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The data warehouse ETL toolkit

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What the Data Warehouse Is Not

What constitutes a data warehouse is often misunderstood. To this day, you can ask 10 experts to define a data warehouse, and you are likely to get 10 different responses. The biggest disparity usually falls in describing exactly what components are considered to be part of the data warehouse project. To clear up any misconceptions, anyone who is going to be part of a data warehouse team, especially on the ETL team, must know his or her boundaries.

The environment of a data warehouse includes several components, each with its own suite of designs, techniques, tools, and products. The most important thing to remember is that none of these things alone constitutes a data warehouse. The ETL system is a major component of the data warehouse, but many other components are required for a complete implementation. Throughout our experiences of implementing data warehouses, we've seen team members struggling with the same misconceptions over and over again. The top five things the data warehouse is mistaken to be are as follows:

  1. A product. Contrary to many vendor claims, you cannot buy a data warehouse. A data warehouse includes system analysis, data manipulation and cleansing, data movement, and finally dimensional modeling and data access. No single product can achieve all of the tasks involved in building a data warehouse.

  2. A language. One cannot learn to code a data warehouse in the way you learn to implement XML, SQL, VB, or any other programming language. The data warehouse is composed of several components, each likely to require one or more programming or data-specification languages.

  3. A project. A properly deployed data warehouse consists of many projects (and phases of projects). Any attempt to deploy a data warehouse as a single project will almost certainly fail. Successful data warehouses plan at the enterprise level yet deploy manageable dimensional data marts. Each data mart is typically considered a separate project with its own timeline and budget. A crucial factor is that each data mart contains conformed dimensions and standardized facts so that each integrates into a single cohesive unit—the enterprise data warehouse. The enterprise data warehouse evolves and grows as each data mart project is completed. A better way to think of a data warehouse is as a process, not as a project.

  4. A data model. A data model alone does not make a data warehouse. Recall that the data warehouse is a comprehensive process that, by definition, must include the ETL process. After all, without data, even the best-designed data model is useless.

  5. A copy of your transaction system. A common mistake is to believe copying your operational system into a separate reporting system creates a data warehouse. Just as the data model alone does not create a data warehouse, neither does executing the data movement process without restructuring the data store.

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This was first published in October 2005

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