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A Three-Horse Race

Published
  • May 01 1998, 1:00am EDT
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OLAP (on-line analytical processing) has definitely crossed the chasm in the technology adoption process. OLAP raises the business IQ, supporting fast analysis of data that has complex interrelationships. Because of OLAP's obvious business benefits, products in the OLAP marketplace have proliferated. The market is now maturing and the means to effectively implement multiple OLAP products has to sort itself out. In late January, the OLAP Council, which is comprised of most, if not all, of the significant OLAP vendors, announced a new version 2.0 of their standard application programming interface (API), the MDAPI (multidimensional API). This announcement was meant to establish an open standard between thin clients and servers for OLAP applications. A standard is needed to share information between various products. The OLAP Council's goal is a very good thing.

However, a race is about to be run, and the MDAPI is only one horse in the race. There are two others. Another racehorse at the gate is Microsoft's OLE DB for OLAP standard. And the third is the status quo, where there are a variety of proprietary APIs with no true standard. The race is about which standard for interoperability among OLAP applications will win out. Each racehorse has its pluses and minuses regarding its potential for winning the race.

Microsoft, with its product (code-named Plato), is brand new to the OLAP market, yet it thinks that the market will adopt not only its product, but its proprietary API as a standard as well, on the strength of the Microsoft name. This, indeed, has happened in the past. Consider their dominance in the desktop market, especially in word processing, spreadsheet and presentation packages. Their interoperability mechanism among these programs is DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model), which they simply expect the market will adopt as standard because it's Microsoft. This despite the fact almost everyone else in the market except Microsoft would like to embrace CORBA. Clearly, Microsoft expects their horse to be the hands-down winner.

The status quo horse, with no standard, is not necessarily as disadvantageous as it sounds. As it turns out, Arbor's Essbase, with its proprietary API and wide deployment in the market, has almost become the de facto standard in the industry. Arbor leads the market in real-world product usage. While the Essbase API is not "open," most vendors already interface to Essbase or plan to in the near future. In fact, IBM selected the Essbase engine and API as their interface for doing OLAP against DB2 databases on multiple platforms. The Arbor Essbase API can now be used to do either MOLAP (multidimensional OLAP) or ROLAP (relational OLAP). In addition, many third parties like IQ Software, Crystal Info, Crystal Reports, BrioQuery and CorVu already interface to Essbase as front ends. Even with competition, this horse appears to have the lead out of the gate.

The MDAPI horse seems to have the support of the vast majority of OLAP vendors, as well as some non-Council members like Sun and Netscape. However, while Arbor is a member of the OLAP Council, they had not, as of this writing, announced support for the new MDAPI. Vendors will need to announce support for MDAPI Version 2.0, and it will need to reach a critical mass in the industry to be the winning horse. But Microsoft will undoubtedly not support MDAPI no matter what, preferring instead to pursue their own API. This makes the MDAPI horse hobbled; in fact, the MDAPI and Microsoft horses have their front legs tied together. If the MDAPI horse wins and Microsoft does not adopt it, there are two standards (can two horses cross the finish line together?). An organization wanting Cognos' PowerPlay to interface to Microsoft applications will need to use OLE DB for OLAP, while interfacing PowerPlay to Oracle, for example, would require use of the MDAPI interface.

If only the Microsoft horse wins, we have essentially a closed, proprietary solution that is not platform neutral--great for Microsoft, but not so good for the rest of us who are faced with very real interoperability problems with other vendor products.

Standards are good things. They make life easier for us in developing and deploying business solutions. OLAP is a powerful technology that most forward-thinking organizations utilize as a part of their business intelligence suite of tools. One API horse (Arbor) is already out of the gate, and the other two (Microsoft and MDAPI) are at the starting line, charged up for the race. It will be interesting to see which horse wins or if indeed they are hobbled, and no clear winner emerges. In my opinion, the industry would be better served if only one horse wins the blue ribbon.

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