Low risk entry to MDM using SQL Server

Casper

By Casper Thomsen, 
Partner Novataris
15305 Dallas Pkwy, Suite 300, Dallas, TX 75001
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When installing SQL Server, one item in the list of features available, towards the bottom, is named "MDS". Few know what it actually stands for and even fewer have actually tried using it. MDS stands for "Master Data Services" which is Microsoft's only Master Data Management (MDM) product.

Microsoft purchased this product from Stratature in 2007 and bundled it into SQL 2008 R2. Yet, even though it's been part of the product for so long, it is rare to see anyone actually take advantage of it and frankly it does seem like Microsoft contributed a very unimpressive amount of energy in to creating a polished enterprise grade offering from it. That said, it carries a lot of reasons why it might be worth a good look after all.

The ROI for MDM historically has been quite low. Whether to attribute this to underestimating the amount of effort required from the business on governance or the obscenely high cost of a decent piece of MDM software, is not a topic I can manage in one post. However, what makes MDS attractive is that it offers a very low entry cost to MDM, something that can be valuable to customers who acknowledge the benefit that MDM can provide, but who are not willing to risk a high upfront investment that traditionally has been necessary. Often, I introduce MDS to clients that host core data in Excel or another makeshift solution in lack of a better solution. This can be employees, products, customers, accounts, markets, ships, etc.

The major benefits to introducing MDS really are

1. It is built-in to SQL server which means you probably already own the licenses and the infrastructure necessary to get started.

2. It ships with a plugin for Excel so users can continue to maintain all their data using Excel. That means transition can be very low impact, even though now several users can be editing the data at once and security can be enforced as well as logging all changes.

3. New models and tables can be built in Excel simply by copying data over from another spreadsheet. This means, without any expert database knowledge, a new MDM solution can be setup in minutes by a business user.

Take, as an example, a client that sells online subscriptions and maintain a good size sales organization. They use Salesforce to manage the pipeline and also use it to group sales people in to teams and measure performance across a variety of parameters. The same client also has a HR system where all employees are maintained. A common problem the client encounters is that users are maintained both places. For reporting purposes sales management need to know when a sales person was hired and what their salary is, they have to get that data from HR. HR management on the other side would like to know the sales hierarchy to accurately reflect it in the organization diagrams and to monitor reports and other metrics, but they have to get this from Sales force. Finance, BI and Operations all need data from both systems and it never just easily merges due to data quality issues. In this environment MDS could be inserted with a high benefit for effort to help handle employees. 

MDM

A model of an employee is setup in MDS and integrations with HR and Salesforce is created. Now, when a new employee is added in HR, MDS will add the user to Salesforce automatically. Once added, a sales manager will assign this person a team in Salesforce. This information will then be reflected in the MDS version of this employee which now holds a complete record combining data from HR and Salesforce and solving the match and merge issues. Finance, BI and Operations will consume all their data through Excel or reporting of any kind directly from MDS. This will save all departments plenty of time, it will save Salesforce and HR system licenses and allow for this valuable data to be shared and utilized across business units.

I am very excited to see a lot of new activity buzzing up around MDS. It feels like it has been dormant since SQL 2012 and is finally generating a lot of new activity with 2016. With each new implementation I have done using this product, I am seeing more and more opportunities where a more pragmatic entry level MDM effort using MDS can solve real and immediate business problems without requiring a significant upfront investment.
My favorite upcoming MDS feature for 2016 would be the change sets. This allows me to have an easy way of introducing an approval workflow in to the environment. This feature is certain to increase the stock value of MDS for those initiated. 

Next step I would like to see would be for Microsoft to create a cloud service offering in Azure which would further minimize the entry cost and more effectively allow decentralized MDS solutions in separate business units to exist without the dependency on database experts to setup the solutions.

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