Information Technology Demystified
A Report from the UniForum Technical Steering Committee
Metadata Tracks a Moving Target
Each month, the TSC examines a key emerging technology or its use. This
time, we look at a major aspect of data warehousing.
By Katherine Hammer
Today, not only is business changing rapidly, so are the demands on
operational IT systems. Industry experts contend that large IS organizations
spend up to 80 percent of every programming dollar just on maintaining operational
systems. As IT continues to evolve and its uses to expand, there is little
chance that this cost will decrease.
Much of this maintenance expense entails changes to operational applications
and databases. Therefore, the "hot" application of the moment--the
data warehouse--is built on shifting sands. If a data warehouse team does
not build a maintenance strategy into its architectural design, the cost
of maintaining the warehouse is likely to rival the cost of maintaining
The key to avoiding this maintenance burden lies in the area of metadata
management. Metadata is simply data about data: what fields constitute
a record definition, the characteristics of each field, where and how the
data defined by the record definition is stored and other characteristics.
In many organizations the task of uncovering the metadata that defines the
operational systems and their interdependencies can constitute a formidable
task for the warehouse design team.
Metadata is typically stored in different locations, often in diverse, incompatible
formats. In fact, some necessary metadata may not be available in any readily
accessible way, but buried in application code that exists in data interface
programs which link related operational databases.
Add to this the fact that production databases are rarely rebuilt through
a change in the database schema; the systems in question simply cannot be
taken down long enough for this to be done. As a result, many versions of
the schema are only implicit within a particular database. (For example,
if field A contains "1," then the following fields represent X;
Employee turnover also has an impact. Individuals who implemented changes
in the first place may no longer be available to help anticipate problems
or provide insights on past change rationales to help solve the new problems.
The overall result may be that no standard format exists across company
Common Types of Metadata
The complexity of this problem becomes even more evident when one considers
the variety of types of metadata required to provide IS users with the information
they need to make intelligent judgments about modifying existing systems.
In the event that modifications are made, this metadata must be accessible
in a form that allows the warehouse maintenance team to analyze proactively
and react quickly to minimize the impacts of those changes.
A fundamental type of metadata is the definition of the databases
being maintained under each database management system or file system. As
noted, it is not uncommon for this information to be stored only within
the application code. The database schema may have been redefined at some
point to change the meaning of some fields, while preserving the previous
field boundaries and data types to avoid rebuilding the entire database.
This can be one of the more difficult types of metadata to manage, because
unless a staff member recalls the schema redefinition, the correct metadata
can be discovered only through trial and error.
Equally important is information about the relationships between the
data elements stored under different data access systems. Today, a significant
part of acquiring metadata may be automated by software tools. But this
does not help when the relationships between databases are not recorded
electronically. For example, in an employee identification field "EMPLOYEE-ID"
in one database may be equivalent to "SOCSEC#" in another.
Data values often are semantically inconsistent, or even if semantically
equivalent they can be represented differently so that some type of transformation
is required before the data can be correlated. Sometimes these semantic
inconsistencies may require considerable conditional logic to transform
the source values into the appropriate form for the target system. Moreover,
because the designers of operational systems were motivated to save disk
space and CPU cycles, much of the data that resides in operational databases
is not appropriate for use by end users (for example, symbolic fields like
city names are often represented as integers, or some data is in binary
form). As a result, building a warehouse entails the creation of numerous,
sometimes complex business rules.
Another key type of metadata is data primacy. It addresses which
database should be considered the database of record for a replicated
data value. This is an example of metadata that is rarely recorded electronically;
users of the system often consider data primacy to be a matter of common
sense. For example, a customer's address may be stored in multiple databases,
but in case of a conflict in the record content, the user is likely to consider
the address in the billings database to be the most accurate. In other cases,
it may be difficult to determine the database of record.
As indicated above, one of the most important reasons for keeping metadata
in a centralized location is impact analysis when change occurs in
the operational environment. As a result, it is important that an organization's
metadata management strategy include a mechanism for versioning of metadata,
so what one learns about the various versions of schema that underlay most
operational databases can be captured for use by later projects, rather
than having to be rediscovered each time.
Because different types of metadata are distributed throughout heterogeneous
systems, an organization may not be able to document its metadata fully
before undertaking a strategic IS project. On the other hand, to escape
spiraling maintenance costs an organization must try to gather and maintain
as much of this information as possible for all existing projects. It must
also fully integrate this activity into its development methodology. By
practicing this philosophy, the metadata acquired by one project can be
reused by others.
In short, IS organizations should strive for the appropriate mix of methodologies
and tools to support iterative and incremental development. Using this approach,
each element of the project is subject to managed change. It is important
to consider what metadata would be helpful in reducing the time required
for analysis and/or implementation for each of the types of changes that
are likely to be made. Once the probable change scenarios are identified,
an evaluation of software tools can be based on how well they capture and
support the use of this information. Likewise throughout the project, the
methodology should be regularly reassessed, tuned and distributed across
the organization to maximize its benefit.
Tools and Standards
As one might expect, the software industry has risen to the metadata management
challenge with a variety of solutions. Many data dictionary products and
repositories seek to provide a centralized facility for managing metadata.
Additionally, CASE and design tools not only capture metadata but support
the effective design of new (usually relational) database schemas, as well
as generating some straightforward database applications. Data extraction,
integration and warehouse products also use the same type of metadata to
automatically generate data interface programs.
To enable enterprise data management, these different tools must be able
to easily exchange the metadata created by other tools and stored in a variety
of storage facilities. The rapid proliferation of these tools has resulted
in almost as many different treatments of metadata as there are tools. The
only way to enable the exchange of metadata between tools is to establish
at least a minimum common denominator of interchange standards and guidelines.
In response to this problem, a number of initiatives have been launched
to develop a simple interchange format. Some of these initiatives are vendor-specific,
like those of IBM and Oracle, but other vendor-independent efforts have
been organized as well.
While the prospect of locating, compiling and managing enterprise metadata
may seem overwhelming, the combination of a sound, iterative methodology,
today's tools and tomorrow's standards is expected to make the management
of metadata less difficult. Metadata interchange standards should enable
IS managers to select what they perceive as a best-of-breed configuration
of tools to build a support infrastructure that fits their unique needs.
Katherine Hammer is cofounder, president and CEO of Evolutionary
Technologies in Austin, TX. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.