Introduction to MSSQL Server 2000 Analysis Services: Putting Actions to Work in Regular Cubes

About the Series …

This
is the twenty-first article of the series, Introduction to MSSQL Server
2000 Analysis Services
. As I stated in the first article, Creating Our First Cube, the
primary focus of this series is an introduction to the practical creation and
manipulation of multidimensional OLAP cubes. The series is designed to provide
hands-on application of the fundamentals of MS SQL Server 2000 Analysis
Services, with each installment progressively adding features and techniques designed
to meet specific real-world needs. For more information on the series, as well
as the hardware / software requirements to prepare for the exercises we
will undertake, please see my initial article, Creating Our First Cube.

Note: Service Pack 3 updates are assumed for MSSQL Server 2000, MSSQL
Server 2000 Analysis Services
, and the related Books Online
and Samples. Images are from a Windows 2003 Server
environment, but the steps performed in the articles, together with the views
that result, will be quite similar within any environment that supports MSSQL Server 2000 and MSSQL Server 2000 Analysis Services ("MSAS").

Introduction

In this
article, we will examine Actions, a powerful feature in MSAS that allows
information consumers to go beyond the robust OLAP perspective offered by the
application, and to "step outside" for related information, or to
generate commands or initialize programs, without leaving their current analysis
focus. As we shall see, Actions can be structured into the cube by the
developer, to allow users to perform these extended activities from various
vantage points, with a simple right-click of the mouse. This saves analysts
and other consumers time, as the complementary information can be "linked"
through the Action design for them, and, perhaps more importantly, because they
can perform the Actions without leaving their current position within the
analysis they are performing in MSAS.

Working
with MSAS at clients every day, I find Actions to be remarkably underused
jewels within the MSAS goldmine. Moreover, when we take a cruise across the
internet in search of documentation that surrounds the feature, we tend to come
back with the same well-worn examples of very simple scenarios. I expect this
vacuum to improve over time, especially if the creative users out there will
contribute their ideas in public forums. The imagination is the only
constraint when we consider the options that Actions practically shout to the
receptive architects, developers, and kindred practitioners among us.

In this article, together
with the article that follows it, we will spend a little time looking at the functionalities
that Actions offer, and will explore their use in a multiple step practice
example. In this manner, I hope that Actions will "speak louder than
words" in exposing more of the rich analysis functionality that is MSAS.

Introduction to MSAS Actions

Within the structured
regimen of the OLAP world, analysts constantly find themselves needing to reach
beyond the analytical anchor point of the cube browser or, more commonly, the
application that integrates with MSAS to provide the informational views with
which they work. Examples of related information that does not appear
within the OLAP view abound. External data stores (relational and / or OLAP) compose
a significant component of "external data," but also included is documentation
such as procedural manuals, organizational charts, account listings, and myriad
other collateral. The web and intranets often house many of the complementary
information sources to which an OLAP-focused consumer might need access at any
time to crystallize a component within the OLAP view, to understand the
geographical makeup of organizational units, or to understand the structures
underlying considerations that might range from headcount to responsibility
accounting.

Actions are a means of
accessing this valuable relative information in a non-disruptive
manner. Our examination of MSAS Actions in this article will include:

  • An
    introduction to the general types of Actions that we can exploit in the
    design and development of MSAS cubes;

  • A discussion
    of example consumer needs that might be classified within each of the general Action
    types;

  • A review of
    the points of interaction at which we can place an Action for use by an MSAS
    analyst;

  • An
    introduction to the MSAS Action Wizard;

  • A hands-on practice
    example of the creation of an Action within a "regular" cube, the sample
    Sales cube that installs with MSAS;

  • Practice in
    using the example Action we create, both as a general guide to the use of
    Actions in general, and as a means to ascertain their effectiveness from the
    perspective of development.

In this article, we will gain an understanding of the nature
of Actions, focusing on their types, possible uses, and the choices we have for
points of information consumer interaction. We will then activate what we have
learned, reinforcing the concepts within a practice exercise that allows us to
see clearly how the mechanics tie together within a regular cube.

In our next article, Actions in Virtual Cubes, we will
extend our grasp of the key concepts to the creation and maintenance of Actions
in virtual cubes (for an introduction to virtual cubes, see
my article Exploring
Virtual Cubes
).
We will highlight the differences in treatment between regular and virtual cube
scenarios for Actions, and then practice the concepts within an exercise. We
will also explore a particularly useful way to leverage an investment in Action
design by importing an existing Action into a virtual cube.

William Pearson
William Pearson
Bill has been working with computers since before becoming a "big eight" CPA, after which he carried his growing information systems knowledge into management accounting, internal auditing, and various capacities of controllership. Bill entered the world of databases and financial systems when he became a consultant for CODA-Financials, a U.K. - based software company that hired only CPA's as application consultants to implement and maintain its integrated financial database - one of the most conceptually powerful, even in his current assessment, to have emerged. At CODA Bill deployed financial databases and business intelligence systems for many global clients. Working with SQL Server, Oracle, Sybase and Informix, and focusing on MSSQL Server, Bill created Island Technologies Inc. in 1997, and has developed a large and diverse customer base over the years since. Bill's background as a CPA, Internal Auditor and Management Accountant enable him to provide value to clients as a liaison between Accounting / Finance and Information Services. Moreover, as a Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) - a Certified Public Accountant recognized for his or her unique ability to provide business insight by leveraging knowledge of information relationships and supporting technologies - Bill offers his clients the CPA's perspective and ability to understand the complicated business implications and risks associated with technology. From this perspective, he helps them to effectively manage information while ensuring the data's reliability, security, accessibility and relevance. Bill has implemented enterprise business intelligence systems over the years for many Fortune 500 companies, focusing his practice (since the advent of MSSQL Server 2000) upon the integrated Microsoft business intelligence solution. He leverages his years of experience with other enterprise OLAP and reporting applications (Cognos, Business Objects, Crystal, and others) in regular conversions of these once-dominant applications to the Microsoft BI stack. Bill believes it is easier to teach technical skills to people with non-technical training than vice-versa, and he constantly seeks ways to graft new technology into the Accounting and Finance arenas. Bill was awarded Microsoft SQL Server MVP in 2009. Hobbies include advanced literature studies and occasional lectures, with recent concentration upon the works of William Faulkner, Henry James, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Honoré de Balzac, and Charles Dickens. Other long-time interests have included the exploration of generative music sourced from database architecture.

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