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Is there a good reason to use SSAS cubes anymore?

After using SSAS cubes on a project recently, I’m not sure I would do it again. Some of my observations:

  • The performance benefits in SSAS come from compressed, columnar storage with batch computation; this reduces I/O and limits the need for maintaining various pre-built aggregate tables and covering indexes for reporting queries. Column stores are now available in mainstream relational databases: Oracle and SQL Server have column stores, and there is an open-source column store extension for PostgreSQL (citus_fdw). There’s also MonetDB, and Greenplum was recently open-sourced too.

  • SQL and database design knowledge are more ubiquitous than MDX and cube design. For anything non-trivial, the learning curve of cube design and MDX is going to eclipse the benefits. It doesn’t help that MDX sort of looks like SQL but is fundamentally different.

  • Analytics tools (Tableau, Qlik, MicroStrategy, etc.) support cubes but tend to treat them as second-class. Also these tools often provide their own in-memory OLAP engines with columnar storage, so what a cube gives you is duplicative.

Two other sources worth mentioning:

The exception case might be, if you’re planning to commit to an all-Microsoft stack with Excel pivot tables or SSRS as your front-end, cubes might still make sense. But for custom webapps or a standalone analytics tool, cubes are probably not the right answer anymore.

Written on September 3, 2016