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OLAP: Analyzing Data from Different Dimensions

OLAP is an acronym that stands for On Line Analytical Processing–a somewhat fancy term for another fancy term, multidimensional analysis. OLAP is the process of analyzing data from different dimensions, which is why the objects to be analyzed are called OLAP cubes.

What this means, in simple terms, is prioritizing the way data is shown by a given column. For example, if you have a table of data about sales, you can analyze it by product type (a dimension), by demographic (another dimension), by geographic region (another dimension), etc. The data you see can even be always the same, but it is prioritized by whatever column you place first–which we call a dimension. In practice, this requires the data dimensions to be pre-calculated.

Multidimensional databases are usually quite complex architectures. In these databases, intersections of relevant data become more apparent so that the data is easier to group, summarize and analyze. For example, OLAP allows an analyst to answer questions like “how many computers have been sold in Canada this year?” and “of those sold in Canada, how many were sold to people over 50?”

Now, there are “cube viewers” that can be accessed via Web services–such as Microsoft Analysis Services–that make the process a lot lighter and easier.

The Benefits of Web-based OLAP Analysis

  • Powerful, complete analysis that answers “why” and “how” questions – Multidimensional analysis allows for a great degree of understanding of the reasons behind the data. This is what is called “slicing and dicing” of data–namely looking at it at different levels of detail as well as from different perspectives to understand it better.
  • Interactive access to OLAP data – Users can slice and dice cube data all on the fly by various dimensions, measures and filters all within their Web browsers.
  • Zero-footprint access to OLAP analysis – With Web-based access, IT personnel can set up connection to OLAP cubes in minutes. When users access the OLAP reporting interface, no client software has to be installed. They easily perform on-demand analysis in the Web-browser.