Introduction to data warehousing (Oracle Warehouse Builder 11gR2)

Although you may not be familiar with data warehousing, you have probably at least heard the term. Data warehouses are becoming increasingly common as businesses have realized the need to be able to mine the information they have stored in the electronic form in order to provide a valuable insight into the operation of their business and how best to improve it. Organizations need to monitor these processes, define policies, and—at a more strategic level—define the visions and goals that will move the company forward in the future. Operational transactional systems have greatly benefited the daily functioning of the enterprise. But now, organizations are shifting to a more decisional-based requirement from their computing platforms and are looking to build data warehouses. This is where OWB enters the picture to help organizations with the task of building that data warehouse.

Introduction to our fictional organization

The manuals that Oracle supplies with its database and applications contain a great deal of information. However, it can be hard to relate that information to the real-world ways of implementing the database and applications. Anyone who has ever tried to read a technical user guide or reference provided with a database or application will know what that means. It is a great benefit to be able to learn about a new software tool by seeing how that tool is actually used within the context of an actual organization conducting a business. This is precisely the focus of this topic. We’ll be building an actual data warehouse using a fictional organization as an example.

Before we talk about what a data warehouse is, let’s get introduced to the fictional organization we’ll be using to demonstrate the use of the Warehouse Builder to build a data warehouse. Throughout this topic, we will be using examples of the concepts involved by making reference to a fictional organization named ACME Toys and Gizmos, which is sales oriented. It is an entirely made-up organization, and any similarity to a real company is completely coincidental. This topic will provide explanations throughout on how to use the OWB tool to build a data warehouse within the context of this invented company, which is involved in storefront and online Internet sales. Thus, it will demonstrate practical ways of implementing a data warehouse that can be directly applied in the real world.

ACME Toys and Gizmos will have stores all over the United States as well as a number of other countries, and will also have an online storefront for Internet sales. The online transactional processing systems (OLTP) play a huge role in the functioning of any business today, especially in the operation of a sales-oriented business. So this makes a good example to illustrate the subject matter of data warehousing and how to take information from those OLTP systems to load our warehouse.

Although we’ll be using a sales organization for our examples, the concepts we’ll discuss can apply to any business and will be as generic as possible to assist in doing that.

What is a data warehouse?

We’ve discussed the business case for implementing a data warehouse by showing how companies these days need information to support strategic-level decision making. We’ve also introduced the fictional organization that we’ll use to provide examples of the concepts we’ll be presenting. But we’ve not yet explained what a data warehouse is.

We will not be dealing in detail with the concept of a data warehouse as that topic would encompass the entire contents of a topic by itself. There are a number of good books already written about that topic. Therefore, we will touch upon some high-level concepts only as an introduction and to provide a context for using OWB to build a data warehouse.

Fundamentally, a data warehouse is a decisional database system. It is designed to support the decision makers in the organization in ways a transactional processing system is ill-equipped to handle, such as the strategic-level goals and visions of an organization. To think strategically, a large amount of data over long periods of time is needed. Transactional systems are concerned with the day-to-day operations such as: How many dolls did we sell today and will we need to restock the inventory? How many orders were processed today? How many balls were shipped out today? The strategic thinkers are more concerned with questions such as: How many dolls did we sell today compared to the same time period in the last year? How has our inventory level been for the last few months?

To support that level of information, we need more data than what is provided by the day-to-day transactions. We’ll need much more information compiled over greater time periods and this is where the data warehouse comes in. As a data warehouse is different from a transactional database, there are some unique terms used to describe the data it contains. There are also other techniques that should be employed for designing the database for a data warehouse, which would not be a good idea for a transactional database.

The data in a data warehouse is composed of facts (actual numerical measures) and dimensions (descriptive data about those measures) that place the facts in a context that is understandable to the end-user decision maker. For instance, a customer makes a purchase of a toy with ACME Toys and Gizmos on a particular day over the Internet, which results in a dollar amount of the transaction. The dollar amount becomes the fact and the toy purchased, the customer, and the location of the purchase (the Internet in this case) become the dimensions that provide a scope of the fact measurement and give it a meaning.

The design of a data warehouse should be different from that of a transactional database. The data warehouse must handle large amounts of data, and must be simple to query and understand by the end users. While relational techniques and normalization are excellent database design methods for transactional systems to ensure data integrity, they can make understanding a data warehouse difficult for the end users. They can also bog down a data warehouse with long-running queries that have to make use of many joins (including more than one table that share a common data element to look up additional data).

A much better means of representing the data is to de-normalize the data, so that users will not have to be concerned with retrieving the data from multiple tables. The use of foreign keys (a column that references a row in another table) should be restricted in a data warehouse. The outcome is a fact table with foreign keys only to each of the dimension tables. The diagram of the database structure has a fact table in the middle surrounded by dimension tables, resulting in something that looks like a star. Thus, the term star schema is used to refer to this representation of a data warehouse. It is also possible that these dimensions may themselves have other tables surrounding them, resulting in something akin to a snowflake. Thus, the term snowflake schema is also used. This is the dimensional modeling technique of representing a data warehouse.

This design lends itself extremely well to the task of querying large amounts of data by the end users. Users do not have to be bothered with queries involving complicated joins with multiple tables to get the descriptive information they need. This is because the information is included directly in the dimension tables in a de-normalized fashion. If a manager for ACME Toys and Gizmos needs to know what products sold well in the last quarter, the query will only involve two tables—the main fact table containing the data on number of items sold and the product dimension table that contains all the information about the product. The de-normalization means the manager will not have to be concerned with looking up product information in any other tables, as all the details about the product will be included in the one dimension table.

All this is great background information on data warehouses, but you can read any number of other books for much more detailed material on the topic. Our purpose in this topic is to introduce the Oracle Warehouse Builder and use it to design and build our first data warehouse. So, let’s see how it fits in to this discussion of data warehousing.

Where does OWB fit in?

The Oracle Warehouse Builder is a tool provided by Oracle, which can be used at every stage of the implementation of a data warehouse, from initial design and creation of the table structure to the ETL process and data-quality management. So, the answer to the question of where it fits in is—everywhere. It is provided as a part of the Oracle Database Release 11g installation. For the previous Oracle Database Releases, it can be downloaded and installed from Oracle’s website as a free download.

We can choose to use any or all of the features as needed for our project, so we do not need to use every feature. Simple data warehouse implementations will use a subset of the features and as the data warehouse grows in complexity, the tool provides more features that can be implemented. It is flexible enough to provide us a number of options for implementing our data warehouse as we’ll see in the remainder of the topic.

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