Have you ever considered the Data Warehouse as a chaotic system? The work of the Data Warehouse team is never complete: new requirements trickle in every day, and user feedback gets more and more sophisticated as time passes. Chaos Theory can help explain this, and in the end, offer us some insight into how we can better plan Data Warehouse development, deployment, and maintenance.

butterfly effect 150x150 Chaos Theory and the Data WarehouseThe Data Warehouse is a process which forms the center of an information supply supply chain, with several inputs and several outputs. Each input and each output is subject to change based on factors such as vendor upgrades, new interfaces, expanded interfaces, and perhaps most importantly end-user (client) evolution. All of these changes happen continuously. As people use the Data Warehouse, they become more inquisitive. They want their output and analysis rolled up or down in different ways. Predicting (i.e. planning) for Data Warehouse change can be as difficult as predicting (and therefore planning for) the weather. This environment of ever-changing needs fits neatly into the confines of Chaos Theory. But what is chaos in this context? What is Chaos Theory exactly?

From the book “Chaos Theory Tamed”, author Garnett P. Williams writes:

Chaos is sustained and disorderly-looking long-term evolution that satisfies certain mathematical criteria and that occurs in a deterministic non-linear system. Chaos theory is the principles and mathematical operations underlining chaos. (pg 9)

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s determined that even the tiniest differences in an initial measurement can have a huge impact on an outcome. In other words, as his butterfly effect posits, a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can affect weather patterns in North America. Weather is a system which has a highly sensitive dependence on its initial inputs.

The foundation of the Data Warehouse is only as stable as how you control for the tiniest changes to the inputs into the information structure. As weather, it too has a highly sensitive dependence on inputs. One tiny change to a source system can have almost catastrophic effects on the Data Warehouse.

Finding Order

However, despite the chaos, we should be able to find some order. This is what Lorenz and scientists after him tried to do. The first step in this process is understanding that even seemingly random changes are not always as random as they seem. If we can understand that changes to our Data Warehouse are not random, then we can build a better Data Warehouse.

There are a few things you can do to tame the chaos:

  • Be consistent and systematic. The more predictable you and your Data Warehouse team are, the easier it will be handle change. In other words, control any and all variables that you can.
  • Adopt proven analysis and development methodologies that others have had success with. This is not to say that some level of adaptation to your environment, team skills, and situation are not required, but rather, start off with a good foundation and follow along where it makes sense.
  • Keep the team close. Quality and frequent interaction among the people who make and run the DWH is essential.
  • Stay in the groove like an improvisational jazz band. If your data modelers are not in tune with your decision-support analysts who are not in tune with your DBA, then you can’t expect to handle the challenges of chaos.
  • Feedback and evolution are two very important aspects of Data Warehousing. Keep your ear to the wall and try to anticipate changes before they occur. This takes practice, but (back to the improvisational jazz band analogy) practice makes perfect.
  • Keep in step. In the Data Warehouse world, change is natural and will come in waves. More significantly, if changes cannot be implemented quickly, your clients will lose confidence in your ability to keep up.
  • Think and act quickly. The longer you debate, the longer your client must wait. While they wait, they construct workarounds or look elsewhere. If you’re lucky and they do wait for you, their change may become outdated and no longer relevant; an opportunity might have been missed (and you’ve essentially failed them).
  • Don’t be afraid to be wrong. The consequence of acting quickly is that you might get something wrong. Just be agile enough to respond and deliver new change with urgency.

I’ll post more thoughts on this over the next weeks. I’m particularly interested in how users of the Data Warehouse become more and more sophisticated as they use its tools and applications.