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I worked at a company called Metaphor back in the early 1980s. As part of a startup software company introducing then-cutting-edge concepts (such as folders, file drawers, and workflows on a graphical electronic desktop), I appreciated the benefits of using metaphors to represent seemingly complex concepts. Effective verbal and visual metaphors are able to convert complexity into easily understood and highly memorable images.

One of my favorite metaphors reinforces the importance of separating the overall data warehouse environment into distinct components, as described in Ralph’s article, “Two Powerful Ideas.” Data warehouses should have an area that focuses exclusively on data staging and extract, transform, and load (ETL) activities. A separate layer of the warehouse environment should be optimized for presentation of the data to the business constituencies and application developers.

This division is underscored if you consider the similarities between a data warehouse and restaurant.

The Kitchen

The kitchen of a fine restaurant is a world unto itself. It’s where the magic happens. Talented chefs take raw materials and transform them into appetizing, delicious multi-course meals for the restaurant’s diners. But long before a commercial kitchen is put into productive use, a significant amount of planning goes into designing the layout and components of the workspace.

The restaurant’s kitchen is organized with several design goals in mind. First, the layout must be highly efficient. Restaurant managers are very concerned about kitchen throughput. When the restaurant is packed and everyone is hungry, you don’t have time for wasted movement.

Delivering consistent quality from the restaurant’s kitchen is the second goal. The establishment is doomed if the plates coming out of the kitchen repeatedly fail to meet expectations. A restaurant’s reputation is built on legions of hard work; that effort is for naught if the result is inconsistent. In order to achieve reliable consistency, chefs create their special sauces once in the kitchen, rather than sending ingredients out to the table where variations will inevitably occur.

The kitchen’s output, the meals delivered to their customers, must also be of high integrity. You wouldn’t want someone to get food poisoning from dining at your restaurant. Consequently, kitchens are designed with integrity in mind. Salad prep doesn’t happen on the same surfaces where raw chicken is handled.

Just as quality, consistency, and integrity are major considerations when designing the kitchen layout, they are also ongoing concerns for everyday management of the restaurant. Chefs strive to obtain the best raw material possible. Procured products must meet quality standards. For example, if the produce purveyor tries to unload brown, wilted lettuce or bruised tomatoes, the materials are rejected, as they don’t meet minimum standards. Most fine restaurants modify their menus based on the availability of quality inputs.

The restaurant kitchen is staffed with skilled professionals wielding the tools of their trade. Cooks manipulate razor sharp knives with incredible confidence and ease. They operate powerful equipment and work around extremely hot surfaces without incident.

Given the dangerous surroundings, the kitchen is off-limits to patrons. It simply isn’t safe. Professional cooks handling sharp knives shouldn’t be distracted by diners’ inquiries. You also wouldn’t want patrons entering the kitchen to dip their fingers into a sauce to see whether they want to order an entree or not. To prevent these intrusions, most restaurants have a closed door that separates the kitchen from the area where diners are served.

Even restaurants that boast an open kitchen format typically have a barrier, such as a partial wall of glass, separating the two environments. Diners are invited to watch, but can’t wander into the kitchen themselves. But while part of kitchen may be visible, there are always out-of-view back rooms where the less visually desirable preparation work is performed.

The data warehouse’s staging area is very similar to the restaurant’s kitchen. The staging area is where source data is magically transformed into meaningful, presentable information. The staging area must be laid out and architected long before any data is extracted from the source. Like the kitchen, the staging area is designed to ensure throughput. It must transform raw source data into the target model efficiently, minimizing unnecessary movement if possible.

Obviously, the data warehouse staging area is also highly concerned about data quality, integrity, and consistency. Incoming data is checked for reasonable quality as it enters the staging area. Conditions are continually monitored to ensure staging outputs are of high integrity. Business rules to consistently derive value-add metrics and attributes are applied once by skilled professionals in the staging area, rather than relying on each patron to develop them independently. Yes, that puts extra burden on the data staging team, but it’s done is the spirit of delivering a better, more consistent product to the data warehouse patrons.

Finally, the data warehouse’s staging area should be off-limits to the business users and reporting/delivery application developers. Just as you don’t want restaurant patrons wandering into the kitchen and potentially consuming semi-cooked food, you don’t want busy data staging professionals distracted by unpredictable inquiries from data warehouse users. The consequences might be highly unpleasant if users dip their fingers into interim staging pots while data preparation is still in process. As with the restaurant kitchen, activities occur in the staging area that just shouldn’t be visible to the data warehouse patrons. Once the data is ready and quality checked for user consumption, it’s brought through the doorway into the warehouse’s presentation area. Who knows, if you do a great job, perhaps you’ll become a data warehouse celebrity chef a la Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck.

The Dining Room

Let’s turn our attention to the restaurant’s dining room. What are the key factors that differentiate restaurants? According to the popular Zagat Surveys, restaurants around the world are rated on four distinct qualities:

  • Food (quality, taste, and presentation)
  • Decor (appealing, comfortable surroundings for the restaurant patrons)
  • Service (prompt food delivery, attentive support staff, and food received as ordered)
  • Cost.

Most Zagat Survey readers focus initially on the food score when they’re evaluating dining options. First and foremost, does the restaurant serve good food? That’s the restaurant’s primary deliverable. However, the decor, service, and cost factors also affect the patrons’ overall dining experience and are considerations when evaluating whether to eat at a restaurant or not.

Of course, the primary deliverable from the data warehouse kitchen is the data in the presentation area. What data is available? Like the restaurant, the data warehouse provides “menus” to describe what’s available via metadata, published reports, and parameterized analytic applications.

Is the data of high quality? Data warehouse patrons expect consistency and quality. The presentation area’s data must be properly prepared and safe to consume.

In terms of decor, the presentation area should be organized for the comfort of its patrons. It must be designed based on the preferences expressed by the data warehouse diners, not the staging staff. Service is also critical in the data warehouse. Data must be delivered, as ordered, promptly in a form that is appealing to the business user or reporting/delivery application developer. Finally, cost is a factor for the data warehouse. The data warehouse kitchen staff may be dreaming up elaborate, albeit expensive meals, but if there’s no market at that price point, the restaurant won’t survive.

If restaurant diners are pleased with their dining experience, then everything is rosy for the restaurant manager. The dining room is always busy; there’s even a waiting list on some nights. The restaurant manager’s performance metrics are all promising: high numbers of diners, table turnovers, and nightly revenue and profit, while staff turnover is low. Things look so good that the restaurant’s owner is considering an expansion site to handle the traffic. On the other hand, if the restaurant’s diners aren’t happy, then things go south in a hurry. With a limited number of patrons, the restaurant isn’t making enough money to cover its expenses (and the staff isn’t making any tips). In a relatively short time period, the restaurant shuts down.

Restaurant managers often proactively check on their diners’ satisfaction with the food and dining experience. If a patron is unhappy, they take immediate action to rectify the situation. Similarly, data warehouse managers should proactively monitor data warehouse satisfaction. You can’t afford to wait to hear complaints. Often, people will abandon a restaurant without even voicing their concerns. Over time, you’ll notice that diner counts have dropped, but may not even know why.

Inevitably, the prior patrons of the data warehouse will locate another “restaurant” that better suits their needs and preferences, wasting the millions of dollars invested to design, build, and staff the data warehouse. Of course, you can prevent this not-so-happy ending by being an excellent, proactive restaurant manager. Make sure the kitchen is properly organized and utilized to deliver as needed on the presentation area’s food, decor, service, and cost.

I’ve used this analogy for years; it strikes a cord and evolves as we discover more parallels between the restaurant and the data warehouse. The sign of a good metaphor is one that can be expanded and still hold together. Let us know if you have further embellishments to this analogy.

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