APR 10, 2012 5:40am ET

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Big Data and the Coming Conceptual Model Revolution


Conceptual modeling, or semantic modeling if you like, is a rather nebulous area in data management. There seems to be a lot of agreement that it is needed, some disagreement about what it is, and little understanding of how to do it. Yet I believe we are now at a point where we will be forced to deal with it in a far more serious way than we have in the past.

Definitional Problems

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Comments (9)
Good thought provoking article - thanks Malcolm.


3) Appearing on the same record only reveals an indirect relationship between the two columns through the concept represented by the table itself. It does not define a direct relationship between the two items. Consider two further cases: a) Other columns on the same record, such as Item or Sales Order Notes likely have no relationship to Total Sales Amount Currency, other than being indirectly related via each columns relationship to the table concept (e.g. Order); b) there may be more than one currency column to cover other amounts in different currencies (e.g. Shipping, Cost, Commission, etc.), being on the same record provides no discrete relationship between the amounts and the currencies that apply to them

Having said that, I disagree with the statement that this could not be modeled in a data model. One could model this example such that the amount is a discrete record with its currency, and this record related to the containing transaction. Since we are talking conceptual/logical models, not physical, performance is not a concern.

4) I think the author means that the records within the code table have business meaning themselves, but since they are treated as just "data" they are not individually modeled. For example, if you have a Shipping Mode table, it could contain "A - AIR" and "G - GROUND". I understood the author to be stating a conceptual model would be an improvement since it could model AIR and GROUND as model concepts whereas in a data model they would not exist - they are simply data/records (i.e. instances of Shipping Mode).

Again I see a number of ways to model this in existing data models, such as sub types. I'm not sure where the author draws the line between "concept" and "data". In his envisioned conceptual model would he have each of a organization's customers, vendors and products modeled as separate concepts??? Sounds like a Big Model, not Big Data.

I see methods in existing logical data modeling around each of the issues the author raises. In particular, I would be interested to hear how UML would not fit the bill here.

-- Chris

Posted by Chris C | Thursday, April 12 2012 at 3:13PM ET
Hi Malcolm,

You speak my mind.

I agree that there is a need for modeling that represents the business that is not tied to relational paradigm and without regard to how it will be implemented (ISAM, VSAM, Relational, Big Data, Modeling for BI, ...) later on.

Granted that building these models are time consuming and require interaction with several business users and most businesses won't support it as part of technology projects (not time or $$). I believe the task of building these conceptual models need to be taken up as part of EIM initiatives and should form the foundation for all technology initiatives related to BIG Data, MDM, Analytical and Transactional projects.

I have been advocating these models more in the context of MDM and learned interesting aspects of the business in building these conceptual models that I call "Semantic Business Models". I primarily built these models for Customer Domain as part of MDM initiatives. Some of these observations are:

1. There exists aspects of business that are not handled by any of the existing IT applications (At one client, approximately 40% of the customer information that business is looking for and is using it through other means is not found in any of the IT applications that exists at this firm). 2. Business will use whatever means to get the information they are looking for. This often means important data buried in documents like word, excel, subscriptions to third party content providers, etc. 3. Business Users loved these models which are representation of their business activities and the information that need to support them. They can easily understand it with very little explanation of how to read these models. 4. These models were used creatively for other uses. To quote few examples - at one client, the Semantic Business Model has become part of the training curriculum that is used to onboard new Sales Representatives. At another Client, this document was used to introduce the business to the new CIO on day one on the job. 5. It takes volumes of writing to represent and lot of time to read and understand the same, if the information represented in these models needs to be described in text. 6. POCs built on these models were well received by both Business and IT.

Well, I can go on and on ....

The moral I learned is that there is a need to do a conceptual modeling exercise that is different from the conceptual modeling that is carried out today with strong dependency upon relational paradigm.

Thanks, Mani

Posted by Mani Kumar M | Friday, April 13 2012 at 6:41AM ET
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