Online analytical processing (OLAP)

Online analytical processing (OLAP) is a technology that organizes large business databases and supports complex analysis. It can be used to perform complex analytical queries without negatively affecting transactional systems.

The databases that a business uses to store all its transactions and records are called online transaction processing (OLTP) databases. These databases usually have records that are entered one at a time. Often they contain a great deal of information that is valuable to the organization. The databases that are used for OLTP, however, were not designed for analysis. Therefore, retrieving answers from these databases is costly in terms of time and effort. OLAP systems were designed to help extract this business intelligence information from the data in a highly performant way. This is because OLAP databases are optimized for heavy read, low write workloads.

OLAP in Azure

When to use this solution

Consider OLAP in the following scenarios:

  • You need to execute complex analytical and ad hoc queries rapidly, without negatively affecting your OLTP systems.
  • You want to provide business users with a simple way to generate reports from your data
  • You want to provide a number of aggregations that will allow users to get fast, consistent results.

OLAP is especially useful for applying aggregate calculations over large amounts of data. OLAP systems are optimized for read-heavy scenarios, such as analytics and business intelligence. OLAP allows users to segment multi-dimensional data into slices that can be viewed in two dimensions (such as a pivot table) or filter the data by specific values. This process is sometimes called "slicing and dicing" the data, and can be done regardless of whether the data is partitioned across several data sources. This helps users to find trends, spot patterns, and explore the data without having to know the details of traditional data analysis.

Semantic models can help business users abstract relationship complexities and make it easier to analyze data quickly.


For all the benefits OLAP systems provide, they do produce a few challenges:

  • Whereas data in OLTP systems is constantly updated through transactions flowing in from various sources, OLAP data stores are typically refreshed at a much slower intervals, depending on business needs. This means OLAP systems are better suited for strategic business decisions, rather than immediate responses to changes. Also, some level of data cleansing and orchestration needs to be planned to keep the OLAP data stores up-to-date.
  • Unlike traditional, normalized, relational tables found in OLTP systems, OLAP data models tend to be multidimensional. This makes it difficult or impossible to directly map to entity-relationship or object-oriented models, where each attribute is mapped to one column. Instead, OLAP systems typically use a star or snowflake schema in place of traditional normalization.

OLAP in Azure

In Azure, data held in OLTP systems such as Azure SQL Database is copied into the OLAP system, such as Azure Analysis Services. Data exploration and visualization tools like Power BI, Excel, and third-party options connect to Analysis Services servers and provide users with highly interactive and visually rich insights into the modeled data. The flow of data from OLTP data to OLAP is typically orchestrated using SQL Server Integration Services, which can be executed using Azure Data Factory.

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