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What is a Multidimensional Database?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated: May 16, 2024

A multidimensional database is a form of database that is structured to optimize online analytical processing (OLAP) and data warehouse applications. It can receive data from a variety of relational databases and structure the information into categories and sections that can be accessed in a number of different ways. Even persons who have relatively little experience working with a database often find that a multidimensional database, or MDB, requires only a short time to master.

While just about every relational database is structured for keyword searches and building a query by specifying fields and perimeters, the multidimensional database goes one step further. Rather then building a query, a user simply poses the question in everyday verbiage. This approach is used with several online help tools associated with software programs such as word processing and spreadsheet applications, as well as several of the more popular search engines currently in use.

When it comes to using a multidimensional database for internal business purposes, the main advantage is the ease of obtaining data quickly and succinctly. For instance, if an end user wanted to determine how many widget sales were generated during the third quarter of the past year in a given sales territory, this data could be obtained from a multidimensional database with a simple question. By asking “How may widgets were sold during third quarter 2007 within the Southwest Territory?” the end user does not have to go through the steps of building a report, specifying fields, and restricting content within those fields to selected criteria. The use of one simple question will accomplish the task.

The exact means of formulating a question will determine on several factors. One key element is the sorting and type of data within a multidimensional database. Any question that contains a request for information that is not found within the database will not result in a direct response, although many MDBs will respond with data based on what data that is available. This means that if an end user asks “How many widgets were sold in Virginia last month?” the database will only be able to provide a focused response if each sale includes the state of origin and the database was configured to understand which month and year “last month” indicates. If not, the multidimensional database will probably respond with some partial answers, or ask for clarification.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including EasyTechJunkie, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon293299 — On Sep 25, 2012

I used multidimensional databases to build information systems many years ago. These days, some 15 or so years later, I can see so many practical uses in mobile technology. I would love to get my hands on something 'lite' and cheap to start experimenting.

By everetra — On May 31, 2011

@allenJo - I suppose I can appreciate the concept of multidimensional databases and OLAP reporting tools. However, as a database designer I think just the opposite as far as usability. I actually prefer SQL to typing in English-like sentences.

I love to “peek under the hood” so to speak to see what data is available, and the reporting tools are a bit too restrictive for me. I still think I can accomplish more with SQL, but sometimes I have to add in a bit of scripting too to get the results I want. Some people tell me I’m just concerned about job security, but it’s more the force of habit than anything else.

By SkyWhisperer — On May 31, 2011

@allenJo - We used some data warehousing and OLAP tools in a company that I worked for. I think we were using Cognos Business Intelligence software in the engineering group and the executives loved it. You could ask questions and view metrics and slice and dice your data in so many different ways.

I think Cognos used something called “cubes” to represent data information from various sources that could answer questions the users asked. We had some training on it, and for the average user with no SQL experience, it was a very user friendly tool.

By allenJo — On May 28, 2011

I wish multidimensional database software was around (or at least I knew about them) when I first got involved with databases. I mean SQL is the real language of querying and is portable across a variety of platforms, but being able to ask questions in plain English would be so much more approachable for a newcomer I would think.

I’d imagine that there’s a certain complexity in the programming on the other end to translate those English sentences into something the database can understand, so this is probably a fairly recent development tool and not one that was around back in the early 1980s when I got started with tools like dBase. Still, it would have been nice to have.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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