Semantic Layer Flavors

Semantics relates to discovering the meaning of the message behind the words. In the context of data and BI, semantics represents the user’s perspective of data: how the end user views the data to derive knowledge from it. As a modeler, your job is to translate the machine-friendly database structures and terminology into a user-friendly semantic layer that describes the business problems to be solved and centralizes business calculations. Different vendors have different ideology and implementations of semantic layers. Some, such as Oracle and MicroStrategy, implement the semantic layer as a thin, pass-through layer whose main goal is to centralize access to data sources, metadata and business calculations in a single place.

A Fortune 100 company that had a major investment in Oracle engaged us to recommend a solution for complementing their OBIEE semantic layer with user-friendly reporting tool that would allow end users to create ad hoc transactional reports from their Oracle Exadata-based enterprise data warehouse. In the OBIEE world, the role of the semantic layer is fulfilled by the Common Enterprise Information Model that encompasses data sources, metrics, calculations, definitions, and hierarchies. When users submit report queries, the Oracle BI Server compiles incoming requests and auto-generates native queries against the data sources plugged in the Common Enterprise Information Model.

In theory, this “thin” implementation should work pretty well. In reality, several issues surface:

  1. Performance – Any tool, either a reporting tool or semantic layer, that auto-generates queries should be highly suspect of performance issues. First, no matter how well the tool is designed, it’s unlikely that it would generate efficient queries in all cases. Second, because the tool sends the query to the underlying data source, the overall report performance is determined by how fast the data source crunches data. In this case, the organization was facing performance issues with data aggregation. To circumvent them, their BI developers have implemented summarized fact tables. Once the user reaches the lowest level of the summary fact table, OBIEE would allow the user to drill down to a chained table, such as the actual fact table. Needless to say, business users were complaining that analysis was limited to the dimensionality of the summarized fact table. Further, to avoid severe performance issues with historical reports, the BI developers have taken the “no big aggregations, no problem” approach by forcing a time filter on each request that touches the large fact tables. This effectively precluded historical analysis by year, quarter, etc.
  2. Scalability – When a query involves multiple data source, OBIEE would send a query to each data source, load the data in memory, and then join the datasets together to find matching data. This also presents performance and scalability challenges. To solve performance and scalability issues with “thin” semantic layers and biggish data, organizations ultimately resort to expensive back-end MPP systems, such as Teradata or Netezza, which can parallelize data crunching and compensate for inefficient auto-generated queries.
  3. Common Denominator – You’re limited you to a subset of supported features of the underlying data source.
  4. Vendor Dependency – Such an architecture ultimately locks you in the data sources supported by the vendor. What happens when there is a new version of the data source that has some cool new features? Well, you need to wait until the vendor officially supports the new version and its extensions.

In the Microsoft BI world, the role of the semantic layer is fulfilled by the Business Intelligence Semantic Model (BISM). BISM is an umbrella name that encompasses two technologies: Multidimensional for implementing OLAP cubes and Tabular for designing relational-like models. The big difference is that by default both Multidimensional and Tabular store data on the server. In order words, from a data perspective, you can view BISM and its default storage mode (MOLAP for Multidimensional and xVelocity for Tabular) as a disk-based (MOLAP) or in-memory (xVelocity) cache of the data in your data warehouse. This proprietary storage is designed for fast data crunching even with billions of rows. You pay a price for loading and refreshing the data but you enjoy great query performance with historical and trend reports. And, you get a great ROI because you may not need an expensive MPP appliance or excessive data maintenance. When sent to BISM, queries are served by BISM, and not by the RDBMS. No need for summarized tables and time filters.