create, manage and make available all information in a coherent and consistent way. At a conceptual level, that has to be the goal and that should be our first pictorial representation.

Keep that thought in mind. I'll come back to next time when I look at the process side of the picture.

Posted September 1, 2008 10:51 AM
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