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The Not So Great Debate

Published
  • January 01 1998, 1:00am EST

The IT industry loves to argue. This passion for rhetorical combat is exemplified in the current debate over the "right way" to build data marts. This debate pits centralized data warehouse proponents against advocates for distributed data marts in a no-holds-barred contest for credibility and attention.

In ongoing attempts to win support from IT consumers, both sides periodically unleash withering verbal salvos at each other. These attacks appear in press releases, conference proceedings and the trade magazines. The most interesting aspect of this entire debate is that both factions are energetically arguing positions that have grown increasingly similar with time. In fact, they are perilously close to agreeing with each other!

The most obvious topic of agreement between the two camps is the need to avoid lengthy, large-scale development lifecycles. Even the most die-hard centralized data warehouse proponents have recognized that expensive, multi-year projects are very risky and rarely end in success. As a result, they now advocate a development approach intended to deliver functionality in an ongoing, incremental fashion. This incremental approach has been a cornerstone of the data mart movement since its inception.

Both sides of the debate also agree on the need for a logically consistent view of data throughout the organization. This absolute need for consistency has forced distributed data mart proponents to openly recognize the importance of logically integrating data. Equally important, they have also come to understand the negative consequences that accompany data which is not consistent.

Some members of the distributed data mart camp have begun advocating the use of an operational data store (ODS) as the preferred means of insuring consistent data across physically separate data marts. This endorsement of the ODS conveniently allows them to propose a practical architecture while not resorting to the "E" (enterprise warehouse) word.

With both factions agreeing on the key points of incremental development and data consistency, the largest remaining point of contention is how to optimally achieve these common goals. It is on this point of implementation that the war of words really heats up.

The enterprise faction insists that data marts must be preceded by an enterprise-scale data warehouse which should be delivered incrementally. They argue that only after delivering the enterprise warehouse can you build logically consistent data marts.

Data mart advocates wholeheartedly disagree with this position. They counter it by pointing out that the incremental delivery of enterprise functionality is precisely what they have been advocating for years. They use this argument to conclude that the enterprise camp has finally jumped on the data mart bandwagon!

This part of the debate has more to do with differing jargon than genuine technical substance. The truth of the matter is that both sides have moved so far toward adopting each other's positions that the entire centralized versus decentralized data mart argument has become academic. Industry focus should now shift toward practical implementation techniques that allow both incremental development and data integration. These techniques, which are not new, will be the subject of future columns.

The final argument over implementation strategy notwithstanding, this growing consensus between the centralized and decentralized factions is positive for the industry as a whole. It signifies that both groups are becoming more concerned with practical ideas than with dogma.

Amidst all this technical squabbling, business people continue their efforts to keep the wheels of capitalism turning. To do this, they desperately need to understand who their customers are, what they buy and what makes them happy. Business people don't care if they get information from a data mart or a data warehouse. All they want is the right information.

There are many IT shops that understand this business perspective. They know, with absolute certainty, that business concerns must be the focal point of all they do. These business-centered IT operations would be grateful if the warring data mart factions would stop hurling the rhetorical equivalent of Molotov cocktails and focus on helping them deliver the goods.

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