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Metadata, part 3

Business and technical metadata are very different animals.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

Metadata has been around for as long as there have been computer programs. In the earliest days, metadata was embedded inside program code. Today we are a lot more sophisticated about metadata – we have repositories, universes and DBMS directories. We have metadata in almost every type of technology that we encounter. 

But look around. When you examine metadata as we know it today, there is something missing. There is a parallel universe that is always right around the corner. And that parallel universe is one of business metadata. 

You see, what is called metadata today is really technical metadata. Technical metadata, which has been with us from the beginning, describes tables, columns, physical characteristics and so forth. 

Technical metadata is for the technician who uses it for a wide variety of purposes. The technician uses technical metadata for maintenance of systems, for the planning of new extensions to systems, the day-to-day operational running of existing systems, capacity planning and many other purposes. Technical metadata is the lingua franca of the technical staff. 

Business metadata is related, but different. Business metadata is for the businessperson. It is in the language and context of business, not technology. The businessperson uses business metadata every day, in one form or another. 

Business metadata is much less organized and much less formalized than technical metadata. (This comes as a surprise to the technician who often thinks of technical metadata as unruly and undisciplined.) 

The problem with business metadata is that it is so common. To understand why this is a problem, consider the very basis of metadata. Metadata is something that describes something else. In technical metadata, columns describe how data is to be interpreted in a given record. A table describes the collection of records. The physical description of a column describes how the system physically finds and interprets data, and so forth. In technical metadata, there is a very clear definition as to what is being described. On the other hand, almost anything can be business metadata. The name of a drill bit describes a mechanical device in a drilling rig. A drilling rig is known by a name and a location. An oilfield is known by geological and geographical features. An oil company is known as a name and a legal entity. In fact, almost every business word is merely a description of something else. That makes any formal treatment of business metadata very difficult. 

In addition to this confusion, the relationships of technical metadata to other technical metadata are fairly uniformly defined. But in business metadata, there simply are no rules whatsoever regarding relationships. Every relationship imaginable may be found (and then some). There are simply no boundaries for business metadata. 

All of these differences between technical metadata and business metadata make a formal treatment of business metadata formidable.

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