Why the Data Mesh can’t and shouldn’t replace data integration

A few weeks ago, I wrote that Self-service analytics isn’t everyone’s dream and a few days later I discussed the content with my friend Alessio.
It turned out that one of the points I was trying to make didn’t come out as sharply as I believed, and this post is to elaborate on it and make it clearer.

  1. Data self-service is more feasible and cost-effective with a proper Data Mesh than with most 1st generation data lakes.
  2. Adopting the Data Mesh model doesn’t imply that data integration efforts should be halted.
    I see at least three reasons why data integration initiatives should continue:
    a) The cost of finding, understanding, and processing data from multiple sources is lowered when adopting the Data Mesh, but when the same activity is repeated multiple times by hundreds or thousands of employees the cumulative cost will become greater than the cost of integrating the data once for everyone.
    b) When each person or small team integrates the data autonomously the potential outcome is a Babel of numbers that don’t match those created by other teams and the organization ends up with a modern edition of the spread-mart proliferation of the past.
    Until the results are incorporated in a PowerPoint document this modern version removes the problem of the stale data, but it’s a small consolation.
    c) Truly federated analytical queries can’t guarantee, at least today, the low latency needed in many business scenarios.

In the previous paragraph I mentioned the cost of producing valuable knowledge from data, but I didn’t dig in the detail of computing such cost.
I tried to come up with a nice construct for it all I can offer so far is a small WIP to hopefully start a little brainstorm.
The cost of knowledge production (CoKP) is a function of computing costs and human effort.
– The computing component appears relatively simple but paying attention to the efficiency of the data processing is key when queries are executed at scale.
I’ve seen >100K analytical queries per day in production environments in several clients: this is what happens when and analytical platform is successful in generating value. It’s better to plan ahead of time rather than ending up forced to re-think the architecture by skyrocketing costs and potentially losing momentum and motivation in the process.
– In the human component I’d include the time needed to find the data, get access, understand what the specific data means, understand the fit for the specific purpose, and processing the data to extract the knowledge.
I know that cost in itself is not enough to evaluate an investment but estimating the return of an investment in data transformation is complex and I don’t dare taking a stab at it here.

I take the opportunity to do a couple of follow-up on comments related to this subject I’ve received recently:
– My friend Dan suggested that IT should be the group doing the data integration.
I’m not sure it has to be IT; they might have a better visibility of the overall data landscape and thus be in a better position that other organizations, but I’d say today there should be a chief data officer (CDO) to lead the data integration initiative.
Gaetano‘s reply to my comment a week ago seems to go in the same direction of seeing IT as the agent enabling cross-domain pollination.
Andrea kindly pointed out an improper use of the term “insight” on my side.
I’m pretty sure my former colleague Dirk would completely agree with him, and I’ll do my best to be more rigorous with the terms I use.

As usual…

Self-service analytics is not everyone’s dream

According to the recent messaging of many players in the data space, self-service analytics is the next-big-thing in the data space, the end-users want it, and the organizations should acquire as quickly as possible the technologies needed to deliver it.

I beg to differ on the starting assumption: no matter the definition of “self-service analytics” adopted, there are many, what the business users really want is access to the information contained in the organization’s data in a time-frame that makes said information usable to drive a business decision.

The definition of “self-service analytics” is not standardized and this can cause misunderstandings when discussing the subject.
The spectrum goes from a relatively conservative “self-service reporting capability”, where the data is integrated by the IT team (for example Gartner‘s and usually the BI tool vendors’), to a more modern “data-mesh-enabled self-service-everything-data” where simpler-to-use tools and standard interfaces are made available and allow the end-users to integrate the data as they deem appropriate without having to wait for the IT team to perform the task (TDWI‘s and Snowflake‘s definitions leans more in this direction).

Self-service analytics, in the modern definition, today might the best way to get to the desired timely insights from data given the current technological and organizational landscapes (i.e. without waiting a few months for the IT data integration process to complete).
“Best today” is not synonymous with “great” and I believe that a generalized shift of the end-users toward modern self-service analytics should not be advocated.
Organizations should keep investing toward a truly integrated data landscape.
The fact that data self-help can now be performed using big data technologies in a cloud environment doesn’t make the practice substantially different, in terms of risks, from the Excel-based “spread-marts” of the past. Even with the modern tools it is still possible to have different people label the same way data that is integrated, filtered, and aggregated in different ways at different point in time resulting in siloed, mismatching data marts.

The division of work and specialization is what enabled the standards of living to improve at an increasingly fast pace when humans started to leverage them at scale.
Mass production drove up the quality and volume of goods produced for the unit of time (and money) in exchange for a longer setup time of the production line and a reduced space for customization (“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black” is a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford), but production techniques have evolved over time and, remaining in the car domain, today’s production give us a degree of flexibility in designing our vehicle Ford couldn’t even dream of.
This evolution didn’t completely destroy the demand for artisanal work and custom realizations, but made these realizations the exception rather than standard, and the prices for high-quality, personalized solutions are significantly higher.

When thinking about self-service analytics and data democratization organizations should be careful to properly model the associated sunken costs.
It is easy to quantify the cost of a centralized data modeling and engineering team, but is hard to model the costs of self-service analytics practices.
We should have learned from the experiments with the Hadoop-based data lakes that the apparently cheap schema-on-read approach resulted either in an increase of costs, as multiple people had to figure out the same data integration over and over, or in data swamps that no one wanted or could use.

There is no doubt that self-service analytics is more cost-effective with a proper data mesh (i.e. one where you have real data products and is based on a enterprise-wide domain driven design) than with the first-generation data lakes, but this doesn’t mean that the specialized, factory-like, creation of integrated data (products), that takes longer to build, should be abandoned.
While it’s great that today I could get the material needed to quickly replace the shattered glass of my table delivered at home with a few clicks, without having to lease a small truck and go to the shop like a decade ago, it doesn’t mean that now I should build my own kitchen.
Organizations should strive to have a faster, more flexible, mass production of high-quality insights and augment it, rather than replace it, with an efficient and effective delivery of raw data.
Just like I should buy my next kitchen here again rather than try to build it myself.