Building Data Cathedrals


Winston Chen

On a recent trip to Barcelona, I did an exceedingly rare thing for a business trip: I went sight-seeing. The top of my list was Sagrada Familia, a gigantic modern cathedral designed by eccentric Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. After standing in line for nearly an hour to get in, I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed: these touristy “must-sees” have a way of disappointing me. But that time it was different. I was blown away.

Most famous cathedrals are products of medieval construction techniques taken to extremes for two things: height and interior brightness. To these ends, medieval builders invented all sorts of techniques like flying buttresses and ribbed vaults. But you can only stack rocks so high with windows so big before the whole thing collapses.

Now, imagine you get to build a cathedral with modern construction techniques and equipments, a fearless genius as the architect, and nearly unlimited budget and time; You’ll start to appreciate the premise of Gaudi’s cathedral.

Construction started in 1882. And building continues today. The anticipated completion date is 2026, one hundred years after Gaudí died, and 144 years after breaking ground. On this subject, Gaudí is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.”

As I walked through the alien, grand, and breathtaking interior, I naturally thought about data warehousing. Many data warehouses were built like Gaudi’s cathedral: A timeless edifice cast in stone, for a client who’s not in a hurry.

I also thought that agility, despite its current allure in the business world, is not instinctively alluring to most people. Most people yearn for immutable rules. For stability and certainty. Just today, I was on a call with a customer who was clearly uncomfortable with Agile development. He didn’t like the notion that a data warehouse project can start without the final deliverable cast in stone. Yesterday, Mike Ferguson asked in a recent tweet from TDWI, for all the talk about Agile BI, why isn’t anyone mentioning the right tools, like Kalido? Are we just paying lip service to agility?

Unlike spiritual deliverance, the job of delivering trusted information to the right people in a fast changing business environment requires us to embrace agility, even if it makes us slightly uncomfortable. We need data warehouses that are fast to build and easy to change.

The alternative is to build a data cathedral, a timeless edifice cast in stone, for a client who’s not in a hurry.

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