SQL Saturday Philly: SSAS vs PowerPivot Cubes

Thank you to all of those who joined me for my Philly SQL Saturday session on building SQL Server cubes in SSAS, PowerPivot and Denali. We can use this thread for follow-up questions, discussions and links related to the topic.

First, you can download the slide deck that I used here. Second, if you want to try creating a simple baseline starting-point cube by hand using SSAS like I did in the session, I highly recommend this post here by one of my favorite, highly-recognized leaders in training Microsoft BI users, Stacia Misner. You can walk through her step-by-step instructions in a fairly short amount of time. And what I am certain that you will find is that once you’ve gone through the process of building a cube, focusing on the basics, that you will find it is not very difficult at all. After you’ve built your BI solution proof, then go back and partition the cube, adjust aggregation designs, add actions, etc. You do not need to use those cool SSAS features and most importantly, you really do not need to know MDX to get a cube started and published out to your business users.

Ok, that transitions nicely into the PowerPivot portion of the talk yesterday. To review, PowerPivot is new with SQL Server 2008 R2 and requires Excel 2010. If you wish to try out PowerPivot, all you need are the evaluation version of Excel 2010 and the PowerPivot add in, if you are not already using Excel 2010. In order to truely experience the collaboration nature of PowerPivot models, though, you will need SharePoint 2010 with SQL Server 2008 R2 to persist the in-memory cubes as they are hydrated by SharePoint.

The sample PowerPivot that I used which gives you the exact same results as the SSAS cube that I built is available as a download here. PowerPivot makes it even easier to build solutions than the cube method that I demo’d with SSAS because the cube is processed immediately in memory and is abstracted away from the model power-user. But it has many limitations in V1 that you need to make your decisions based on which Microsoft technology to use for your BI solution based on a knowledge and understanding of the impact of those limitations. For example, you cannot build explicit hierarchies in PowerPivot like you can in SSAS. The role-based security is not available in the Excel version like you have in SQL Server and the advanced capabilities outside of what I showed yesterday such as partitioning or many-to-many are not available to you.

Now, you may not need those for your solution. And as I stated several times on Saturday, I am a true believer in smaller departmental cubes as opposed to mondo big enterprise cubes. So PowerPivot will work nicely in those circumstances. Go to http://www.powerpivot.com for more examples and tutorials.

Lastly, we did not get a chance to talk about this too much, but the SQL Server Denali CTP 2, which will be made available publicly soon, will give you a first-glance chance to preview and try out the new BIDS environment which is a convergence of the PowerPivot and SSAS technologies. What this means is that if you are intimidated by MDX, you can build cubes in BIDS with DAX instead. DAX is the PowerPivot scripting language and uses Excel syntax and is much more familiar to users of Excel functions that you find in statistics, math and finance. This makes sense to me because the primary users of business intelligence are, after all, experts in math, stats & finance.

But if you are really good at making fast, efficient, complicated cubes in SSAS, you can still use the UDM model, use MDX and there will be new features add for those developers as well. But you won’t get the quick, immediate feedback on your cube through the Vertipaq technology that PowerPivot brings to the table. Instead, you have to process your cubes and worry about storage techniques as you do now. I think of this direction in SQL Server as bringing the power of the PowerPivot compression engine and in-memory analysis server to all BI developers. Very powerful stuff.

Probably the best source of information about this direction in SSAS future is directly from the SSAS product team on their blog, which you can read here.

I probably did not hit all areas in this blog post that everyone wanted as follow-up from the session. So please send in your comments and feedback and we’ll keep the thread going. My goal here is to see you all using Microsoft SQL Server in one fashion or another for your BI solutions. Let me know what I can do to help. And your feedback on the session, presentaiton, contents, etc. is also greatly appreciated.

Thanks & best! Mark


2 responses to “SQL Saturday Philly: SSAS vs PowerPivot Cubes

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