The OLAP oxymoron

The mid 90’s were marked by the mass adoption of the Internet. This revolution was so significant, that has somewhat lessened the effect of other advances, quite revolutionary on their own right. One of them was On-Line Analytical Processing, or OLAP for short.

By that time, OLAP did not exist as a buzzword, but another buzzword did exist: OLTP (On-Line Transaction Processing). People used OLTP and talked about OLTP for years. It was the technology that allowed them to enter and process transactions in real-time. With OLTP, normal business operations were being performed as they occurred, and this was really convenient, compared to models that existed in the 70’s or early 80’s. Before OLTP, systems were not on-line and what needed to be done was noted and then, at a later time, was processed.

So OLTP was a real revolution for its day. In mid 90’s though, OLTP was already established as the common way of doing business. It was at that time that people started talking and writing about OLAP. And companies started to come forth with OLAP solutions.

But it was one thing to talk about OLTP, and a completely different thing to talk about OLAP. OLAP was something that was impossible. Analytical processing? Yes. Online analytical processing? Impossible. Absurd.

At the time, when businesses needed to perform analysis on their data, they needed to run their analysis procedures on their data, and then, at some point, get results. Need to see sales by region? Certainly. IT will provide you with that report in a month. What was that? Product categories by region *and* year? OK. We’ll have a mainframe running batch processes for three months and, then, you will give you that report. And other results, no matter how useful, that were not able to be calculated in a reasonable amount of time, just weren’t produced.

And, then, this new buzzword, OLTP, came out. And at the time, it was provocative. Those days back, the name was chosen to shock. And it was coined by Dr. Edgar F. Codd himself, for this very purpose. Because at that time, you could use the predicate ‘online’ before ‘transaction’, but there is no way you could use it before ‘analytical processing’, or after it, or in the same sentence, or even, paragraph.

And yet, OLAP was coined exactly to depict that the ease of doing OLTP was now entering the realm of analytical processing.

Not only that, I would dare to say that the early OLAP systems of mid 90’s were pretty decent, even compared with today’s standards.

People use the acronym OLAP all the time now. OLAP cubes are produced and used in almost all businesses. And PowerPivot now introduces them to Excel.

But I see that younger people and older IT veterans alike are forgetting the impact the acronym OLAP had at the time. Used daily, people now see it as something ordinary, and they should. But they should not forget that, 15 years ago, it was shocking.

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About Dimitrios Kalemis

I am a systems engineer specializing in Microsoft products and technologies. I am also an author. Please visit my blog to see the blog posts I have written, the books I have written and the applications I have created. I definitely recommend my blog posts under the category "Management", all my books and all my applications. I believe that you will find them interesting and useful. I am in the process of writing more blog posts and books, so please visit my blog from time to time to see what I come up with next. I am also active on other sites; links to those you can find in the "About me" page of my blog.
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