Thought Leader Interview

Bill Inmon: Data Warehouses and Decision Support Systems

Author, consultant and speaker

Preface

Dan Power, Editor of DSSResources.com, conducted a phone interview with Bill Inmon on Wednesday, March 2, 2005. Bill was getting ready to travel to Iceland and India. The interview was recorded and it has been lightly edited for clarity. Many thanks.

Q1: The first book of yours that I read was Database Machines and Decision Support Systems: Third Wave Processing using a Teradata database. What was the concept of decision support that you were trying to develop in the early 1990s?

Inmon's Response: Well, if you take a look at the early applications that have been built in our industry, they were built for specific users and one day the accountants and the finance people, and marketing people and sales people woke up and said, geez, they have all these operational systems but nothing for us, and so really this is the way decision support started, it started as a way to extend applications into the hands of finance, marketing, sales and accounting.

Q2: Because technologies were changing at that time, we were able to build much bigger databases for people to use. Is the data warehouse the salient technology that really let you push those developments in decision support?

Inmon's Response: Absolutely yes. If you take a look at capacity planning, back in the old days of operational systems, a gigabyte of data in an IMS system, for example, was a big, big deal. Today, you go down to Radio Shack and buy 100 gigs just to put on your machine so in terms of storage capacity and the ability to manage that capacity data warehousing has been the technology that has enabled very large volumes of data to be handled.

Q3: How did you get interested in data warehousing, decision support systems and business intelligence?

Inmon's Response: A long time ago, I was a columnist for a magazine called Computer World, which at the time was the leading journal, or one of the leading journals in our industry and I had a column and I talked about a lot of things. One of the things that I talked about was relational databases. Now, when relational databases were first coming out, the claims made for relational databases were, quite frankly, outrageous. They were just way over-hyped. I started as a columnist to question whether or not the claims made by the relational people were valid. I wrote a couple columns to that effect in Computer World and the feedback that I got was rather amazing. People hated reading that relational technology wasnít going to solve all of their problems. And so, that got me to thinking about, what is going to solve the problems because relational technology was not addressing integration, was not addressing historical data, and it was not addressing the needs to take information down to the granular level. So, it was the feedback and the very negative feedback that I got as a columnist, talking about relational technology that caused me to think about data warehouses.

Q4: I remember some of that controversy back then. What keeps you interested in helping decision makers using Information Technology? You have been at it a few years now.

Inmon's Response: My house payment keeps me interested; I have to do something for a living. Iím being somewhat facetious. I am genuinely interested in the subject. I think that I am interested as much in having the industry do the right thing. I know that when data warehouses first came out, the people that had data marts tried to tell people that data marts and data warehousing were in fact the same thing and I know that I spent a lot of time and effort trying to explain to people why there was a difference and why it was important to them. And so, as much as anything, I was interested in making sure not only that the industry had the right concepts but that as time passed people didnít come along and bastardize those concepts as vendors are wont to do.

Q5: There have been a lot of new terms offered over the last 25 years, seems like every few years we get some new terms, what is your view of Business Intelligence, Business Performance Management and Business Activity Monitoring? Are these systems really interesting? Have we gone somewhere with these systems?

Inmon's Response: Iím sure these systems are interesting and important to some people, but Iíve gone off and done some other things. I do believe business activity monitoring is a very interesting subject, its just not something that Iíve had the inclination to delve in.

Q6: I had a survey on my site recently reporting how many failures there still are in data warehouse and data-driven decision support projects. Why do you think some large-scale, data-driven decision support projects have limited acceptance or are perceived as outright failures?

Inmon's Response: I was surprised when I saw this question on your list of questions, Iím happy to answer it, but Iím going to warn you it is going to be a lengthy answer. Several years ago, there was a consultant, Doug Hackney, who went around the world talking about data warehouse standards, and at that time he was claiming a 90% failure rate for data warehouses. So, I called up Doug, and I said, ďDoug, where are you getting these numbers from?Ē And he says, ďoh itís a scientific survey, itís absolutely true.Ē And I said, ďWell, fine, can you share with me your source of informationĒ. And he said, ďSureĒ. So he pointed me to a gentleman over in Ireland, named Sean Kelly, and Sean Kelly at that time was running an annual conference, and he was surveying people that attended his data warehouse conference. So, I contacted Sean, and I said, ďSean, did you know that you are being attributed to claiming that data warehouses have a 90% failure rate?Ē And he said, ďOh Bill, itís absolutely true. Itís a scientific certainty.Ē And I said, ďit is? Because Iíll be honest with you, I canít find in terms of major warehouses any evidence of this at all.Ē And so he says, yes, we take a survey. I said ďwhatís the question you ask SeanĒ. And he said, well, the question we ask is, and I am going to tell you as verbatim as I remember it, he said we ask the question ďHave your data warehouse designs changed from the time you initially conceived them?Ē And I said what if a person answered ďYes, we have changed our database designs from the time that we initially conceived the data warehouse.Ē He said, well thatís a failure. And I said, ďThatís a failure!? What are you talking about? That is the very nature of how we do database design.Ē And he says, well it's true, 100% of the people that said they changed their data warehouse design continued with their project. And I said, this is outrageous, that youíre telling the world that there is a 90% failure rate because you asked the question "Have you changed your database design?" This is the worst form of yellow journalism that I have ever seen. At least if you are going to tell people that there is a failure rate for data warehousing, you should at least tell them the question that was asked. Let them make up their own mind whether this is a failure or not. And so our industry, from the beginning got off on this tangent that data warehouses fail. And itís simply not true. If you take a look at the truth of the matter, data warehouses donít fail. Iím sure there are some failures out there in the world. Iíll tell you a better measure of failure or success. About 3 years ago, MetaGroup took a survey of the data warehouse community at one of the conferences they put on, and they asked the question "How many data warehouse efforts has your corporation tried, how many of them have been attempted and shut down and stayed shut down for more than 6 months time?" And the answer came back 5%. In other words, 95% of the data warehouse development efforts succeed. They may not be perfect successes in terms of people getting all of their expectations met, thatís another story all together, but in terms of calling 90% of them a failure, it was quite frankly a lie, and it was a lie from the beginning.

Q7: Well, I appreciate your concern and the question certainly deserves a long answer. You have also been developing the concept of a corporate information factory (CIF). Could you tell us basically what the idea is and how you see CIF related to computerized decision support?

Inmon's Response: Sure, what happened was, very quickly after people started building data warehouses, they recognized that the data warehouse is merely a foundation. In order for you to get your moneyís worth, you need to do some other kinds of processing on top of the data in the data warehouse. Let me give you a quick example: Normally you build a data warehouse and then use the data in the warehouse for the purpose of statistical processing and the end user sees the value in the statistical processing and not so much in the value of the infrastructure to get the data there in the first place. And so the corporate information factory is merely a collection of the different components that surround the data warehouse in order to make sure the data warehouse is in its optimal state of usefulness.

Q8: So, you are taking more of a big picture architecture view of information systems integration?

Inmon's Response: That is correct.

Q9: What do you see as the new challenges for Information Systems and especially computerized decision support for managers?

Inmon's Response: Thereís a couple of them. One of them is extending decision support to unstructured data, something that is just now coming into its own. Another one is the ERP vendors, in fact something really interesting has happened as Oracle has taken over PeopleSoft. The PeopleSoft decision support infrastructure is quite frankly being trashed and burned, which leaves SAP out there and quite frankly SAPís information infrastructure is as elegant and sophisticated as PeopleSoftís is not. And so, there once was a day when PeopleSoft and SAP were on an equal par with each other, with Oracle taking over PeopleSoft that day is passed.

Q10: I gave you a list of some buzzwords; grid computing, SOAP, semantic web. Whatís your assessment? Are there some fundamental changes in these ideas or are they just new buzzwords?

Inmon's Response: They are new buzzwords.

Q11: Do you think any of those technologies will be useful with decision support or will help us move ahead?

Inmon's Response: Marginally, perhaps. I donít have any great hope of anything revolutionary there.

Q12: There has always been a debate about how much we can expect senior managers to use DSS, business performance monitoring applications, EIS or BI. Whatís your sense on what percent of senior managers in big companies actually get hands on and use these systems and what do you think the future is going to be for that ó are we targeting the wrong people with these systems?

Inmon's Response: I believe that the managers that will lead their corporations successfully and survive into the future are those that are using that kind of technology. The managers that are not using business activity monitoring technology and other means like that, their companies either arenít going to survive or the managers will be replaced by somebody who is smart enough to use that kind of technology.

Q13: What would be your guess about what percentage of senior managers are actual hands on technology users for business intelligence?

Inmon's Response: I think there is a difference between does the senior manager use the technology or the output of the technology or does he use the technology itself. As far as actually using the technology, there are probably few managers that do that. As far as using the intelligence that comes out of the technology, I hope thereís a lot of managers that are doing that. So, I make a distinction between do I use the output of technology or am I the actual user of the technology in terms of hands-on day-to-day manipulation of it. And I donít think many managers are day-to-day, hands on users, but I hope that a lot of managers in fact are ultimately using the intelligence that comes out of the machines.

Q14: So you think we are giving a lot of paper reports to people in the executive suite?

Inmon's Response: Well, I hope so, I think so.

Q15: What do you think are the critical success factors associated with using Information Technologies to support business and management decision making?

Inmon's Response: Number 1, keeping an eye on return on investment. I think organizations that are smart about the return on investment are the ones that are going to be the most successful. I think that is one critical success factor. I think another critical success factor is recognition between need and architecture, that we donít just keep these things on a pile in a willy-nilly kind of approach, but there needs to be an overall plan for how things need to fit together. I think thatís another critical success factor. So those are two of the more important things.

Q16: My last two questions are pretty open ended. Iíd like to know what you see as the future directions for building data warehouse based data-driven decision support systems. I mean, have we done everything we are going to do?

Inmon's Response: I think that we are starting to see some interesting things in the market place. I think, for example, in terms of the ERP marketplace, for example, SAP has done an excellent job and I think more and more people are going to rely on SAP. SAP is thought of for their technology in the operational world, but I think in terms of decision support we are finding that SAP is, you know Iím sounding like I am a salesman for SAP and I am really not, but in terms of looking and with what they have done with decision support, itís the best job done by any major company and I was looking at the number of people that are now using decision support from SAP and if I am not mistaken, in the most recent report, they have something like 17,000 users worldwide. So, thatís a hefty number of organizations that are relying on somebody else to do their development for them. The other thing too, is, I think the consulting firms are starting to figure out that organizations need help and consulting firms like Knightsbridge Consulting for example, are doing a really good job when it comes to helping out on the decision support front. So, I think that we are going away from the day when we had mom and pop shops building decision support systems. I think that it has now become a big business for companies like SAP, Knightsbridge Consulting, and other organizations.

Q17: Well, my last question. What topics, issues, problems related to computerized decision support most interest you today?

Inmon's Response: Well that is pretty easy. Iíve been in the last three years of my professional life, working on the unstructured data problem. How do we start to integrate and incorporate unstructured data into the world of structured systems so that we can start to make decisions using all the unstructured data. I think that thatís a wide open, very important arena. I think the other arena that is really important is that of managing very large volumes of data and I think that we are just now starting to learn that there is a whole art to gathering and managing and using data at a rate of volume that we never, ever encountered before. So, I think unstructured data and large volumes of data are two of the more important new things in front of us.

References

Inmon, W. H., Database Machines and Decision Support Systems: Third Wave Processing, Boston: QED Technical Publishing, 1990.

About Bill Inmon

Bill Inmon is an expert, speaker and author on data warehousing, and he is widely recognized as the ďfather of data warehousing.Ē He is co-creator of the Corporate Information Factory and more recently, creator of the Government Information Factory. He has over 35 years of experience in database technology management and data warehouse design, and he is known globally for his seminars on developing data warehouses. He has been a keynote speaker for every major computing association and many industry conferences, seminars, and tradeshows.

As an author, Bill has written more than 650 articles on a variety of topics about building, using, and maintaining the data warehouse and the Corporate Information Factory. His works have been published in major computing journals including Data Management Review where he continues to be a featured columnist. He has written 46 books, many of which have been translated into nine languages; one has sold over one-half million copies.

As an entrepreneur, Bill founded and took public Prism Solutions in 1991. In 1995, Bill went on to found Pine Cone Systems, later named Ambeo. In 1999, Bill created a Web site to educate professionals and decision makers about data warehousing and the Corporate Information Factory. His popular and easy-to-use Web resource, www.inmoncif.com, contains much of Mr. Inmonís written work and related material, including methodologies, technical white papers, articles, and data models. In 2003, Bill co-founded Inmon Associates, Inc. and created the Government Information Factory, an architectural blueprint for building government information systems. This ďgo-toĒ portal for government IT systems can be found at www.inmongif.com.

Bill consults with a large number of Fortune 1000 clients, offering data warehouse design and database management services. He has worked for American Management Systems, Inc. and Coopers & Lybrand. Bill received his Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Yale University, and his Master of Science degree in Computer Science from New Mexico State University. He makes his home in Colorado.


Citation

Power, D., "Bill Inmon Interview: Data Warehouses and Decision Support Systems", DSSResources.COM, 05/12/2005.