Executive Information Systems Don't Count

Our original question was: What is a data warehouse? As we've discovered, it's a large, centralized, specialized database for doing data management and executive reporting. In the old days, we just called such databases executive information systems (EISs). A logical question is then: How is a data warehouse different from an EIS? While it may not be readily apparent, there are some key differences.

The primary difference is the intended audience. EISs were built just to support making tactical decisions, meaning they were used by mid-level management. But, an effective data warehouse will support both mid-level and true executive management for both tactical and strategic decisions. A data warehouse contains the data necessary to make decisions such as "Should we even be in this business?" and "Is the return on investment (ROI) of the current business the best we can do, or is there another business whose opportunity cost makes it worth considering?"

Another key difference is the method used to obtain that information. EISs generally provided mostly canned reports, with limited user-driven query capabilities. As such, tuning an EIS database was generally very straightforward. A data warehouse, on the other hand, possesses fewer canned reports?reports are mostly used for tactical decision-making. These strategic decisions require much more business-savvy user interaction. The user typically poses what-if scenarios to drill down to a conclusion. As such, tuning a data warehouse is a monumental challenge. The DBA must find a structure conducive to any number of unknown and often nightmarish queries.

By far, the biggest difference is the sheer magnitude in size difference between an EIS and data warehouse. The EIS databases preceded today's cheap hardware, so they tended to be on the same size scale as the OTLP systems from which they were derived. This indeed is quite important, because tuning a billion-row, multi-gigabyte table is a big challenge, even with today's super-fast hardware. In fact, yesteryears' database systems could not handle databases of this magnitude, let alone optimize queries against them.

So, data warehousing has genuinely become a market niche for any DBA. But, there is a price to be paid by DBAs making this switch, as they will find their OLTP skills and instincts will quickly erode. More importantly, other DBAs will find the data warehousing DBA to appear arrogant at times. Because, after dealing with billions of rows and hundreds of gigabytes to terabytes, how does one get excited about typical OLTP sizes? It's actually quite fun to sound like Carl Sagan and state: "My average table has billions and billions of rows…"