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Microsoft’s Master Data Services plays huge role on BI stage

Microsoft Master Data Services, the company’s master data management product, has much to offer businesses’ business intelligence efforts, according to expert Don Jones.

One of the most important new features in SQL Server 2008 R2 is Master Data Services, or MDS. In Microsoft's words, MDS is designed to help organizations establish and maintain a "single version of the truth." Where does that fit into a business intelligence (BI) scenario?

We've all been in that uncomfortable conference room meeting where businesspeople are arguing about their data, the conclusions they've drawn and the business decisions they’ve proposed as a result of those conclusions.

Those people were probably operating from different versions of the same data. One person might have been missing a few months' worth of sales data. Another person's data set could have omitted a specific sales region. Perhaps someone else's data was simply inaccurate, drawn from unadjusted sources. The end result is that everyone draws different conclusions, because they're all operating from "different versions of the truth."

BI is all about using the data in your organization to draw conclusions, but if different people are operating from different sets of data, then you can't come to any kind of consensus on what those decisions should be.

Traditional BI systems used data warehouses that drew their data from a fixed set of sources on a regular basis, creating a single view of the organization that everyone could share. Accurate or not, at least everyone would be on the same page. However, with the advent of newer in-memory analysis BI systems, it's possible for BI reports, dashboards and scorecards to draw data from live data sources -- bringing us right back to different versions of the truth.

Microsoft Master Data Services can help solve that problem. Essentially, MDS is a set of features and services that "wrap around" an existing database. Using MDS, you establish data custodians -- businesspeople responsible for a set of data. The sales director might be in charge of the sales database, for example.

Custodians can decide who can read their data, but more important, they establish who can change that data -- taking some of the permissions management out of the hands of the IT staff (which is a good thing).

MDS also version-controls data, meaning that unwanted changes can be rolled back without having to resort to a formal backup and recovery system. Because it's controlled by businesspeople, the MDS-protected data becomes a single version of the truth. You want sales data? The only accurate, approved data is here, protected by MDS. BI systems can then be pointed at the MDS database, and the same can be done with BI tools likeExcel PowerPivot and platforms like SharePointServer.

By creating that "single version of the truth," Microsoft Master Data Services helps establish a more accurate and reliable data source for BI analysis, which helps the various people within your organization arrive at conclusions based on the same data. Those folks might still disagree, but at least their disagreements won't be the result of inaccurate, variable data drawn from differing sources.

Don Jones is a co-founder of Concentrated Technology LLC, the author of more than 30 books on IT and a speaker at technical conferences worldwide. He can be reached through his website at

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