Jeff Pries

Business Intelligence, SQL Server, and other assorted IT miscellany

Category: BI (page 1 of 2)

SQL Saturday Roundup: #578 – Atlanta, GA (BI Edition)

Saturday, December 10th marked the 2nd annual SQL Saturday Atlanta BI Edition.  Atlanta is known for its massive SQL Saturday held every spring / summer, so I’m happy to see the smaller, more BI-focused winter event continuing on.  With such a large number of SQL Server professionals in the area, there is definitely room for multiple events.

As with last year’s event, this one was a well-run event with no flaws that I was aware of.  This year seemed to be a bit of a “back to basics” theme.  Many of the extras that are frequently seen at SQL Saturday events — lots of sponsors, attendee bags and printed materials, speaker shirts, paper session evaluations, and other extras weren’t present.  Instead, the focus was purely on providing a full day of content across multiple tracks, and you know what, that’s just fine.  (Many) free donuts were provided for breakfast and boxed lunches were purchased, and everything was adequate.  The core idea behind SQL Saturday is free training and networking, and the event delivered!  I particularly thought the session lineup for this event was a great mix of topics.

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SQL Saturday Roundup: #477 – Atlanta, GA (BI Edition)

SQL Saturday Roundup: #477 – Atlanta, GA (BI Edition)

This past Saturday marked a great landmark for Atlanta — the first “BI Edition” SQL Saturday, and, for many of us, our first SQL Saturday of 2016!  Atlanta has been hosting a regular SQL Saturday event for many years now, always with tremendous attendance.  Based on the amount of interest in the regular SQL Saturday (usually around May of each year), it was great to see a BI focused edition launched.

With the regular event in the Spring, having this event in January was a great way to space out the two Atlanta events probably about as equally as they could be.  And, for a first event, it seemed to be a tremendous success with a registration wait list and around 300 in attendance.

The event was held at the local Microsoft facility in Alpharetta, GA, where the monthly Atlanta MDF user group meetings are held.  All told, the facility was a pretty good choice of venue (and definitely a convenient location), but suffered from some overcrowding.  The facility had about half the sessions in roughly classroom sized rooms and half the sessions in much smaller conference room sized rooms.  While these smaller rooms made for an interesting and more intimate setting, they ultimately filled up very quickly.

Unlike many SQL Saturdays, the event kicked off with an opening keynote and presentation in the large room (multiple rooms joined together technically).  I enjoy it when a SQL Saturday begins with some sort of all-attendee opening remarks, it provides nice symmetry to the event (which always has a final closing remarks session), so hopefully more events will adopt this.


Dandy Weyn presenting the opening remarks at SQL Saturday Atlanta 2016, BI Edition.

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The Button


The Button.  Originally an April Fools Day joke / prank / experiment / curiosity, this simple and strange creation has become an internet phenomenon with countless resources being invested in it.  On 4/1/2015, Reddit announced a new feature, The Button.  The concept is very simple.  There is a button.  It controls a shared timer which is counts down from 60 seconds.  Pressing the button resets the timer back to 60 seconds (for everyone) and it restarts the countdown.  Anybody with a free Reddit account created before 4/1/2015 is allowed to press the button, but only once, ever.  That’s it.

And that is all there is to it.  A pretty simple concept.  Something that probably should’ve lasted a couple of minutes, maybe an hour or two, and then been gone, right?  Nope!  Instead it’s turned into a phenomenon which has been running perpetually for over two straight weeks with over 750,000 button presses thus far and no end in sight.

The is one additional twist to the button.  When you press the button your one and only time, your account is branded with the time, and a color, indicating what time you pressed it.  And others can see this.  This little twist has allowed for the possibility of an incredible amount of interesting data visualizations surrounding the enigma that is, The Button.


The circumstances above make The Button a really interesting data source.  It produces a constant stream of data (making real-time analytics valuable) and that data is time stamped and color coded based on how much time was remaining at the time of the press making for some very interesting visualizations.

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What is Business Intelligence (and Business Analytics)?

bar_chart_sketchThis is a question that seems to come up in one way or another quite frequently. And it makes sense. Being fairly new (on the main stage), these terms are not well defined in the public consciousness (or sometimes even in the heads of those in the field) and so there can be a lot of confusion. There are some out there that think that both are simply creating pretty charts somehow relating to data in some way and there are others that know that the rabbit hole goes far, far deeper…

Business Intelligence and Business Analtyics are both disciplines inside of a wider field of being a Data Professional.  Both Business Intelligence and Business Analytics deal with deriving meaning from data.  The differences between the two tend to stem from the types of questions each attempts to answer and the tools and processes used to answer those questions.


Business Intelligence

Business Intelligence is the infrastructure.  Business Intelligence includes the gathering, storing, and summarizing of data as well as making it available in the forms of reports, dashboards, KPIs, raw queries, and other visualizations to answer questions about the past and present which are commonly used in decision making.  Some of these questions might be:  What happened?  When did it happen?  What did it happen to?  How much did it happen?  Business Intelligence catalogs the past and makes it available for future insight.


Business Analytics

Business Analtyics is the crystal ball.  Business Analytics makes use of existing infrastructure (such as data gathered in Business Intelligence) and aims for deeper insight into the data, frequently dealing with predictive analytics about the future.  Why did it happen?  Will it happen again?  What will happen if we make a change?  What trends can be expected for the future?  Business Analytics makes use of data to provide predictive capabilities.

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Custom Dashboard Development – Part 3: SignalR Design

Microsoft_.NET_Framework_v4.5_logoIn my previous posts, here and here, I discussed my objective to create a custom dashboard solution in order to meet a number of requirements as well as a method for creating that solution using a traditional Web Services approach.  In this approach, the client is wholly responsible for requesting all of its updates from the server whenever it needs them (typically on a set timer).  In this post, I’ll create the same dashboard but use a different technology, SignalR, for performing the data communications.  Much of the solution will be the same or similar to the previous solution, however the back-end is fundamentally different.

With the SignalR approach, rather than the client being responsible for requesting data updates from the server, the server maintains a connection with the client and pushes them to the client on an “as needed” basis.  This basis can be timed (such as sending an update once every 5 minutes) or it can be triggered (such as sending an update whenever data changes.)  In this example, we’ll be using the timed approach for parity with the previous solution.  As an extra benefit to the SignalR solution, when multiple clients are connected to the same dashboard, they will all display the exact same data and refresh at the exact same time (as they are not maintaining their own individual update timers.  The following diagram gives a quick illustration of the data communications between the clients, web server, and database server:

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Custom Dashboard Development – Part 2: Web Services Design

Microsoft_.NET_Framework_v4.5_logoIn my previous post, I discussed my objective to create a custom dashboard solution in order to meet a number of requirements.  In the process of researching how I would create the solution, I made multiple choices pertaining to the technology and design which would be used to create the dashboard.  I chose to implement both a traditional communications model utilizing web services where the client is responsible for requesting data refreshes as well as the SignalR communications model where the server pushes updates to the client.

To recap, I made the following design decisions for the application:

  • Use a custom developed application instead of an off-the-shelf product
  • Use web-based technologies within the Microsoft ecosystem
  • Use ASP.NET MVC5 with C# and HTML/JavaScript
  • HTML/JavaScript based chart control library — jChartFX

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Custom Dashboard Development – Part 1: Introduction

Microsoft_.NET_Framework_v4.5_logoI just recently finished a series of custom development projects which required me to revisit the programming world from which I once came.  Programming is something I started doing when I was very young and have always enjoyed.  While I’ve done plenty of scripting, Powershell, and T-SQL in recent years, my current job roles have had little need for true programming skills until recently.  And wow, things have changed!  In this series of posts, I’ll be going through my process for choosing a technology and developing a custom dashboard solution as well as some of the lessons I learned along the way.  Here in Part 1, I plan to cover my goals for the dashboard as well as how I chose the platform I did.  In Part 2, I’ll cover the more traditional of the two methods I explored and in Part 3, I’ll cover a SignalR solution.

Whenever learning or refreshing skills, it always helps to have a goal.  In this case, my objective was to create a dashboard solution with the following objectives:

  • Display near real-time data from a OLTP SQL Server data source
  • Be aesthetically pleasing as it will be viewed on multiple large screen displays 24/7
  • Refresh gracefully with no user interaction or display interruption while refreshing

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SQL Saturday Roundup: #237 – Charlotte, NC

SQL Saturday Roundup: #237 – Charlotte, NC

Following the incredible PASS Summit 2013 in Charlotte, the Charlotte BI Group was gracious to host another edition of SQL Saturday – BI Edition.

As I was already in Charlotte for Summit (and would’ve drive to Charlotte for this event anyway if I hadn’t been at Summit) I took advantage of the opportunity to keep the week of connecting, learning, and sharing with the community for one last day.

This is the second year that CBIG has hosted a SQL Saturday BI Edition and it actually marks the first SQL Saturday that I’ve attended twice in a row (as I really started getting into SQL Saturday last year with Columbus, GA).

As the first SQL Saturday that I’ve attended two years in a row, I thought the event went very well.  There seemed to be a good number of attendees and a lot of big name speakers.  Many of the speakers from Summit stayed the extra day to present at SQL Saturday, though I was surprised that it didn’t seem there were as many attendees from Summit at SQL Saturday that I would have thought.  There were some though and it was fun to identify each other.  Lunch was an excellent BBQ with a number of sides and various lunch time presentations.  I’ve had a lot of BBQ these past couple days, but it was still great!

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SharePoint Saturday Roundup: Atlanta, GA

SharePoint Saturday – Atlanta, GA

SharePoint has a growing presence in the enterprise.  Once upon a time, the primary intersection between SharePoint and SQL was that SharePoint ran on a SQL back-end and as such required the care and feeding that you’d expect for a SQL server.

Today, things are changing and SharePoint is becoming a much bigger presence on the Business Intelligence side of SQL Server, with features like PowerPivot, Power View, and PerformancePoint becoming increasingly popular.

Having a free day and having never attended a SharePoint-centric event, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and attend the free SharePoint Saturday event hosted at the Georgia State University campus downtown.

For anybody not familiar with a SharePoint Saturday, it was organized in a similar manner to how SQL Saturday events are typically organized.  The morning started off with check-in and then a welcome/keynote, which I missed due to parking issues, then the day launched into sessions.  The event was comprised of five sessions and a lunch, which choices from eight different tracks.

As I am not currently deeply immersed in SharePoint — I built and administer our internal SharePoint 2010 Wiki platform and am currently setting up a new internal SharePoint BI platform to enhance our internal BI capabilities, I had a difficult time choosing sessions in each time slot.

One of the stranger presentations I attended was “Leveraging SharePoint to Survie the Zombie Apocalypse” by Patrick Hankey (B | T) and Ryan VanOsdol (B | T).  Their premise for this presentation was using SharePoint to coordinate resources in a zombie apocalypse situation.  I loved the unique premise of this presentation and only wished that they had somehow found a way to work live demos or mockups of the systems into the session.

The session I enjoyed most of the day was Kevin Grohoske’s (BT) “SharePoint BI — The Combined Power of PowerPivot and SharePoint.”  This is partly because, as a data professional, this topic was the most relevant to my day-to-day and additionally because I am currently really ramping up my PowerPivot skills for a few internal projects.  Kevin performed a ground-up build of a PowerPivot data model using data from the Windows Azure marketplace rather than using the typical picnic or car sales demos, which was great.  I learned a bit about the free datasets available in the Windows Azure Data Marketplace, including a DateStream for Time Intelligence.

Unfortunately, the last session of the day which I was looking forward to, “Self-Service Business Intelligence with SharePoint 2013” by Ivan Sanders (B | T) was cancelled, which was a bit of a letdown as it was one of only two BI focused topics at the event.

All in all, it was an interesting experience and the event was very well done. The vendor participation was great, and I saw a lot of familiar vendors from the SQL Saturdays I typically attend.  Thanks to the SharePoint Atlanta User group, volunteers, and vendors for all the hard work!

Vendor Row at SharePoint Saturday Atlanta at Georgia State University

Choosing the Right Chart Type

Choosing the Right Chart Type:  

On Monday night, I attended our monthly Atlanta Business Intelligence user group meeting.  The speaker this month was the amazing Jen Underwood  (B | T) presenting on the topic of Data Visualization Best Practices.

As anybody who is familiar with building the presentation layer for a set of data knows, choosing the right method to represent that data can be the most challenging and important part of the entire process.

Whenever I am designing a new report, I will list my requirements and brainstorm a list of what I want to convey with the report.  Once I’ve determined what message is to be conveyed, I’ll sketch out mock reports on paper until I’ve gone through a few iterations and gotten an idea of what I’m going to implement.

During the process of sketching out a mock report, the topic of deciding what types of charts to use comes up.  In Jen’s presentation on Data Visualization Best Practices, she pointed out a very handy resource — a chart of charts by Andrew Abela, to help determine which type of chart to use and when:

A great resource to print out and decorate your office wall!

Another great resource is the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods by Ralph Lengler and Martin J. Eppler which is an interactive resource which shows an example of each visualization method by hovering the mouse over the “element.”

There are many more great resources out there, including many by “the Moses of Data Visualization,” Stephen Few which I’ll cover in future posts.  Happy charting!

Jen Underwood presenting Data Visualization Best Practices at the Atlanta Business Intelligence April Users Group.
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