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A Better English Query

By Steve Jones,

English Query, introduced in SQL Server 7, was a miserable failure. I don't know that anyone every had this built into an application or that it worked well. I'm not sure how well it worked, and to be honest, I never used it much. There just weren't enough uses I could see and it didn’t seem to provide a lot of benefits for the users I was developing applications for. At the time it seemed better to just provide them choices in a UI and constrain what questions they could ask of the database to ensure good performance.

Apparently someone is trying something similar on the web. Stephen Wolfram, of mathematica fame, is building Wolfram Alpha, a computational engine for the web. This interview describes some of the features and the ideas behind this new type of engine. It does more than an Ask Jeeves type of search engine or even Google. Instead it should supposedly calculate answers.

If it works, and who knows how well it will, it might be an interesting idea to marry with databases. Imagine if you could ask your system to compute aggregations or patterns without too much of the complex programming that we now do in building queries, designing aggregations, etc. It might really change the field of Business Intelligence development if the computer can actually do work on it's own, and respond to queries from end users.

I'm sure that development will still need to be done, and there will be plenty of model design and development for storing data, performing ETL work, even designing measures and dimensions of cubes. However it might really close the development lag that happens when user's think of new ways to analyze data, or new computations that they might want as patterns emerge in the data. If the database or analysis engine can compute answers on it's own, the cost of BI applications might go way down. At least the ongoing development costs. The initial startup costs will probably remain fairly high.

The ability of a computer to interpret data in response to ad hoc queries is something right out of a movie or a science fiction novel. Wolfram Alpha might just be the first step in that direction.

Steve Jones

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