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The SSAS Tabular Model

By Phil Factor,

The SSAS Tabular model in SQL Server 2012 would seem to be a great addition to SQL Server for the users of Business Intelligence, in that it provides a rapid and adaptable means for business users to select data for analysis using familiar tools.  For simpler data structures and smaller data volumes, it is a good analysis tool but I get the impression that take-up has been less than you’d expect, given the more general enthusiasm in the industry for in-memory tabular databases. I can’t help wondering whether the restricted means of developing and deploying Tabular model is to blame for this.

The tabular model is not a replacement for SSAS’s multidimensional ‘OLAP cube’ model though it’s more appropriate for some BI use cases. It is basically a server version of PowerPivot that provides ‘Individual BI’, and can import Excel PowerPivot models. The two BI products are entirely separate, though they both run in SSAS.

The xVelocity analytics engine, which underlies ColumnStore, PowerPivot and the SSAS tabular model, is trouble-free. It’s had three years of production use since its introduction with PowerPivot. It seems to work faster than conventional SSAS multidimensional MOLAP models, even though it’s less versatile. It combines a familiar relational way of organizing data with an intrinsic understanding of the cube. This allows you the flexibility of querying data in ad-hoc ways that aren’t defined as regular relationships. The new DAX language isn’t hard to pick up for anyone who understands SQL.

The problem would seem to be the client tools, in that SSDT is the tool for developing and deploying Tabular databases via tabular model project templates, usually by importing Excel PowerPivot models. Only one person at a time can develop the schema because it is held in one XML file. The tool is quirky and doesn’t support every feature of SSAS. Working with more than twenty tables is painfully slow. Although you can use SSMS manage a tabular database in very limited ways, Microsoft wants you to use SSDT and redeploy when you want to make a change.

Once you’ve deployed SSMS comes into its own for querying in MDX or DAX since you can open up an MDX query window. In fact, Excel, Reporting Services (Power View) and SSDT can all be used, so there is no problem once the model is deployed. Before then, it’s not so much fun.

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