Why do we need multidimensional analysis?

Hui Fang Yeo

Multidimensional analysis gives the ability to view data from different viewpoints.

This is especially critical for business.

Let’s take a quick look at the few visualizations below.

Dashboard with visualizations that show the same data from different perspectives.
Dashboard with visualizations that show the same data from different perspectives.

We saw that with the same set of data, we are able to view the margin per shop, per product category, or for a specific brand or product, their margin getting broken down further by their subcategories. This difference in perspective can help businesses gather different insights.

What goes behind the scene?

To achieve these visualizations with relational databases, we will need a few kinds of SQL operations. Typically, there will be table joins, WHERE conditions to filter the data that we want and groupings by the different categories.

SELECT Sales.Shop, Sum(Sales.Quantity * Sales.UnitPrice) AS SalesAmount 
FROM Sales
LEFT JOIN Products ON Sales.Product = Products.Product
GROUP BY Sales.Shop;

With a multidimensional data cube, we have something equivalent to SQL as well. It’s called Multidimensional Expressions (MDX):

  } ON ROWS,
    [Measures].[Sales amount]
  FROM [sales cube]

Unlike SQL, we don’t have to handle the “group by” with MDX and we are querying data that is pre-joined and aggregated. With a different semantic model and tools such as Excel or Atoti, users can query the cube without having to understand the complexities of the underlying data structures.

Now, the dashboard is a simple example of what multidimensional analysis offers. It gives us the ability to view data from the perspective of the shop, the products, the brands or anything else the business demands. Let’s see how this works with an OLAP cube.

What is OLAP?

You may have heard of OLAP, which is online analytical processing, or more recently, ROLAP (Relational OLAP), MOLAP (Multidimensional online analytical processing), HOLAP (Hybrid OLAP of the previous 2 approaches) and some other types. 

The current trend is in-memory OLAP, which loads the analytical data into memory for faster online calculations and querying. Basically, these are approaches to answer multi-dimensional analytical queries

Two words commonly associated with multidimensional analysis are slice and dice.


Visual representation of slice and dice operations on a cube.
Visual representation of slice and dice operations on a cube.

When we talk about slicing, we look at a particular group. For instance, if we would like to know about the product sales for a shop.

Slicing is the application of filters to the cube for selected members of a hierarchy.
Slice the cube by the Shop dimension to view data for Shop_0 only.

We can view the total sales of the shop. Or we can dice it by the Date and the Product to see the sales for each product on a daily basis.

Data can be diced up to the most granular level by adding additional hierarchies to the query.
Dice the data by Product and Date.

We can create a multidimensional data cube with the python library Atoti to help us understand the topic better. The full notebook can be accessed from the Atoti Github repository.

We can create a cube as follows:

import Atoti as tt
session = tt.create_session()

sales = session.read_csv("data/sales.csv")
cube = session.create_cube(sales, "sales cube")

When we look at the dataset, we see two categories of data:

  • Numerical
  • Non-numerical
Understanding how data is translated into a cube - non-numerical columns become hierarchies and numerical columns become measures
How data is mapped onto the cube.

Normally, numerical columns provide the measurements that businesses would like to know and we call them measures in a cube. But these numbers only make sense when we have the non-numerical descriptions that tell us what these values are. Thus, the non-numerical columns, also known as dimensions, comes into the picture and each value of the dimension is called a member.

How do we handle multiple data sources with a cube?

It is common that we join tables in databases to get a combined view. The same thing applies to a cube. We can have multiple tables joined together.

products = session.read_csv("data/products.csv", keys=["Product"])
Table schemas in a cube
cube.schema shows the relationship between the different tables in a cube.

Once we have that, we can slice and dice across the dimensions of all the tables in the cube once they are joined. In this particular case, you can see that I have joined the new table called products and it has information such as the brand and category.

Hierarchies from new data source can be used in queries once it is joined to the cube.
We can add the hierarchies from the new data source in our visualisation.

What can we do with dimensions and measures?

Let’s explore a little about the attributes of a cube.

We have the dimensions such as Products and Sales that groups the hierarchies and the hierarchies group the levels.

Data are categorized into dimensions, hierarchies, levels and measures in a cube.
Semantic model of a cube.

For instance, instead of having Categories and Subcategories as two separate hierarchies, we can merge both as levels under the same hierarchy. We’ll be able to expand on them in our pivot table without having to add them individually.

Multi-level hierarchies allow us to drill the levels down in natural order.
We can drill down the levels under the Product category hierarchy in the natural order.

With this semantic model, how data is being joined is obscured from users. They can simply select the hierarchies and measurements that they need for their analysis.

Preprocessing or post-processing 

One last important concept: let’s look at when to perform preprocessing and when to perform post-processing. 

Preprocessing – trading storage consumption for computational efficiency

We spoke of measures earlier on as numerical columns from the incoming data source. These could be granular measurements such as quantity and unit price. From this, we could compute the sales amount, simply by multiplying quantity with the unit price. We can do so with Pandas below:

import pandas as pd

sales_df = pd.read_csv("data/sales.csv")
sales_df["Sales amount"] = sales_df["Quantity"]*sales_df["Unit price"]

As a result, our dataset is now bigger, with an additional column.

Preaggregation will result in additional data volume but saves on computation from the cube.
Additional data volume for pre-aggregated measurement.

In this case, we have just traded the storage consumption for computational efficiency because the cube is not required to compute the sales amount on the fly.

And this is only possible if we are pre-processing the measure at the most granular level – per sales. Consequently, we will be able to drill down (giving the most granular value) or roll up (giving the aggregated value) for this measure.

Drill down and roll up are two operations common in multidimensional analysis. We need to be able to breakdown measurements as we drill down.
We need to be able to break down measurements as we drill down the cube.

This cannot be done for the other levels of data granularity such as the sub-total or grand total level. It’s because there is no means of knowing how to break it down as we drill down on the different hierarchies.

One example of this is the cumulative margin. Imagine the effort we need to put in, to pre-compute the cumulative margin per store or per product each time the management wants a different perspective. It’s just not viable to pre-compute.

So, this is where post-processing in the cube helps – we compute what we need on the fly.

Post-processing – computes on the fly and provides flexibility

Let’s imagine a scenario where one of the shops was late in submitting their sales for a particular day. With pre-processing, we will have to recalculate everything and probably reload a lot of data.

However, we can simply upload the missing data with post-processing. The measures that we have defined earlier will take care of the computation for us.

Upload missing data into the multidimensional data cube and the measurements will be recomputed on the fly.
Measurement gets recomputed as new data gets loaded into the cube.

As we can see in the GIF above, the data on 15th Jan where the margin and cumulative margin increase as we load the missing sales of shop_0.

Hopefully, this article gives you a good peek into multidimensional analysis.  For examples of multidimensional analysis in action, visit the Atoti notebook gallery or read our Retail Pricing Case Study.

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