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Business Intelligence – What is it?

In the world of management speak it is common practice to re-brand an essentially old idea with a new name. Many years ago we had EIS (executive information systems), decision support systems  and MI (management information) systems.  I am sure there are experts out there who will post me precise definitions of these and be able to define the differences, but today this kind of solution is generally referred to as Business Intelligence (BI).  What BI does is to make sense of the various types of structured data in a company and present this to the business user (aka Information Workers) in such a way that this can be analysed and reported on with little further support from the IT professional.

Business Intelligence is a collection of technologies :

  • Behind the scenes BI relies on a data warehouse over which are laid various reporting and analysis tools.  So now you’re asking what’s a data warehouse? Essentially this is a slightly strange database where data from disparate line of business systems is gathered into one cohesive structure that is optimised for reporting rather than transaction throughput. 


  • Traditionally various reporting tools are then used to access this. Our offering is called Reporting Services which I mentioned a couple of days ago.  This comes with most editions  (workgroup and higher) of SQL Server so in a small business that has SQL server already, Reporting Services should be available to use.


  • For real ad hoc analysis where the business wants to get insight from the data that isn’t immediately apparent,  there are two other techniques that come into play; On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP) and Data Mining, both of which are big subjects in their own right.  Analysis Services has both OLAP and data mining capabilities and this is also included in in some editions (standard and upwards) of SQL Server.


  • The final piece of the puzzle is a tool to move all the data around, change its structure, and possibly derive some calculations or other add some other logic.  We’re IT Professionals so of course we have an acronym for this kind of tool and like the term OLAP it’s not that obvious what it does. The process is called ETL; Extract (move the data), Transform (change it around), and Load (add what we just did to the information we already have from previous process runs).  There is yet another part of SQL Server for this which is now (in SQL server 2005) called Integration Services which is available in standard and higher editions of SQL server.

 So that’s a view of BI from about 5 miles away and your question is why do I need to do this at all? My next post will address this, but if it wasn’t a really valuable part of a modern business, why do so many and varied companies implement a BI solution.  If there isn’t any obvious BI in your company, then there will be at least one person using the most complex set of excel spreadsheets you will have seen and that will be what the business will be relying on to set it’s strategy, and that’s your BI solution.