You’ve probably noticed that you shouldn’t trust this blog for real-time news tracking. The following are essentially timeless, however, so here we go…
Jeff Smith exposes his Golden Rule of data Manipulation over at sqlteam.com. While he elaborates on his statement from a programmer’s standpoint, it’s all applicable to knowledge workers and spreadsheets:
“It is always easier and more flexible to combine data elements rather than to break them apart”
From a data analysis standpoint, Jeff’s examples are essentially related to what I would call attributes (such as phone numbers). His rule still holds true with values, though. As you work towards summarizing a data set (say, daily financial transactions that you want to analyze by month), you’ll want to aggregate values as late as possible instead of running the risk of losing valuable information by aggregating too early. Spreadsheet programs hit a limit between 65k and 1M records, but there are tools to take it from there – which brings us to Paul Steynberg’s advice for considering OLAP tools as part of a financial system manager’s toolbox.
OLAP technologies are particularly well suited to handling large amounts of data. I personally share Paul’s opinion of Microsoft’s SQL Server Analysis Services, which I would describe to the non-initiated as Excel on steroids. On lots of steroids, that is. SSAS gives you access to summaries and advanced computations based on millions of underlying records, usually responding in just a few seconds.
EDIT (Sep. 10, 2008): Using a definition as crude as “Excel on steroids” for SSAS left me feeling a little guilty. I’m over it now, having just read Andrew Fryer’s post on business intelligence for small business😉